"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Kittie Wilkins, Idaho Horsewoman

Kittie C. Wilkins was a media darling of her time. Her interviews were published in thirty-seven states, as well as Great Britain, New Zealand, the District of Columbia, and Canada. Headlines labeled her “the Idaho Horse Queen,” “the Queen of Diamonds,” “The Only One of Her Kind,” “Horse Queen of the West,” to name a few. And yet, today, this woman who inherited and ran the highly successful Wilkins Horse Company is virtually unknown in the annuls of history.

Kittie’s father, J. R. Wilkins, traveled around the West and engaged in several business endeavors before settling in Idaho in the early 1880s to start a ranching operation in Owyhee County’s Bruneau valley on land situated between the west and east forks of the Jarbidge River. Their livestock grazed what was called Wilkins Island, a remote plateau encompassing 160,000 acres straddling the Idaho-Nevada border. The Wilkins Horse Company was said to be the largest herd of range-bred horses in the West, about 10,000 head. Their “Diamond” brand was well known throughout the United States, as well as in other countries, and their horses were in high demand.

Born in Jacksonville, Oregon, in 1857, Katherine “Kittie” Caroline Wilkins got her start in the horse business at the age of two. On one of the family’s many moves, friends of her parents gave Kittie two gold coins–forty dollars–as an investment for her future. Her father bought a filly with the money and, Kittie often told reporters, “From the increase all my bands have come.”  But Kittie’s education would be more than what she could get on the ranch. Her parents sent her to Sacred Heart Academy in Ogden, Utah, and later Notre Dame College in San Jose, California, which had the reputation as being the “best school for young ladies in the West.”

After school, Kittie returned to the ranch where she began to accompany her father on his trips to the Midwest to market his horses. It quickly became apparent to J. R. that Kittie could sell the horses better than he could, and it wasn’t long before she was running the ranch’s horse operation, handling marketing and sales, and traveling to the railheads and stockyards by herself. She told a Denver reporter, “I will say to you that this horse breeding has fascination. It is in interest something like mining. You are lured on, expecting to strike it rich every moment.” And she did. In 1900, with the Boer War raging and the demand for horses high, she sold 8,000 head to a company in Fort Scott, Kansas, which was said to be the biggest single sale of horses in the West. During World War I, she sold to the U. S. Government for cavalry mounts. Her markets encompassed the United States, even the Yukon Territory. She bred stock for different markets; farming, freighting, saddle, and harness. She bred Clydesdales, Percherons, Morgans, Hambletonians.

Kittie created quite a stir on her travels, and newspaper reporters clamored to find out more about the pretty young woman running a horse raising enterprise – predominantly a man’s world.  She seemed to enjoy the publicity and used it to help market her horses. The “Queen of Diamonds” (named from the ranch’s brand) broke the stereotype of what they believed a lady rancher would be. While most expected an Annie Oakley type, rough around the edges, they found a sophisticated, educated woman who did not attempt to compete with the men. She told a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News. “I believe that a lady can engage in this business as well as a man and retain all attributes of character.” She also told the Sioux City Journal, “I have been asked to throw the lasso just once at the various horse markets, but I don’t yearn for that kind of a reputation. There have been several women engaged in the cattle business in the West who have been noted for their daring on horseback and in the stock pens, but while I believe I am able to hold my own with almost anybody in handling a horse when it becomes necessary, I am not going to make myself ridiculous by roping horses for the amusement of men about the stockyards.” She told a St. Louis reporter, “I do not like to see women ride astride. I believe I may say I can ride a well as any woman who ever sat on a horse, and yet I never used anything but a sidesaddle.”

Kittie did not employ commission agents; she handled the deals herself. In an interview with the Rocky Mountain News she said, “My way of doing business is generally to drop into Omaha, Chicago, or Denver and place an advertisement in the papers announcing my arrival. Then the dealers call on me, or I go to see them, and we talk over the situation, you know, just like two men would talk on any business proposition. Finally I make a deal, telegraph to the ranch for the stock, it arrives, I get my money, and there you are. It is all very simple, after all, but it requires a knowledge of the business to make any money out of it. I can tell in making a deal with a man, just by looking at him when he says he’ll give so much cash, whether I can get another cent or not, and if there is any profit to me in his figures the deal closes right there.” She went on to say, “I wouldn’t want to be a horse trader ... I can’t bear to dicker and haggle over the price of anything. I ask as much as I expect to get when I’m selling horses, and, as a rule, I get it.”

Although she traveled alone, she never encountered rudeness from the men she dealt with. She admitted that she did attract attention and the occasional teasing remark. She told the Boston Advertiser, “I am the only woman in a crowd of two hundred or more horse dealers. Sometimes people come out to the stockyards to see in me a new curiosity, and there are a few who try to flirt or make sport of me. I just walk up to a group of such men and, looking them squarely in the face, say, ‘Do you gentlemen wish to look at my horses?’ That generally makes them blush and look ashamed and ends all further desire on their part to play the gallant.”

Kittie always remained a lady and did not pursue the rough end of ranching. She always gave credit to her father and brothers for that. She was clear to clarify to reporters that she was not a “cattle queen,” leaving that end of the operation to the men. She preferred horses because they did not take as much care as cattle and brought more money. She was an advocate for range horses. She told the New York Herald, “the baby treatment is all right if you merely want to produce phenomenal and fancy-priced trotter and race horses that are good for nothing else. But if you want a thoroughly sound and hardy stock with the lung power that is one of the first essentials of all-round usefulness, then the range system is the only one to employ.”

Despite her life surrounded by men, Kittie never married, although she had plenty of prospects. It is believed she was engaged to her ranch foreman, Joseph Pellessier, when he was killed in 1909 over a water dispute. She had no children of her own but supported a Salt Lake City orphanage and adopted several children and raised them on the ranch. Young men learned to rodeo at the Wilkins company, and a few of the ranch’s buckaroos became national champions on the rodeo circuit. One of her hired hands was quoted in a magazine article as saying, “If a man weren’t a good rider when he went to work for Kit Wilkins, he was a good rider when he left or he wasn’t riding at all – unless in a hearse.”

In 1904, gold was discovered on the Jarbidge River, and a gold rush ensued. It turned Wilkins Island into a highway overnight, forcing the Kittie’s ranching operation into a decline. Coupled with the growing popularity of the automobile and the railways for transportation, her days of horse trading were slowly being phased out as demand for her horses dwindled. She spent her later years in Glenn’s Ferry and gave much of her remaining wealth to charities. She died in 1936 of a heart attack and is buried in Mountain Home, Idaho. When reporters asked her about her “unusual preference for a rural, western life as a single woman in Idaho,” she merely replied because it was “the most independent life on earth.”

*There are a number of articles about Kittie Wilkins, but the most comprehensive study of her life is being conducted by Philip A. Homan, Associate Professor at Idaho State University. His articles, “Queen of Horses,” Part I and II appear in Idaho Magazine, October 2008 and December 2008.