There was once a rancher who built a tiny Western town in the southern Arizona desert.
The town was part real, part imaginary. There was a library with no librarian, a jail with no criminals, and a general store without a clerk.
The town population, much of the time, was one.
The man who lived there, and built the town, wanted to create a place that could be how the West really was, not how it was portrayed by Hollywood.
A black man who had faced adversity in his life, he wanted a place where everyone was welcome, from immigrants to city folks who stumbled off the beaten path.
He had a knack for telling stories and a way of making people feel at home. People came from all over the world to meet him, listen to live music, sing karaoke and hear his stories, the true ones and the tall tales.
At the ranch, worries drifted away with the sound of Johnny Cash. Impromptu camp-outs and live concerts were commonplace.
His whimsical life on the ranch sometimes clashed with the harsh world around him. He faced racism throughout his life that put barriers in the way of his dreams, and sometimes he heard complaints from neighbors and the government.
He spoke of those challenges only as a way to convince his visitors that they could overcome any challenge they faced, and accomplish anything they set their mind to.
When he got sick, he moved away, and his ranch began to fall apart. When he died, his friends and family say, thieves stole some of his most prized possessions.
Now, with him gone and his ranch near collapse, those close to him worry his legacy will be lost.
It won’t, though, if we tell his story, and tell it again. Just as he would have done.
This is the story of Edward J.B. Keeylocko.
‘What is this place?’
“You just head west. Watch Kitt Peak, and follow the signs to milepost 146. Cowtown Keeylocko. You see a sign that says three hoops and a holla, then two hoops and a holla, then one hoop and a holla, and then you’ll be right in the town of Keeylocko. We have the coldest beer in Arizona, so cold you have to open the beer with your overcoat on.”
Cowtown Keeylocko is a long way from Phoenix, or Tucson, or anywhere, really.
It’s a few dozen miles southwest of Tucson and 50 or so miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Turn off U.S. 86 and head south down a bumpy dirt road. Follow the signs, or you won’t find it.
Driving in feels like entering an 1800s ghost town.
There’s a long row of rickety buildings made of wooden planks, metal, telephone poles, parts of mobile homes, and anything else Keeylocko could get his hands on. Generators powered the entire town, and there was no hot water.
Hand-painted signs announce the buildings’ purpose, such as “Props and Resources,” “Marshall’s Office” and “Edward J.B. Keeylocko Presidential Library.”
The Lying Hour Theater, once a covered stage, is where the biggest acts would play.
In the distance, behind the stage, are the peaks of the Coyote Mountains Wilderness.
The Blue Dog Saloon, where the town all began, has dirt floors, wooden walls and a metal roof. On the walls and in frames are photos of Keeylocko in his ranching days, his military days, his family members and friends, and news articles written about him.
The saloon was where Keeylocko displayed his treasures, from his most prized possessions like his U.S. Army uniform, to odds and ends like a bird cage, lanterns and neon signs that still hang from the ceiling.
The place now is nothing like it once was.
What was once The Lying Hour Theater is unstable and the roof is gone.
Planks on the buildings, many held together mostly by nails, are rotted.
Inside what was once the library, books line shelves but the floor is covered in rat droppings. The jail’s glass windows were blown out.
Keeylocko’s family and friends have come together to try to put the ranch back in working order.
The Blue Dog Saloon is the hardiest of the buildings but still vulnerable to the elements.
When Keeylocko’s friends drove up to the ranch on a recent morning in late February, they found that part of the Blue Dog Saloon’s roof had blown off. It also was snowing that day, a phenomenon in southern Arizona.
Keeylocko’s friend Dan Clark and others walked in to the surprise of the snow falling through the open ceiling.
“This is Ed saying, ‘Hey, don’t forget about me,’” Clark said.
Growing up mixed-race in the 1940s
“When you’re a little boy, you dream of all kinds of things. You dream of things that never were, and then you try and do it. People say how do you dream all these things up? I guess it’s just part of my life when you grow up alone.”
To understand how Cowtown got here is to go back in time.
Edward J. Brooks, eventually Edward J.B. Keeylocko, was born on Dec. 3, 1931.
He was born in Newberry, South Carolina, to a black mother and white father, his granddaughter Attice Westbrook said.
He was abandoned at birth, and a woman named Esther Brooks raised him.
His skin was light black. He had reddish-brown hair and often described his eyes as being “swamp green.”
Keeylocko didn’t fit in with white or black children, he told Clark, in a conversation Clark recorded.
“They all would beat me up,” he said.
He chose not to hate others for the discrimination he faced as a child. “I’m a self-made man,” he told Clark. “I paddle my own canoe.”
At the age of 14, he moved to Philadelphia to live with his birth mother, Alice Long, Westbrook said.
There, he lived next door to a girl named Arlene, who eventually would become his first wife, Westbrook said.
They went to the same high school and had a few things in common. She was black and he was mixed, but they both had white friends, Westbrook said, which was rare back in the 1940s. They were also intolerant of racism, Westbrook said.
