The Arizona man was once a lawman in rough-and-tumble Alaska.
Western pioneers and settlers are a thing of the past —a product of simpler yet wilder times, when a man had to be self-sufficient and bold, and a woman needed plenty of gumption, even with a self-sufficient, bold man around. Today it is still possible to find reminders of yesteryear’s Westerners, and not just on small and large screens, though it gets harder by the minute. Consider Bob Van Kirk. The epitome of an old Westerner, Van Kirk died at age 96 late in 2009, not long after he had discussed his pioneer spirit and rough-and-tumble past.
He and Kay, his second wife, had lived in a small ranch house he built in the shadow of the Dragoon Mountains, a short horseback ride from Tombstone, Ariz. The Dragoons are the longtime haunt of Apache Chief Cochise, while Tombstone is forever tied to lawman Wyatt Earp. Van Kirk, like most folks, never achieved such fame, but that didn’t make him any less of a Man of the West. Although hospitalized in Tucson near the end, he returned to his home near the Cochise Stronghold to die peacefully with Kay at his side. Right up to the end, his blue eyes twinkled when he was amused and grew narrow and penetrating when he recalled harrowing times from a past as loaded with adventure as a dime novel. He was a true-life character equal to any created by Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry; Bob Van Kirk would have felt at home riding the hills beside Cochise or matching strides with Earp on Allen Street.
“My father was a hard, hard man,” said Bob, who in 1912 was born Raymond Sylvester Van Kirk, the second child of Alice and Charles Van Kirk. “The only thing I got from him was fighting and shooting skills.” Charles left his large family on his Minnesota farm for better prospects farther west. After settling on a Montana ranch, he summoned his oldest two children, Rudy and Raymond (not yet known as Bob), to handle ranch chores. Eventually, Charles moved the entire family to Geyser, Mont. Raymond made it through the seventh grade at a one-room schoolhouse.
He had just entered his teen years in 1926 when he got in a spot of trouble (“I really don’t like talking about that!” was all he would divulge more than 80 years later) and was sent to a ranch for juvenile delinquents near Great Falls. It wasn’t like being sent to the state penitentiary, but young Van Kirk figured that after two years he’d done enough penance. He hopped a freight train to Sheridan, Wyo., and then another freight train to Lincoln, Neb. There, he worked the fields and began calling himself “Bob Johnson,” an alias he kept through his cowboy years. “I was still a ward of the state,” he explained. “And besides, my given names of Raymond Sylvester were hardly enjoyed by me. Later, everyone thought that when I signed R. Van Kirk, the R stood for Robert.”
Bob, who soon packed well over 200 pounds on a 6-foot-6 frame, took on many jobs, including roustabout with the Russell Brothers Circus, during the Great Depression. “I was big for my age and could handle about anything,” he said. In an earlier era the wandering Van Kirk might have been called a drifter or saddle bum, but the label of the time was “hobo.” Either way, that lifestyle required a man to be able to handle dangerous men and dangerous situations. When he rode the rails penniless with a friend down Houston way, he found out that many Texans “did not like the way we talked.” He recalled that his best Texas meal was a sandwich handed him by a sympathetic black woman.
Getting nowhere fast in the Lone Star State, the two young men bolted by freight train to Fort Collins, Colo., where they did chores for a rancher for room and board. Van Kirk then moved on to the Tatum Ranch, where he discovered a talent for breaking broncs. Another move landed him at Dick Leake’s UT Bar Ranch. He also broke broncs at $15 a head for other area ranchers.“We thought we were rich,” he said. Van Kirk handled the roughest livestock and toughest chores but was plumb afraid when Leake went to town and left Bob to watch over the rancher’s infant daughter (now Maurie Leake Heiss). “This was the scariest moment of my life; my fear was that this tiny thing would cry,” said Van Kirk, sounding like the traditional alone-on-therange cowboy.
Bob hit the trail in 1935 riding a “coldblood” (wild) horse named Nicodemus. “We took the outlaw trail to North Park,” he recalled. “Ol’ Nic got me a job at the ZK Ranch in Meeker. Owner of the horse outfit was JasperWyman. I stayed on breakin’ horses through spring roundup, then sold Nic and caught a train back to the Leake ranch.”
