Ed Dennis is a 69 year old cowboy who avidly watched “The Rifleman” when it first aired. He has an interesting story to tell ya'll about his Grandfather Jack.
My grandfather came to San Francisco from England at age 18 and became a six-shooter toting cowboy on the sprawling W. R. Grace & Co. Ranch near Merced, California. He worked his way up to becoming foreman of the ranch which was noted in a letter from a resort hotel in Monterey, California. It seems my grandfather and his fellow hands were driving a herd of 800 unbroken horses from the ranch to the U.S. Cavalry in the Presidio in San Francisco. In the then little town of Monterrey, the horses stampeded. Fearing the loss of townsfolk and/or horseflesh, my grandfather, Jack Dennis, rode his black stallion to the front of the herd and turned them into an open iron gated grassy enclosure. The stampede was over… but the trouble wasn’t. It seems that the double wide iron gate was the entrance to a swank resort… and the guests, staff and silver tea sets were scattered everywhere… and everyone who could climb was up a tree!
The account of the stampede naming my grandfather as responsible was included in a letter written to the W. R. Grace & Co. demanding payment for damages to the hotel grounds and inconvenience of its silver-spoon patrons.
As a boy, I enjoyed touching my grandfather’s cap and ball pistol, gun belt, and leather braided lariat. The Wild West just wasn’t that long ago.
I’ll tell you a few more things about my grandfather… and an interesting note about his sister in England.
“Aunty Jen” as she preferred to be called was the youngest of the Dennis family which owned a large dairy farm near Stonehenge in England. Her descendents still own the farm. I visited her in 1963 when she was 92 and she gave me a photo of the family which had a gap deliberately left in the line up where my grandfather’s photo might someday be added. At the time, she was a babe in arms! She had retired and given the farm to her eldest son. She had a small, two story stone cottage with a thatched roof built so that she could live out her life as her ancestors had.
The cottage had running water but no electricity. The guest feather bed seemed to engulf me as I lay on it… but kept me warm as toast all night long. An old fashioned breakfast cooked on a wood stove served to enhance the experience that would have been what we might expect to have on the McCain Ranch. The most difficult question Aunty Jen asked me was to tell her everything I knew about her older brother who had never returned to England… and she admitted that he probably had been a bit of a rascal. In fact, I was his first descendent to ever make the trek to visit the place of his birth… and my grandfather had been more than a bit of a rascal as I will share with you. Aunty Jen was such a grand old lady… down to earth but prim and proper… and as traditional as “proper tea” and a tea cozy.
My grandfather was the third oldest boy of the Dennis family and, as such, third in line to inherit the dairy farm. As a teenager in the late 1800’s he was constantly in trouble with his father for playing poker with the farm hands and winning too much of their paychecks! Since, by English tradition of primogeniture he would not likely inherit the family farm, my grandfather John Harry “Jack” Dennis, elected to take his poker winnings and go to America to seek his fortune at age 18. He crossed the Atlantic in steerage and endured the hassle of Ellis Island.
His older brother had emigrated to New York City a few years earlier and owned a small grocery. My grandfather made his way to the grocery from Ellis Island only to find that his brother was off on a vacation to the Catskills and the store manager had no knowledge or proof as to the identity of this stranger and, thus, could give him no aid. Jack saw a notice on a bulletin board that a New Jersey farmer was looking for farm hands. Needing money, he hired on with the New Jersey farmer for room and board and a wage of $5 per month… with a stipulation that he had to work a minimum of six months in order to qualify for the $30 total. Think about it, Micah was offered room and board and $30 a month in the first episode of “The Rifleman!”
Jack found life hard on the New Jersey farm. He had to be up before dawn to milk the cows and the workday was not finished until the sun was beginning to set. He was only allowed Sunday afternoons off and there was not a poker game to be had. So, on the eve of his last day of the six month qualifying period, he told the farmer that he wanted his $30 and would be moving on. The farmer was angry and swore at my grandfather calling him an ungrateful opportunist for leaving at his first opportunity. He then said that his work was not over until sundown of the next day. The next morning, the farmer drove his wagon into town. As the sun was going down on his final day, Jack packed up his gear and went to the main house. As he reached the first step, the farmer appeared on the front porch with a shotgun.
He told Jack not to come up the stairs or he would be shot. The farmer flung $30 in nickels and dimes into the dirt and said, “Now, there’s your money. Get your #@%*& off my property before the sun sets or I will shoot you as a trespasser.” Jack raked up the hard earned change with his fingers and walked the 35 miles to the nearest town in the dark. He had come to these shores in search of the American Dream and found a New Jersey Nightmare. With his small stake and his talent for playing cards, he boarded a train and went as far from New Jersey as the rails would allow… which took him to San Francisco.
In San Francisco he found a job working as a clerk in a candy store. The job paid $5 a week… but he had to pay $4.50 a week to stay at a boarding house, 25¢ for his weekly bath… and the last 25¢ went for cigars. He was short of stature but slim, wiry and tough as nails. So he began prize fighting at San Francisco’s elite Olympic Club which also had a golf course. He soon became their bare knuckle boxing champion in his weight class… which brought him extra money and the opportunity to play poker for even more money. But he was looking for more adventure in the Old West than living in San Francisco… so he hired on as a ranch hand with the W. R. Grace and Co., a famed British shipping company.
