Genuine Arizona Cowgirl

PAYSON PEOPLE

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Jimmie Jean Cooley is an Arizona original -- an authentic cowgirl who started punching cattle when she was just 6 years old.

Cooley, who has lived her entire life in Navajo and Gila counties, remembers those days like they were yesterday, often recalling the month as well as the year an event took place.

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Jimmie Jean Cooley

"I was born in Holbrook in '26," she said. "From the time I was 6 years old until I was 13, I was my dad's only cowpuncher. He and I did the work."

One proud moment for the little cowgirl was the time she and her father were driving 30 head of cattle into the stockyards in Holbrook.

"One stretch we were having to drive in the right of way and here come these two ladies in," she recalled. "They were middle-aged, and I imagine they were probably teachers or some-such, and they asked if they could take movies of us riding along. So this one lady stood on the running board with her camera and kept pace with us. So somewhere in the world there's a movie of my dad and I punching cattle."

Although she could ride herd with the best of them, she never mastered the art of milking.

"I never was very good at milking cows," she said. "I could get the job done, but I was slow. I could keep a cow from drying up, but it would just take me forever to do it. She'd get tired of me sitting there pulling on her."

Cooley vividly remembers a day when a special visitor came calling.

"Dad was on business in town, so it was just my mother and I there at the ranch, and here came this guy walking up toward the house from the water tank," she said. "He came to the house and asked if he could have something to eat. Said his horse had thrown him and run off, so he was afoot out there.

"So my mother fixed him a plate and everything, but she made him stay outside and sit out on the step to eat. I was 6, and I stood at the screen door talking to him. He ate, thanked us and left.

"Dad came home from town and said, ‘Be on the lookout -- there's an escaped convict about. He described him to a ‘T' and that's who had been sitting on our porch. He was wanted for murder or attempted murder."

The Great Depression brought an end to Cooley's life as a cowgirl.

"Dad lost his cattle and everything in the Depression of '32," she said. "Had to go back to work for wages. Got a job as a deputy sheriff and livestock inspector."

While Cooley's family didn't want for food during the Depression, there were still hardships. "We were living on a ranch, so we had meat -- chickens," she said. "But one time a friend came over and wanted me to go to the Saturday afternoon matinee with her. It only cost a quarter, but there just wasn't a quarter to go."

Eventually, Cooley would marry twice and have four sons.

"My first husband and I spent the winter of '49 and '50 in Payson," she said. "He was in highway construction and was working on this end of the Beeline."

Cooley was widowed at the age of 31, and after a "friendly divorce" from her second husband in 1974, decided she wanted to spend the rest of her life in Payson. She has lived in the same house in the downtown area almost the entire time.

"I went to work for Sprouse-Reitz back of where Kentucky Fried Chicken is now," she said. "After the old Wal-Mart moved in, Sprouse-Reitz moved over to the Bashas' shopping center, but Wal-Mart beat them out."

Cooley misses the early days when Payson was a quieter and friendlier place to live.

"I moved to this house in February of '76," she said. "The roads were dirt. Bob Lincoln was on the blade at that time and he'd run a blade over them. There were no stop signs. The kids would get out and ride their bikes around and play out in the street. The cottontail rabbits and the quail came through. There was a big, round corner post in the back of that house over there and every morning and every evening a rooster quail would get up there on that post and do his calling."

She also misses the mom-and-pop shops that have almost become extinct.

"When I moved up here we still had Wilson's Grocery down on Main Street and they'd still give you credit. You'd pay the bill once a month," she said. "And this was a friendlier place. Everybody knew everybody whether you knew them or not. Everybody was willing to lend a helping hand."

Cooley quit driving in 1997.

"I just felt I wasn't a safe driver anymore," she said. "I sold my old '62 Ford pickup. Everything is so damned fast anymore; it just drives me nuts."

Today, Cooley is mostly housebound. She reads profusely.

"I read anything besides biographies, autobiographies and documentaries. I don't like those. I like novels, murder mysteries, westerns, historical romances," she said. "I get 14 to 15 books every three weeks (from the Payson Public Library). They call it the Buddy Project. They bring them to me and they keep track of which ones I've read by the author."

She watches westerns on her VCR. John Wayne's are her favorite.

And she recalls, often right down to the month, the fond memories of an authentic Arizona cowgirl.

"I enjoyed living out there on the ranch 15 miles from the closest town," she said. "I'd be by myself out there on the ranch all day long and that was the kind of life I liked.

"Those times are past. You just have to remember them."

Profile

Name: Jimmie Jean Finney Butler Cooley

Occupation: Retired ranch wife

Age: 77-plus

Birthplace: Holbrook

Family: Four sons, nine grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, with another one on the way.

Personal motto: The golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Inspiration: My dad, Jim Finney.

Greatest feat: Raising four sons to be reliable and good, down-to-earth, common sense people.

Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Reading, movies -- especially John Wayne's.

Three words that describe me best: Loving, caring, sharing, optimist, extrovert -- that's five words, but ...

I don't want to brag but ... I'm proud of my family.

Person in history I'd like to meet: My paternal grandparents. I barely remember seeing them once when I was 3 or 4 years old.

Luxury defined: Having plenty to eat and pay my bills and stay warm. I never had any inclination to be rich. If I have a dollar or two more, if I want to go to the cafe and eat, OK.

Dream vacation spot: Up on a mountain someplace clear away from everybody else. I never did like to travel.

Why Payson? It's up in the pines, but it isn't as high as Show Low.

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