“It would just burn them to the core when anybody was mistreated,” she said. “If anyone said anything wrong, they were the first ones to fix it.”
Throughout his life, his friends say, he disregarded the color of other people’s skin, while others focused on it.
He entered the U.S. Army when he was 19, according to Westbrook, and served in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
“He would tell you that war was hell,” Westbrook said. “War was hell, sugar.”
Once, when he was stationed in Arizona, his Army friends asked him to go into town, according to his own account.
He told them no, he didn’t feel like being turned away because he was black. When they convinced him to go, he said, he was surprised to be welcomed in.
That’s when he decided he would return to Arizona permanently.
Building Cowtown Keeylocko the way the West was
“Cowtown Keeylocko is the real, real West. We are the way the West really was.”
Arizona, in many ways, is still regarded as the wild West.
The land is cheap, the taxes are low and the rules are lax, comparatively. Carry a gun on your hip or inside your pant leg, no permit needed.
Phoenix may be the fifth-largest city in the U.S., but there are still places in Arizona you can go to get away.
Cowtown, as Keeylocko used to say, is the “real wild West.” Not the “Hollywood West” with fancy cowboys portrayed in the old Western movies.
Keeylocko made his own rules for how visitors would act at Cowtown, rules that he made clear when someone new stepped on the property. There was to be no fighting, no cussing and no disrespecting women.
Behind the bar in the Blue Dog Saloon, the Code of the West is still posted, such as:
- Do what has to be done.
- Be tough but fair.
- When you make a promise, keep it.
- Ride for the brand.
In nearly 30 years of Pima County Sheriff’s Office records of Keeylocko, there’s no mention of any fights.
Anyone was welcome at Cowtown, whether it was foreign tourists or immigrants tired from their trek through the Baboquivari Mountains to evade border checkpoints.
“He wanted to make this basically an open oasis where everyone was welcome,” Keeylocko’s friend, David Beaubien said.
Beaubien and others spent the day telling stories in the Blue Dog Saloon, just like the days when Keeylocko was here. These were the people who called him a brother or “pops.”
He let most people camp for free, Larry Burt said as he sipped a Bud Light by the bar. “Ed was a very generous person.”
Many of Keeylocko’s friends remember the day they met him for the first time. For Andy Cross, it was 1997.
Veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, Edward Keeylocko started his own town southwest of Tuscon.
Nicole Schaub, Arizona Republic
Cross had just moved from the East Coast, and he didn’t know many people. A friend brought him to Cowtown.
“I was like, what is this place?” Cross said. “I have no idea. I feel like I’m in the apocalypse, I’m in the old West.”
Cross eventually would get to know Keeylocko in a way, he said, that would change him, and make him a better person.
“The amount of respect and kindness he gave to everyone who came around, it was just amazing,” Cross said.
“Two old fellas, tobacco juice running down their lips … One said, ‘You ought to build your own town, and sell your cows in your own town.’ I drove a little bit away, and then I said, ‘What did you say?’ ‘I said, you ought to build your own town, then you wouldn’t have to come up here and complain about nothin’.’ I said, you know that’s a good idea, I’ll do that. I’ll build my own town.’ You know what he said… (laughs) boy they laughed right up their sleeves. But nobody laughs today.”
– Ed Keeylocko, 2015 KGUN9 interview
When Keeylocko got to Arizona in the early 1970s, he took his new name, a combination of his childhood name and his new identity.
He came alone. While he and Arlene had six children, Arlene wanted to return to Pennsylvania after following him in the military. She wasn’t interested in living in Arizona, Westbrook said.
Keeylocko enrolled in Pima Community College, and then at the University of Arizona, where he studied agriculture.
In 1976, he bought about 40 acres of land. His down payment was $1,660 for the $15,800 property, plus interest.
He started Keeylocko Land Feed and Cattle Co., and soon there were dozens of cattle, horses and hogs roaming his land.
Keeylocko loved his animals dearly, his friend Brandi McDowell of Tucson said, and often became attached to them. He named every animal he knew.
“He would walk around and hold onto the horns of his bulls,” she said.
He thought animals should be hardy and fierce, like they were before man tamed them.
He bred unique cattle, which McDowell said was a mix between a Black Angus and a Brahman.
“We want him to be able to fight,” Keeylocko told Arizona Public Media in 1995. “We want him to be able to survive in places where man has wrecked land.”
His unique brand for his cattle was in the shape of a lock and a key. No one seems to know for sure what came first, the brand or the name Keeylocko.
The cattle sold well.
But then, according to one of the most famous stories he told, once people found out he was black, they stopped buying his cattle at auctions.
Someone told him he should build his own town, to sell his own cattle, so he didn’t have to deal with going to the auctions anymore.
So he did.
A place for everyone
“Don’t judge a person by … the color of his skin. Judge him by the contents of his character. I’d like you to do that. Then you’d know he’s just like anybody else.”