From cowhand he worked his way up to foreman of their Merced horse ranch… because he was tough, smart and a skilled in the cowboy arts… being English certainly helped. He drank good whiskey and played a better game of poker… which led to making enough money to marry and start his own small spread just south of San Francisco. In the historical book of the early days of Colma and Daly City there are a number of pictures of taverns… and in each photo there is a shiny new Buick parked outside. You guessed it, that was Grandpa Jack’s and he was inside playing cards. When I was still a boy, my grandfather, then in his eighties, took me with him to play cards in the back room of a trendy saloon in the county seat. There were a bunch of self-important men in their thirties and forties looking to trim the “old man.” I never saw my grandfather come away from that poker table with less than $50 in winnings… and usually it ran into the hundreds!
There are more stories I could tell you of his successes but they are less about the old west. One last vestige of his life in the old west was a very large floor safe in which Grandpa Jack kept his important papers and an untold amount of cash. On the top shelf was a half empty bottle of Wild Turkey whiskey. The safe door was open one day when I had walked over to visit with him and he noted that I was eyeing the contents. He told me that if I ever wanted a drink of whisky I should not sample the bottle in the safe. The reason being that he had put poison in that bottle so if anyone broke into his safe… he would likely sample the good whiskey and die!
Some of my fondest memories of my youth were of the time we spent talking about the old Wild West days… and also his racing greyhounds which included Al Capone’s favorite, “Millmaster,” a greyhound that was never defeated on the track… including the one that Capone owned in Chicago. But that’s another story…
Yep, he was a genuine rough, tough, rootin’ tootin’ cowboy of the Old West… and we had a special bond that none of his other grandchildren enjoyed. He died at age 99 and was still tough and eager for a hand of poker right to the end. And now for a special Cowgirl treat… before he died, my grandfather enjoyed watching the original showing of “The Rifleman” with me!
We appreciate what you have done that I have decided to give you one more Jack Dennis story of frontier justice in the old west. As I have mentioned before, Jack spent so much time in the saloons playing poker for fun and profit that local folks who lost to him regularly looked upon him as a professional. He thought cheaters took the fun out of the game… to say nothing of changing the odds… and he could spot a cheat from across the room. And he dealt with them personally… and severely!
One day in the corner saloon of our rural hometown, the owner/bartender of the saloon approached Jack and asked if he would talk to him privately for a moment. Jack had them deal him out of the game and went with the saloon owner to a back room. There the owner told Jack a tale of woe about the saloon not taking losses every month and asked if Jack would become his partner and tide the saloon through the lean times.
Jack said that the saloon seemed to be doing enough business not to have financial problems… but the owner assured him the losses were very real. Reluctantly, Jack said that he would be a partner but would not advance any funds… but agreed to fund any operational deficits once the partnership began. The only stipulation Jack made was that during the partnership, Jack would make all the rules of the saloon. The desperate saloon owner agreed and a partnership agreement was signed.
The original owner asked, “What are the rules, Jack? Jack replied, “There is only one rule, no women are permitted behind the bar.”
Months past and every month Jack received 50% of what turned out to be rather handsome profits! As Jack had speculated the saloon was doing quite well. After six months of taking 50% of the profits, Jack told his partner that he was tired of being in the saloon business and offered to sell him his share for $1.00! Puzzled, but willing, the original owner/bartender accepted. Jack left with the dollar and gave this advice, “I recommend that you continue the rules.”
He did… and the saloon prospered for decades.
As a card player, Jack was very observant. He noted that the barmaid, who happened to be married to the saloon owner/bartender seemed overly affectionate to a particular male patron. Since the cash register was behind the bar, the no women behind the bar rule kept her from the cash. In the six months that followed, the male patron left the saloon for better pickings… and Jack ended the partnership.
Thus, a wayward wife was not revealed… and was never wayward again… and his bartender/owner friend was spared the embarrassment of the situation.
While this might not be a story you would include of the McCain Ranch web site… it does have an ethical core as do the Rifleman scripts. Now you can see why my Grandfather Jack liked watching The Rifleman.
I thought you might like to know about where Grandpa Jack Dennis chose to locate his resting place.
Jack always like to show a touch of an “English country gentleman” whether it was a cool hand controlling a wild stampede… or laying down his favorite poker hand… four ladies and a jack. There is a natural stone mausoleum on a hill in Cypress Lawn, Colma, California, with 35,000 sq. ft. of stained glass including nine Tiffany Glass windows… and a miniature American Flag to mark the marble crypt in which he lay… a winner for eternity… and finally at peace in his Wild West.
But there was something else about the special place Jack selected that not everyone knows. For through the window you can see a Jewish graveyard across the El Camino Real… and there, one grave stone is littered with well meaning tin stars. To some it is the grave of a famous sportswriter who died in 1929, to Jack it was a fellow peace officer and card playing sporting man… Wyatt Earp (Hills of Eternity, Colma, California).
And while neither Jack nor Wyatt quite lived up to the noble principles of Luke McCain… they each left their mark in the Old West for courage, loyalty, and just enough goodness to make it a better place and more interesting place for all of us today.
Here are some other great stories. Enjoy!
The Rifleman Stories Table of Contents
around The McCain Ranch