Payson's Oldest Cowboy Still Has Swagger At 90

PAYSON PEOPLE

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Charlie Henderson is the oldest cowboy in Payson -- although he'd probably never admit it.

He's much too classy for that sort of bravado, even for an old rancher.

But that doesn't stop his friends from crowing the news.

Back when Highway 260 was still a dusty drag heading east, Duke Wilbanks worked cattle with Henderson on nearby Little Green Valley Ranch.

"He made one of the best ranches in Arizona," Wilbanks said. "He had a lot of common sense and took care of the land better than the Forest Service."

And at 90, Henderson's still got that cowboy swagger.

His dusty, black-felt cowboy hat, curling at the edges, sits low on his head, obscuring his cornflower blue eyes. He wears a flannel shirt and faded Levi's, threadbare in the knee.

To maintain mobility, Henderson shuffles around his property on crutches. He holds them away from his body, and when he walks, the crutches crawl like the spindly legs of a spider.

Though his frame is gnarled from years of hard work, his mind is sharp as a marble, Wilbanks said.

Without hesitation, Henderson rattled off the day he arrived in the Rim Country: Feb. 9, 1948.

In the late 1930s, when his journey west commenced, he rode a horse from the middle of Texas to New Mexico. There he hopped in a Studebaker and drove to Seligman.

"I knew where I was going when I came out here," he said.

Henderson's cowboy legend began in the wind-swept, Texas panhandle whistle stop of Hart.

Even these days Hart's one of those don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it towns -- just a small triangle of homes and ranches off State Route 194.

Let's be fair. Hart isn't without notoriety. With a population of nearly 2,000, it is the second-largest hamlet in Castro County.

In 1918 though, just a few families lived in the desolate agricultural community.

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By the time he was 18, Charlie Henderson was a cowboy, breaking wild horses and driving cattle.

"My dad was a farmer, but he herded cattle too," Henderson said. "I've herded cattle ever since I was 2. I rode a horse by the time I could walk."

By the time most teenagers donned their graduation caps, Henderson was a cowboy, breaking wild horses, driving cattle and living the nightmare of an animal-rights advocate.

Because out on the range meat doesn't come from a supermarket.

"The best beef you can get is grass-fed," Henderson said. "Fresh beef is better than the stuff you buy in the store."

When choosing meat, a cowboy's economic sensibility prevails.

"Any animal gaining weight is good beef. Any animal losing is bad beef," he said.

A cow's mass determines its value, so steers are often spared. Dainty heifers -- female cattle -- however, fall victim to a cowboy's hunger.

"After three days of work, you'd find a 300- to 400-pound calf," Henderson said. "We'd just shoot it, cut her up and take the guts out -- some of the guts you eat -- and then hang it up."

The meat ages for about a week and unless it's left out in the sun, at which point it starts to stink, you've got the beginnings of a real cowboy meal.

The chuck wagon convoys with the cowboys and the cattle, and it's like a well-stocked diner on wheels. You've got Dutch ovens, canned goods, dried fruit, and of course, meat.

"We usually had steak for breakfast," Henderson said. "Sourdough biscuits, pinto beans, potatoes and pot roast at night."

It's a diet he credits to his longevity, along with a cigar a day -- either Swisher Sweets or White Owls -- and a plug of Brown Mule.

"Do what you want to do, eat what you want to eat and don't do what anybody tells you," he said.

More than 50 loved ones gathered at Henderson's old stomping grounds, Little Green Valley, March 4. They spun high tales and supped on cowboy chuck, and that's how Charlie Henderson celebrated his 90th birthday.

Profile

Name: Charlie Henderson

Occupation: Cowboy

Age: 90

Birthplace: Hart, Texas

Family: One son; five grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; late wife, Ruth

Inspiration: I did everything my way.

Greatest feat: Made one of the best ranches in Arizona (per Duke Wilbanks)

Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Pitching horseshoes

Three words that describe me best are: Honest, polite, sober

I don't want to brag, but ... I never brag

The person in history I'd most like to meet is: Anna Nicole Smith

Luxury defined: I don't there is such a thing

Dream vacation spot: Grand Canyon -- the first time I went there was in 1939.

Why Payson? I don't like Payson. I liked it 50 years ago, but not today.

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