Hillbilly-Music.comThe People. The Music. The History.
About The Artist
Romaine H. "Romy" Lowdermilk was born in the state of Kansas. When he was just 15 years old, his widowed mother sent him to a ranch in New Mexico due to his ill health. When he regained his health, he moved back to Kansas to be with his mom. But that stay had changed him - he felt the 'west' was where he wanted to be.
He later set out to Arizona where he found work as a cowhand for $30 a month at the CL Ranch, working for Johnny Duke. Many years later, an article from 1955 notes that his parents were originally from North Carolina. His father died when he was just three years old.
During the time in New Mexico, he was sent out to keep an eye on an isolated windmill and water hole. He was alone, with just a cabin and two horses. He would get food supplies from someone on the ranch every two months or so. That solitude gave him plenty of time to think and he began thinking the west was something he would enjoy.
Eventually, Romaine would finish his high school education and then attend one year of college in Kansas.
Beverly Brooks, a historian at the Cave Creek Museum in Cave Creek, Arizona happened to find our site and write us. Romaine was known as the "father of dude ranching" in Arizona. He opened his first ranch and also Arizona's first in 1918, the Kay El Bar in Wickenburg. The last ranch he operated was Rancho Manana, which closed in 1955 and only because Romaine felt it was time to retire.
When he was just 21, Romaine staked a claim to a homestead in Wickenburg, Arizona. He named the ranch Kay El Bar after his mother, Katherine. Mr. Lowdermilk started the ranch as a working cattle ranch, but he later turned it into the first dude ranch in Arizona. Today, it is still a guest ranch and is listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places. That ranch was 160 acres. He also raised hay, grain and "prize seed potatoes".
Romaine sold the ranch in 1927 and built other ranches in Rimrock and Soda Springs. He also spent two years at the Arizona Biltmore as an entertainer and "wrangler".
in a 1967 article by John I. White, Romaine speaks of a song folio, "Lonesome Cowboy SOngs" that was first published in 1929. Some of the songwriters getting credit back then were E. A. Brininstool and James Barton Adams. But for the most part, the songs in his folio were considered "traditional" and thus, no songwriter credits.
In the middle 1930's, it seems the music scene was fascinated by the cowboy image. The WLS National Barn Dance was no exception. George Biggar of WLS wrote a feature article in Prairie Farmer's weekly Stand By publication in June of 1935 of a visit at the Folk Festival Show in Chattanooga, Tennessee in May of 1935. A variety of folks appeared at the festival - Bill Hensley, a North Carolina fiddling champion; Bascom Lunsford with his group. And then he wrote about Romaine Lowdermilk, a '…real cowboy character from Rimrock, Arizona, to portray the charm of the songs of the great southwest." Mr. Biggar noted that the audience could not get enough of Romaine's tunes - Get Along Little Dogies, The Old Black Steer, Billy the Kid and Home on the Range. Romaine he noted also had a style on stage to keep the audience's attention between tunes. He would explain the songs in an 'interesting manner'. After the performance, Romaine was overwhelmed with autograph seekers, especially the young folks it seems according to Mr. Biggar.
The performance by Mr. Lowdermilk caught the attention of Mr. Biggar. Later in the year, WLS persuaded Romaine and a 'cowhand' from Romaine's ranch in Soda Springs, Tumble Weed to become a part of the WLS staff. In October, Romaine and Tumble Weed were appearing regularly by the Barn Dance audiences. No mention was made of Tumble Weed's real name, but he was noted to be a trick roper.
Later in October, Romaine was appearing as an author of an article , trying to describe a cowboy's visit to town or rather "back east" which was described as anything east of Kansas City. Chicago as he put it was "'way back east."
Romaine noted that it was a bit difficult to come to Chicago. It was a long way from home for them and found themselves a bit "frightened by the cold and critical attitude of the strangers" they saw on the streets and in the hotel.
He noted wryly, "We can understand now why city men all dress and look alike. "It's painful to be conspicuous." He noted, "When we first came to town, we had on our best silk shirts, pretty loud ones, too, just like we would wear out west when dressed up and goin' to town. Well, we looked like a couple of sissies to these cotton-shirt dudes in the big town, so we quit them quick. Then again."
Some folks he said thought the handkerchiefs they wore around there necks were a sign they had sore throats.
He goes on, perhaps tongue in cheek, that if they wore their boots outside their pants, folks might think them as members of a circus. But if they wore the pants underneath their pants, some might think they were 'gigolos'.
On the article went, discussing the derision a cowboy in the city might get wearing their cowboy 'stetson' hats or their carved leather belts, their Pendleton jackets.
In the end the article sounds like it was written by a homesick Arizona cowboy who beneath it all really wanted to be back home in Arizona.