Van Kirk also used his cowboy skills on the rodeo circuit in Colorado and Wyoming, riding broncs and bulls and bulldogging some. “I was in Cheyenne in 1935 for Frontier Days,” he remembered. “Everyone was talking about all-around champion Turk Greenough cavorting with Sally Rand, the fan dancer. Now, there was a rawhide tough family. Turk’s father, ‘Pack Saddle’ Ben, was famous in his own right. Turk had two sisters who rodeoed, too.” The next year, Bob reunited with his family in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho—that is, everyone but Charles Van Kirk. “They had shed themselves of my father,” was how Bob put it. He and a brother entered the sawmill business.
Bob and brother John went to Alaska in 1939 to run sawmills at sites near Hope and Bear lakes. With war looming, John enlisted and arrived in Oahu, Hawaii, on December 5, 1941, two days before the Japanese raid at Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile, Bob ran a sawmill up in Seward, Alaska, and also worked a freighter that once took on a cargo of dynamite, detonators and gasoline. “I was thankful that we weren’t blown to pieces,” he recalled. More tough work followed when Seward’s prominent citizens offered him the job of town marshal. In that wide-open port town, Marshal Van Kirk dealt with harddrinking, rowdy riggers, loggers, merchant mariners and U.S. military personnel. “There were seven saloons and eight whorehouses,” he recalled. “Friday and Saturday the lines to them stretched outside the doors.” To keep the peace, Bob carried a shoulder holster, a concealed derringer and a “knuckle duster,” a weighted pouch that fit on his knuckles to add an extra wallop to a punch. “I used the knuckleduster a lot,” he admitted, sounding every bit the frontier marshal.“I was always anticipating and watching for any guy that planted his feet or balled his fist. I would hit first. I didn’t take that job to be a punching bag.” Hitting first was a key to winning most of his fights—that and being sober. If being marshal wasn’t enough, he doubled as Seward’s fire chief.
After two years in his dual role, he resigned to become a special agent for the Alaska Railroad, but he was coaxed back to Seward when his successor as marshal was given a beating with his own gun by some hard case. Once again Van Kirk pinned on the badge and cleaned up Seward, including the language of one fellow who made suggestive remarks to the daughter of a prominent citizen. The marshal delivered a bit of Wild West justice in that instance, thrashing the offender and jailing him. “That guy was a perfect gentleman when I let him out,” Bob recalled. A few Seward residents still remember the no-nonsense marshal. “Bob was a decent man,” said one, “except when he needed to be something else.” Van Kirk closed out the war years working for the Union Pacific Railroad; his main duty was guarding the run of bombsight equipment from Seattle to Idaho.
After the war he married Ruth and worked as a deputy sheriff in Washington’s King County, assigned to Vashon Island in Puget Sound. A local troublemaker said he was “going to put a hurt on the new peace officer,” but Bob hit first with his knuckleduster and gave the lout a bone-breaking paddy-wagon ride. “I had no further trouble in Vashon,” he recalled.
Van Kirk also was an accomplished aviator (once spending three days at sea in a disabled seaplane before being rescued) and later a tugboat captain (once rescuing five shipwrecked Canadian sailors). He retired in 1969 and lived with Ruth in a house he built on Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. By 1983 Bob and Ruth were living in a house he built in Arizona’s Cochise County. Ruth died 10 years later, and Bob battled lung cancer. In 1996 he wed Kay, who has Cherokee/ Choctaw roots and a Texas twang. Their home near the Dragoons lacked electricity but did have five dogs (the largest of which could be saddled), goats that provided milk and meat, a windmill that provided water, a pantry that would make a survivalist salivate, plenty of firearms and a generator so they could watch Western movies.“I respect men like Wyatt Earp,” he said. “I know a little about what he went up against. There was no time for diplomacy with certain men.” Bob Van Kirk, among the last of a dying breed, certainly always knew how to handle those “certain men.”
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.