Leslie (Les) Young: Cowboy pioneer of San Juan
Leslie Young was a colorful cowboy who lived in Monticello for 36 years and was well known and admired by his peers. He arrived as an eight-year-old boy who had just lost his father (Alma) in a terrible accident.
The Alma Young family was living in Farmington, NM where Alma was in the freighting business. One day he and his three young sons, John, Leslie and Jacob and three other employees were crossing the San Juan River on a ferry with their freight wagon.
A fierce cloudburst upstream from Farmington caused a flood on the river and the ferry suddenly rose. The cables broke and the ferry floated downstream. Luckily, it ran alongside the banks and the three boys were able to grab willows and pull themselves to safety. The adults stayed with the ferry, hoping to save their freight wagon. The went on down the river and sank. Weeks later, the bodies of Alma and his employees were found washed up on a sandbar miles down the river.
As a result of that tragedy, Alma’s wife, Ester Jarvis, brought her children to Monticello to live with Alma’s brother, Alf Young. They came by team and wagon and brought 20 cows and eight horses, arriving in the late fall of l907.
Alf was a blacksmith and owned a large two-story brick home in Monticello. He built the first silent movie theatre in Southeastern Utah on Main Street in Monticello and, as a boy, Leslie accompanied his Uncle to the Blue Mountains where he helped cut trees and make the shingles for the roof of the new theatre.
Alfred Young was the grandfather of Harold Young, a prominent life-long resident of Monticello. Harold was a County Commissioner and a successful general contractor who built the libraries in Monticello and Blanding and hundreds of other structures in San Juan and Grand counties. Les Young was Harold Young’s great uncle.
Les went to work for several of the big cattle companies in the county as a young man, including Lem Redd and the Deckers. He rode the range all over San Juan, especially the Elk Mountain area and became intimately familiar with the ruggedness and beauty of this land. During the winters, Les would rope wild horses, break them and sell them.
He carried the mail by horse to Bluff, stopping in Blanding to change horses. If there was a lot of mail, he would lead a pack horse with the extra mail in the panniers. During the winter, when the snow was drifted and deep, he had many close calls, but always managed to get the mail through.
In l916-17, Leslie served a mission for the LDS Church in the Portland, OR area. He reported that he slept in haystacks more than he did in beds during his mission.
After returning from his mission he volunteered for military service and went into the Army Infantry. He was in Birmingham, AL, ready to ship out to Europe when World War I ended in l918.
Back home in Monticello, he was hired by the Forest Service to wrangle their livestock. He served two years. He was very successful in that service because he knew the lay of the land better than the forest rangers did. He was an excellent horseman. In those days there were virtually no roads in the forest and almost all travel was done by horseback.
One winter in the early 1930’s, there was so much snow that travel from Monticello came to a complete halt. Chris Christensen had the mail contract to Dove Creek, but could not get through the deep snow and was afraid he would lose his contract if he did not deliver.
He came to Leslie and asked him if he thought he could get through. Les assured him he could. He built a strong box, put it on a pair of sleigh runners, heated a large rock in a fire, wrapped the rock in burlap and placed it in the front of the box to keep himself warm.
Les then put the mail in the back of the box, hooked up his outstanding team of horses, pulled a tarp over his head to keep out the snow and wind and headed for Dove Creek. He successfully delivered the mail and returned the next day, to the amazement of Christensen and everyone else in Monticello.
In another cold winter the water pipes on the mountain froze and the town was without water. Charles E. Walton was the water master, but he could not get through the snow to fix the problem. He hired a man to try, who returned in a few hours and reported to C. E. Walton, “Hell, I can’t even get out of town the snow is so deep.”
Charles went to Les and asked him to try. Leslie knew the area well and thought he knew where the problem would be. He also had a horse that was 171/2 hands high, was grain fed and in good condition. He used his big horse to break a trail and took a packhorse with food, bedroll and grain. There was a cabin not far from where the problem was where he could stay overnight.
With his ax he chopped the ice away from the inlet pipes so water from the spring could run in. There was still daylight and with the trail already cut he decided to head for home.
When he arrived he fed his horses, had supper and then went down to the Dan Moody’s pool hall on Main Street where men gathered around the stove on long winter evenings to discuss the issues of the day.
When Leslie walked in, they all looked at him and one guy said, “Hell- a-mighty, Les, I thought you said you could go get us some water, ha, ha, ha.” Before any water would appear in town it had to fill the town’s cistern near the Ranger Station. Leslie knew it would probably take a few hours to fill and so he said, “by morning there will be water” and sure enough there was.
Ernest Leslie Young and his wife raised seven children: Howard, Melvin, Ethel, Frances, Albert, Alberta and Joseph.
During Prohibition there were several stills operating in the County. The word got around that a certain Mr. Ricky was making excellent whiskey at his still southeast of Monticello. Les was called to the courthouse one day and talked into going out and shutting down the place.
He was deputized, a badge was pinned on his chest, a six-shooter was put in a holster on his hip and two men assigned to accompany him. They rode out and stopped in the trees near the house. Leslie told the men to hold his horse and stay there while he circled around the back of the place on foot. He found the still and the owner, Mr. Ricky, crouched nearby with a shotgun. Ricky’s two helpers both had rifles.
Ricky was so scared he was literally shaking and he said, “Damn, I don’t want to kill anyone. What shall we do?” Les stood up and yelled, “Drop your guns and put your hands up.”
Leslie called his helpers in and was gathering up the guns when they arrived. They destroyed the still, arrested the men and took them back to jail in Monticello.