The two of them would entertain the WLS audiences with songs "...of the western mountains and cattle country."
A few weeks later, Romaine rights the readers of Stand By about that initial article he wrote, sort of apologizing. He explained it as "...you known how sorry a country dog looks when he comes to town for the first time, well, that's just about the same way a cow chaser feels for the first few weeks."
Romaine painted a pretty harsh picture of what he saw, compared to the lifestyle back in Arizona. He wrote of the "dirty and littered up the town looked" and said the side streets were worse. He thought the brick buildings looked like "...the back end of an old-fashioned poorhouse." He noted, if it ever got to looking that bad in Arizona, folks would just move out to a new 'camp'.
He wryly noted that after he found that there were definitely more people which then meant more newspapers and cigarette butts per square mile in Chicago than in the whole state of Arizona which then only had 500,000 people, he "...forgave'em for the trash blowing around."
He could 'forgive' quite a bit, but he just couldn't get over how rushed everyone was in the city. He noted also that some folks looked as "...important as a well-digger starting a new hole." He complained of nearly being run over a few times. He stood on a corner one day thinking he was watching a parade go by, but the reality was, the street was just that busy.
We don't know if he was writing this tongue in cheek as a character from out of the west, rural area, sort of like a modern day country boy comes to town type of attitude or if it may have been how he really felt.
In one self-deprecating moment, he lets the reader in on a secret of sorts, of just "...how dumb a country boy can be." He told Stand By readers it was two weeks before he learned how to get a paper towel out of the tin box in the restroom.
When it came to meal time, well, let's let Romaine tell us about that:
"This city rush gets on my nerves. On the ranch we think we work hard, and maybe we do, but when we come in for meals we can stretch our legs out under the table, shove back the women and kids and really take our time to it and do a good thorough job of overeating. But here in town we find ourselves busting into the closest cafe and ordering the third thing down the bill-of-fare whatever it might happen to be and gobbling it down with a newspaper in one hand, a cup of weak coffee in the other, a menu propped up in front, one eye on the clock and the other on the door and a box of stomach pills in our vest pocket."
Come to think of it in this day and age, it probably is still a very true observation.
Stand By readers got to know Romaine a bit more from another man's perspective in a later issue, Burridge Butler, the publisher of Stand By and president of WLS gave his readers his observations.
Mr. Butler told the readers how it came to be that Romaine Lowdermilk became a part of the WLS staff. He was listening to the radio one night, hearing some 'cowboys' sing. The announcer, Major Bowes, asked them after their tune where they were from and they replied "New Jersey" and had never been farther west than Chicago. Mr. Butler thought to himself, we need a real cowboy on the station.
It didn't take him long to thing of someone - he spent many a winter out in Arizona with his wife. And he had heard of a cowboy out of Rimrock, Arizona, Romaine Lowedermilk. He termed Romaine, "An absolute balance of simplicity and strength, without fear of anything on earth." He noted that Romaine had a gun in his holster and noted, "One felt that Romaine was armed for peace and his gun was full guaranty thereof."
But Mr. Butler's note was actually letting the readers know that Romaine was leaving to go back to Arizona to tend to the ranch. Romaine's wife had been writing that the ranch would have visitors in the winter season and they were already writing to make arrangements for their visits. Romaine had to go back and tend to the ranch. He noted that Tumble Weed would stay behind, who Romaine felt, could throw a rope better than he, and could learn to sing better as well.
Mr. Butler felt compelled to write that article in Stand By and in closing, he wrote, "So long; hope I'll be seeing you again." We should all be so lucky to get such words of praise when leaving a position, especially one held only for a short time.
Romaine is mentioned in Stand By a couple of years later, he was to appear on May 22, 1937 at the National Folk Festival as a representative of radio station KOY from Arizona.
In the early 1940's, Romaine acquired a ranch in Cave Creek, Arizona, then called the Howard Ranch. He renamed it Rancho Manana and opened it as a guest ranch in 1946. A 1955 article notes that his business partners were Ted and China Loring, a couple who's honeymoon he had hosted at his former Soda Springs dude ranch.
And Romaine was a very hands on owner of the ranch, doing just about anything and everything. He was a cowboy, musician, singer, composer, "teller of tall tales" and a published author of western short stories. His short stories were published in "Adventure Magazine", "Arogsy" and "Short Stories".
Those short stories it seems may have led to another thought he had as a businessman. An editor of one of the magazines came out to visit him one time, and Romaine reportedly gave him a bed roll in his bunkhouse. The editor went back east and apparently talked of his visit so much that others started to come out for a visit. Romaine got the thought, well, maybe he could set them up and charge them for their visit.
