Southern Arizona rancher Pete Kitchen was best known for his choice hams and his humor. His hams graced tables from Nogales to Santa Fe, and his humor was part of a philosophy he put this way: “Life was grim enough without pulling a long face and short enough, unless the gods were kind, to warrant getting a full measure of pleasure while it lasted.”
Kitchen was born in Covington, Ky., in 1822. He joined the U.S. Army in 1846, and served along the Rio Grande for two years. When his regiment, the Mounted Rifles, went to Oregon, Kitchen mustered out. California’s gold rush beckoned him, but it appears he had no success as a prospector and moved on to Arizona in 1853.
Although Kichen was in the Arizona Territory at the beginning of the mining boom in 1856, it was ranching that really appealed to him.
First he moved onto La Canoa ranch north of Tubac, and then he founded his own ranch – El Potrero (the pasture) along El Potrero Creek — less than five miles from the border, near Kino’s Mission at Guevavi. He fortified his house with adobe walls and built a stairway to the roof.
Kitchen was the only rancher to stay in the area after the American troops left to fight the Civil War. Kitchen, always wary of Apache attacks, could still joke about the danger. He called the road between Tumacacori and Tucson, “Tucson, Tubac, Tumacacori and Tohell.”
When General Crook and a party of soldiers visited Kitchen’s ranch in 1870, they saw a sentinel pacing the parapet on the roof, another in the cienega with the stock and the ranch hands plowing the fields with rifles at the ready.
Kitchen and the Apaches waged a continual war. He called his pigs Apache pincushions because the animals were full of arrows.
Kitchen hired Francisco Verdugo from Sonora to help him run the ranch and then married his sister, Rosa. He also hired Manuel Ronquillo, who married Verdugo’s other sister. The families shared the running of El Potrero ranch. Both Ronquillo and Verdugo were fearless fighters, expert horsemen, intelligent, trustworthy and, most important, crack rifle and pistol shots.
Kitchen’s home was a haven for travelers, who never went away hungry. Dona Rosa along with her nieces and servants took care of the domestic duties. The ranch was large enough to have its own blacksmith, saddler and wagon maker.
In 1859, Rosa bore a son, Santiago Kitchen. Twelve years later, Santiago was killed by Apaches after he fell asleep in the haystack. Kitchen’s cemetery at El Potrero contained the graves of his wife’s family and many workers. Frontier life did not leave much time for grief.
Kitchen made frequent trips to Tucson, and one newspaper announced his arrival with the words “Peter Kitchen, whom not to know is to acknowledge one’s self unknown.” On returning to his ranch, he discovered that every head of stock was gone. He had to begin again from scratch.
On Aug. 21, 1865, Fort Mason at Calabazas, the first of a number of army forts was established. The following year, Camp Cameron was established in the Santa Rita Mountains, and in 1868 work began on Camp Crittenden.
The army was a boon to Kitchen, who supplied the quartermasters with fresh pork, cured hams and sides of bacon. He also supplied lard, potatoes (at 12 cents per pound) corn and plenty of earthy frontier stories.
Kitchen became good friends with Tucsonan Fred Maish, whose heavy German accent and speech blunders were a constant source of merriment. When Kitchen was hospitalized with spleen problems, a couple of cowboys tiptoed into his room to inquire of Maish what was the matter with Kitchen. Maish replied, “Doc Handy says his screen’s out of whack.”
The Arizona Citizen kept its readers up to date on the health of the popular Kitchen. Upon his recovery, the newspaper reported: “We believe a change of air for a short period is all that is needed to make him what he was: not a very fat man to be sure but healthy and wiry and good for a long life. He is brining a lot of bacon and potatoes and his ranch products are always the best.”
In 1880, Pete Kitchen sold his ranch for $60,000 and moved to Tucson with Rosa and her nieces. Kitchen loved drinking and gambling, and before long the $60,000 disappeared.
What he did not lose on gambling and drinking, he lost on investments in the Quijotoa mines. Kitchen died destitute at age 77 on Aug. 5, 1895. The Arizona Pioneers Historical Society paid $40 for his funeral.
— Jane Eppinga. Photo courtesy Pimeria Alta Historical Society.