On another occasion there was a man who lived near East Canyon who grew rye and made the finest rye whiskey in the County. He was very careful. If a customer knocked on his door and asked for whiskey he would say, “I don’t have any whiskey; however, if you will lend me five bucks, go out my gate, turn right, go down six fence posts, you will find something in the big sage bush that might interest you.”
The authorities tried time and again to find his still to no avail, so they came again and redeputized Les. Another badge, another six-shooter.
Another of Les’s skills was tracking. They said he was a better tracker than the Indians. Les told them if he just went out and snooped around a while, he was confident he would find the still. As he rode off, the sheriff yelled after him, “Go git em, Les.”
It turned out this moonshine operator was a friend of Les’s. So he rode up to the house, knocked on the door, and told his friend what he had been authorized to do.
“By all means,” the man said, “Go look as long as you want, just like all the other guys have.”
As he began his search, Leslie noticed a single horse in the man’s corral. He figured the guy rode the horse to wherever the still was, and that on arrival he would reward the horse with some grain.
So he went to the corral, left the gate open, got on the horse, headed him out of the gate and then let the horse have his head. Sure enough, the horse made a bee line for his reward, and it took Leslie less than 15 minutes to find the still and a huge wooden barrel of rye whiskey. He took the sides off his buggy and made a wooden ramp so he could roll the heavy barrel in and went back to town. He left the whiskey in the property room and locked the door.
Some high school boys heard about the raid and could see the barrel of whiskey through the window. They found some five gallon buckets and a long brace and bit. When they were sure they would not be seen they went down to the basement and drilled a hole through the floor and through the bottom of the whiskey barrel. They came away with several buckets of 80 proof rye whiskey.
They invited their buddies and together they all headed for blue mountain with bedrolls, food and enough whiskey to swim in. The boys joined in a roaring drunk until anxious parents followed their tracks and broke up the festivities.
When the boot-legger was brought to trial, incredulous lawmen had nothing but an empty barrel to present as evidence. Needless to say, the case was dropped.
A B. Barton and Les were neighbors and they shared ownership of a pair of dentists’ faucetts for pulling teeth. Cowboys would arrive in town, nearly crazy with pain caused by rotting and abscessed teeth. Depending on who had the faucetts, the person in pain was soon much better.
It was 55 miles to Moab over terrible roads to the nearest dentist. The cowboys were usually broke anyway and so Les and A. B. provided a service that mitigated a lot of pain in the long term, even if the extractions “hurt like hell.”
During the winter of 1925 Les and his brother took a pack outfit and some traps and spent four months trapping bobcats and grey, red and silver foxes in White Canyon and Dark Canyon. They brought back scores of beautiful pelts, obtained in their prime which sold for a good price.
During the depression, Roy Musselman turned his place east of Monticello into a dude ranch with cabins, a stable, a cook and a dining hall. He hired Les to be the guide on long trips into the back country west of Monticello. Leslie knew the county as well as anyone in the area. Their first outing was a short ride up to the mountain where one of the dudes got lost and was not missed until they returned to the ranch in the late afternoon. Les went back and found him sitting by a creek. As he rode up, the dude stood up and said, “I am glad you came. I was getting real thirsty.” Leslie said, “Well, why didn’t you get a drink out of the creek.” The man’s reply: “I didn’t have a cup.”
Les started out as the guide and horse wrangler for the Musselman pack trips. He soon added cook and story teller to his duties. He was widely known for the feather-light dutch oven biscuits he made from scratch for each meal. There were never any left as the dudes would slather them with butter and honey or jam and eat until they were all gone.
One morning when the wranglers went out to saddle the horses, they discovered eight saddles had been stolen. They came back to the dining hall and asked Les what they should do. Les went out and walked carefully in a large circle around the stable area. He found two sets of boot tracks which he followed until he came to where there were tire tracks. He knew the saddles had been taken by someone who knew where they were.
He called the pawn shops in Cortez and Grand Junction and located some of the saddles. The shop owners were able to give descriptions of the men who had pawned them and, a short time later, two sons of one of Ross’s neighbors admitted to the theft. All the saddles were eventually returned to their owner.
Les loved horses and always had a large herd of them at his Jail Rock Ranch. He provided the bucking broncs for the July 24th celebration in Monticello each year. He also kept thoroughbred racing horses and won the two-year-old race nearly every year for decades. Once Heber Frost was asked who he thought would win the year’s featured race and he replied, “Well, hell, Les Young could train a burro and beat you guys.”
Les built the pole fence around the racetrack at the rodeo grounds in Monticello to keep the horses on course. The old rodeo grounds were located where the Monticello swimming pool is today.
Les Young was very knowledgeable about doctoring sick horses. Often ranchers would bring seriously injured horses for his care. He would take a large needle, a sharp awl and linen thread and sew them up with just the right amount of medication to ward off infection. He would pour vinegar into the wounds, which helped the healing process. Many a horse about to be “put down” was saved because of the skill and care of Les Young.
In l944, he purchased a large alfalfa growing operation in NM and spent the rest of his life raising hay and horses. At the age of 91 (in l990) he was riding a bike and crashed and was killed when he landed on his head. He spent a lifetime on horses and was never seriously injured but died riding a bicycle.
Some old timers say Les was probably one of the best horseman to sit in a saddle in San Juan County. His children and friends said his word was as good as gold. He never hesitated when someone needed help. He loved the mountains, mesas and canyons of San Juan. He was one of the last of the great San Juan Cowboys, whose long life spanned almost the entire 20th century from the horse and buggy age to the voyages to the moon.