That 1954 article tells of him hiring some Mexican workers to build a five-room adobe building, which never had to be replastered, and became a part of the KL Bar Ranch, which in turn, became the first Arizona dude ranch in 1918.
A 1954 article speaks to a trip he made to entertain some Indiana newspapermen in Indianapolis. Mr. Pulliam, the publisher of the Phoenix Gazette and the Republic as well as the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News in Indiana wanted the folks in Indiana to get a taste of Romaine's "...reputation as a master of folk music, added to his life as a cattleman and Arizona's first dude rancher."
The article speaks to Romaine's pending retirement at the end of 1954.
A 1975 article speaks to the work Romaine put into his dude ranching efforts. He "...dug the well at Rancho Manana, laid all the water line pipes, marked the water tank, built and remodeled buildings." In fact, they hosted their first guest in 1944. Their 'inn' could hold up to 25 people, but they were so popular, they'd have 40 people at times. Guests thought nothing of it, some would offer to sleep in the floor or at least 'crowd up' a bit to giver every possible person a view.
He retired from the Rancho Manana when his contract expired at the end of June in 1955.
In 1955, Carolyn Cox wrote of the pending retirement of Romaine.
A couple of his stories, "The Passing of an Outlaw" and "The Spirit of His Youth" were published in anthologies. It was written that several of his tales were made into silent films. Some of the other stories he wrote were "Tucker's Top Hand", "A Matter of Equilibrium".
Romaine's first marriage ended in divorce. As a result, he gave up dude ranching for a time and took on positions in hotel management in Phoenix, Castle Hot Springs and San Francisco. That led to him meeting his new wife, Jean and they spent a year in Santa Barbara, California.
He became a director of the National Folksong Association and also director of the Arizona Hotel Men's Association.
His obituary in 1970 notes that he had written or published more than 100 western songs, including "Back to Old Arizona" but was later changed to "Back To Old Montana" because another WLS artist, Patsy Montana, liked it so much she recorded it for RCA Victor in 1940.
His obituary notes he was a classmate at Baker University Academy in Baldwin, Kansas with Eugene C. Pulliam, who later became the publisher of the Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette.
Mr. Lowdermilk's travels included trips to Indianapolis, Indiana where he entertained employees of the Indianapolis Star and News as well as entertaining a gathering of the Sigma Delta Chi - a journalism society.
He sang the first version of "Big Corral", which borrowed the tune from an old Gospel song. Recall his commentary of his stay in Chicago - he wrote a tune called "Mr. Cowboy Goes To Town" which was a yodeling number as well. He also wrote "The Rodeo Parade". Mr. John I. White wrote in 1967 described "Big Corral" as "...nonsensical words, its borrowed hymn tune and hits bang-up male quartet arrangement. It soon was on records, being sun in schools and summer camps and attracting the attention of folksong collectors.
He operated dude ranches and also took jobs as assistant managers of hotels in such venues as San Francisco and Las Vegas.
Romaine and his wife traveled for a time after selling the ranch in Cave Creek. When they came back to Arizona, they refurbished an old stagecoach rest stop in Cave Creek, turning it into a hotel. In a few years, another remodeling job turned it into a guest house on the Andorra Ranch and eventually became their home.
In 1954, they noted that Cave Creek site he founded as a 'country estate' was just north of Phoenix. "...It was just cow country when he took over the old Howard Ranch and with Ted Loring fashioned one last dude ranch, Rancho Manana.
He made an impact on his guests. It seemed that some of them bought their own home in Arizona and would live part of the year in Arizona - because of the impression that Romaine had made with them during their visits.
A 1955 article in the Phoenix Gazette notes that Romaine and his wife were to retire for the seventh time from dude ranching. Well, maybe just for a short time. It seems they were going to do a bit of traveling, including a trip back east to New England to see the fall colors, then take up managing an old abandoned stage coach hotel, which got rebuilt from desert rocks.
One of his short stories, "The Passing of Pete Davilla" was included in a University of Arizona textbook for it's "excellence".
We received an email from Norm Johnson in Phoenix who had an LP (33 1/3 speed) album of Romaine Lowdermilk recordings made on the Audio Recorders of Arizona record label that was on 3703 North 7th Street in Phoenix, Arizona. The tunes included, and judging by the song titles, you know this was true cowboy music / entertainment:
A few years prior to his death, Romaine and his wife moved to Phoenix, Arizona where they resided on Almeria.
His childhood friend from Kansas who became the publisher of The Arizona Republic noted in his own editorial column on June 24, 1970 his own memories of Romaine Lowdermilk and the impact he had made with people.
Mr. Pulliam wrote:
"But he loved the outdoors and especially "Arizona, That's Where I Want To Be," as one of his songs so eloquently tells us.
Credits & Sources