The story of Will Rogers’ Short Maguey and how Dell Owens came to own it.
By DICK SPENCER III, as written in April 1975
EVERY NOW and then a good story just dies on the vine because nobody ever writes it up. And that almost happened to this story. Guess it was about 18 years ago that I was visiting with Dell Owens at his place southeast of Colorado Springs. Dell was a good old all-around cowboy—ranch, rodeo, or arena—and some years back was one of California’s hard-to-beat reining horse men.
Dell was a roper, too, and on this particular day we were looking over some of his old ropes that he prized. Each of them had a story. Among the ropes were a number of long, Mexican maguey ropes, all showing some wear from use. One of them was considerably shorter than the others, and didn’t have a burner on the honda.
When I asked Dell about it, he chuckled and said, “That’s one of my very favorites, and a good story goes right along with it!” Then he told how Will Rogers used to bring back lots of maguey ropes every time he went into Mexico. Will would use a rope a few times, then give it to a friend. Dell assured me this rope hadn’t always been this short.
Seems a bunch of good hands had been invited to the Quien Sabe Ranch in California to help with branding, and on this day they happened to be branding in some corrals. The corrals weren’t too big, and with several ground crews working—flanking and holding the calves down while others scurried around branding, vaccinating, dehorning, and castrating—it made for pretty close quarters.
Ropers were dragging calves as carefully as possible so as not to interrupt the smooth flow of the ground crews. For some reason a big, long yearling steer was in the corral with the calves, and Will had cast a squinted eye at him several times. Then he’d look back at how smooth and methodical everything was going.
Finally Will’s cowboy sense of humor got the best of him. He popped a loop on that big steer, backed his horse into a corner of the corral, and then let his dallies sizzle around the horn while he played out line.
The surprised steer bawled, bellered, and tried to quit the country. Will squalled and encouraged him as he played more line out around the horn, and then locked it down.
These magueys are usually between 60 and 70 feet long, and that big old steer made as big an arc as he could on the end of all that rope—which wiped out most of the ground crews, the branding fire, irons, and anything at all that happened to be between Will and the steer. Will was pretty well entrenched in the corner, and hard to get to with that rope going back and forth like a windshield wiper, and he was whooping and hollering to keep that big steer active.
One of the old-timers who had already been wiped out by the rope about midway between Will and the steer just laid flat on his back while he fished out his knife. At an opportune time, he sat up—grabbed the rope, and the taut line popped like a banjo string when the sharp stockman’s knife bit into the fibers.
“Will,” the old-timer drawled, “you had a lot of fun with that one rope—so now you got two of ’em to play with!”
Dell Owens got half of that rope, and somebody else got the other half. Dell’s half was the one Will was holding onto, so he just fashioned a new honda on the fresh-cut end, and that’s the way the rope is today. This happened either in the late 1920s or early ’30s. Will Rogers was killed in an airplane crash with Wiley Post at Point Barrow, Alaska, August 15, 1935.
I enjoyed that story so much that I thought I’d get down to see Dell again sometime—take a picture of the rope, and get all the pertinent facts such as when, where, and who all was there—and see if Dell could remember who had the other half of that rope. But I kept putting it off, reaching for other stories farther away from home. A few years rolled by, then I heard that Dell had died. More years rolled by, and then one day Dell’s wife, Mary (who has since remarried), dropped by the office and we got to talking about those old ropes.
Later she visited the office again—this time bringing along a whole stack of ropes that Dell had coiled and tied together with a piece of leather. Sure enough, that “short Will Rogers rope” without the burner on the honda was right in there among them. The other magueys measure about 65 feet—but this one measures 29 1/2 feet long, so that old-timer came mighty close to finding the middle with his pocket knife!