Photo by Wendy Howell.
Some were outcasts, some were sought by minions of the law, but all the mountain men of the old west were hardy individuals who often faced aggressive bears, other vigilantes and — often worse — cold relentless winters of the mountain wilderness.
Sleeping under the stars, waking up before daylight, and spending a week on horseback is an attempt of the Bill Williams Mountain Men to emulate their predecessors and continue the frontier traditions.
Each year since 1954, the Mountain Men have made a one-week 200-mile pilgrimage from Williams to the Phoenix area by horse or mule. This year, the Mountain Men left Williams for their Rendezvous Ride May 13.
“It was so wet this winter, nobody could get their horses legged up,” said member Arnie Sleeper, who is driving a support wagon this year. “It was muddy and nasty.”
The group formed in Williams in 1953. Along with continuing the mountain man tradition, the group also works to promote Arizona and the state’s pioneer heritage.
The tradition has endured for more than 60 years because the group’s values haven’t changed since its inception. The group has experienced ups and downs with memberships, but many riders stay with the group because of the Rendezvous Ride.
“We’re trying to push things and get some new members” Sleeper said. “I rode a few years ago and it was an experience of a lifetime. To ride an animal that far, you really see some pretty country. But it’s hard.”
History of the Bill Williams Mountain Men
In 1953, a group of local businessmen gathered at Diz’s Tavern in downtown Williams and formed the illustrious Bill Williams Mountain Men with the goal of commemorating the hardy group of men who forsook civilization for the lonely life of a trapper on the western frontier.
They adapted their name from the 1800s-era William Sherley Williams, a hunter, scout and the town’s namesake, who was known as Old Bill.
The original group hoped to perpetuate the lore, memory and romance of Williams for whom a town, river and mountain were named.
The annual rendezvous trip originated with the idea of replicating the mountain man’s emergence from the mountains in spring with pack mules loaded with furs to sell.
The mountain men are easily recognizable today, since they still wear what their forefathers wore: buck skins and hats made from skunks, foxes, coyotes, and bobcats.
The March 18, 1954 edition of the Williams News reported the following about the Bill Williams Mountain Men’s first Rendezvous Ride, which would become an annual tradition:
“Thirteen Bill Williams Mountain Men, saddle weary but triumphant, rode into the Fairgrounds at Phoenix 3 p.m. Wednesday and notified Dr. J. A. Stewart of their safe arrival after their 185 mile trek from Williams. The bearded Mountain men, in buckskins and carrying their heavy old-fashioned rifles and powderhorns, are honor guests of the Phoenix Jaycees Rodeo, which opens today.”
“Only casualty on the trip was Ray V. Stewart, who was bucked off his horse twice before leaving the vicinity of Williams. He injured the finger of his left hand, but went to the hospital, had it patched up and went along on the ride...
Bill Williams Mountain Men Denton Dean, Spike Way, Ray Stewart, Fred Theroux, Bill Lilly, Ben Fillmore, Rod Graves, Paul Tissaw, Thurman Mayes, Louis Landry, Verne Carruthers, John Mills and Jake January participated in the original 1954 ride.
In their earlier days, the group traveled annually to Phoenix to participate in the annual Jaycee’s Rodeo. In recent years, the trip has been made it to the area northeast of Phoenix, where the group participates in the Cave Creek Rodeo and parade.
The Bill Williams Mountain Men have been invited to participate in five different presidential inauguration parades — the most memorable of which was the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Over the years, the Mountain Men have had two mountain lion mascots, Tuffy and Tuffy II. Rancher George McNelly, who ran across the mountain lions on his land, reportedly took in both cats. Tuffy II made the train journey to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 with the group.
Several governors have named the Bill Williams Mountain Men Official Arizona Ambassadors. The Mountain Men are also listed as a local legacy in the Library of Congress.
Besides appearing in parades and other special events, the mountain men also visit hospitals, nursing homes and schools. In addition, they raise money to give scholarships to local high school students.
“We do scholarships every year,” said Butch Johnston, the current president of the Bill Williams Mountain Men. “Our big fundraiser is the steak fry we do in Prescott in June. We like to give back to the community.”
While mountain man membership was originally restricted to Williams residents, it is now open to all Arizona residents.
The mountain man tradition spans generations. Williams resident Bob Dean has been a member of the Bill Williams Mountain Men for 52 years. Dean’s father Denton “Diz” Dean was one of the founding members of the group, and Bob joined in February of 1965.
Bob Dean has participated in 46 rides, but did not participate in this year’s ride.
Life on the trail
This year’s journey took the riders from Williams to Black Canyon City, a distance of about 150 miles, and took six days to complete.
Before leaving on the ride, the mountain men have to make extensive preparations, such as finding a cook and camp help. About five vehicles meet up with the riders along the way, helping to carry the food for the riders and horses, the bedrolls and other gear.
The riders start conditioning for their annual Rendezvous Ride a couple of months before the week-long trip.
“We do about 25 miles a day,” Sleeper said. “At the end of the day, you’re pooped.”
Another part of the preparations is delineating a route and contacting land owners.
“We like to see different things,” said rider Dave Zovod. “There are several different ways, but you have to coordinate with ranchers all the way down. It’s a lot of work.”
During the trip, riders wake up well before daylight. The first order of business is starting a fire to warm up the riders. After that, it’s breakfast time for both the horses and the mountain men.
“We sit by the fire at night, get up early and head out again,” said Bill Williams Mountain Man president Butch Johnston.
The humans eat a hearty breakfast on the trail as well, such as biscuits and gravy, eggs and bacon. Then everyone packs up their gear, saddles up and starts on the next leg of their trip.
Throughout the day, the beer truck will meet the riders on the trail and provide them with beer, soda, water, snacks and candy.
At noon, the cook generally meets up with the group to make lunch at the noon camp. If the cook is unable to reach the mountain men because of the remoteness of the route, the cook will pack the group a sack lunch. After lunch, the mountain men set off on the trail again.
In the evenings, the riders settle into their campsite by feeding and watering the horses, eating dinner, and telling stories around the campfire.
Although membership has declined in recent years because some of the older members have passed away, the Bill Williams Mountain Men are still going strong because of one major factor: the bonds the members form while on the trail.
“This is just an adventure of a lifetime,” Sleeper said.