—Ed Keeylocko, 2015 KGUN9 interview
Cowtown eventually would become a place people went to sing their sorrows away on the karaoke stage. To sit around the fireplace and melt their stress away.
When visitors walked into the Blue Dog Saloon, much of the time they would find Keeylocko telling stories at the bar or singing one of his favorite songs, on karaoke or a capella.
Some of his favorites, his friends say: “Amarillo by Morning,” “Big City,” and “What a Wonderful World.”
Edward J.B. Keeylocko sings “Doggone Cowboy” by Marty Robbins at his ranch, Cowtown Keeylocko.
Jason Hall, USA TODAY Handout
“He was quite the character,” Destiny Clark said. “If he saw an opportunity to make you laugh, he would do it. If he told a story, it was like the first time you heard it.”
One of those was the story of Jocko Graves.
The story comes from a famous statue of a black boy holding a lantern. Keeylocko had one of the statues at Cowtown and counted it among his most prized possessions.
One of the stories derived from the statue goes that Graves, a young black boy, held a lantern over the Delaware River to help General George Washington cross during the Revolutionary War. It was freezing outside, and, many hours later, when Washington and his men returned, they found Graves frozen to death with the lantern still clenched in his fist.
That’s the story Keeylocko told – one of heroism.
Keeylocko wanted people to understand the ways that black people contributed to the country’s history.
He also wanted more people to understand that black cowboys were not an anomaly — they were commonplace in the old West.
He often told the story of how the word “cowboy” came to be. Back then, people would never have called a white man or a Spaniard a “boy,” he explained.
Black people were the ones doing the work, he said, and black men were the ones they called boy.
Not long after moving to Arizona, Keeylocko went and saw William Katz, a historian who has written about black influence in the West, speak in Tucson. Katz said he remembers meeting Keeylocko, and liking him.
Katz explains now that the history of black cowboys was wiped clean when Hollywood, full of white producers, started depicting cowboys as white.
“This was the most American part of America, so you showed it as white,” he said. “This was a place we showed our great courage and freedom. None of that reconciled with what slavery meant to people. It didn’t fit into the story line.”
Cowtown draws people in
“Hear some foot-stompin’ western music, and get in the chow line for a Keeylocko-style chicken dinner. … Wake up to mule shoe coffee and a Western breakfast (whatever the Cooky decides to serve). Dissenters will be shot or hanged!”
—1993 flier for Cowtown Keeylocko campout
Keeylocko got the materials to build Cowtown from random places across the county.
At the time, he was working forthe countydriving trucks. He had permission to use materials from damaged properties the county owned, said McDowell, who was a ranch hand at Cowtown in the 1970s and ’80s.
The Blue Dog Saloon was the first building to go up on the ranch. Keeylocko lived for a long time in a trailer on his property, McDowell said.
Sometime in the 1990s, word began to spread about the unique Western town in the middle of the desert, and the rancher with stories to tell.
Tourists started to come from across the world, and locals started to make it their weekend hangout spot.
Film directors found Cowtown the perfect backdrop for their Western scenes.
It was featured in movies and short films, including one called “Red 71” by producers Patrick Roddy and Vicky Westover. Keeylocko played a bartender in the film.
Keeylocko often told reporters he was in the 1980 film “Stir Crazy,” portions of which were filmed in Tucson, and a version of “Buffalo Soldiers.” Two versions of that movie, in 1979 and 1997, had portions filmed in the Sonoran Desert.
By the early 2000s, Keeylocko was hosting parties and cookouts at the ranch on a regular basis. He also hosted weddings, and was an ordained minister, Burt said.
“He could marry you, he could bury you,” Burt said.
Every October was Keeylocko Days, a sort of reunion for Cowtown lovers.
His friends say it was hard to stay away. His positive attitude was contagious.
“He had this chuckle,” McDowell said. “You always knew he was in the room. The smile he put on was genuine.”
Perhaps some of his joy came from all of the people who helped him through the years. People were always stepping up to help him on his ranch.
Maybe it’s because he gave thema place to escape from the world as it was. Maybe he made them believe in themselves.
“One night, we were talking, and he says, ‘You are a lot like me. You can do anything … I bet you could fly if you wanted to.’” his granddaughter said. “I don’t know what it was about him, but it was like, ‘You know what? I think I can.’”
‘Fighting back with love’
“You dream and think. Believe the impossible. Because you can do the impossible. … Always stay the course, no matter how hard. Dream of things that never were and ask why not.”
—Ed Keeylocko, 2014 documentary by Jan Rydzak
Not everything was smooth-sailing for Keeylocko and his makeshift town.
He lost ownership of his land for a brief time in 1992 after the company he bought it fromsaid he failed to make payments, but then he got it back some nine months later.
Around the same time, a woman sued him for not paying him back $2,000 she said he owed, and the county ordered a judgment against him.
In 2001, the county took him to court to try to resolve zoning issues on the property. The court eventually decided he needed to get different building permits and to clean the property.
And then there were days when events on his property led several911 callers to report “raves.”
These were the kinds of parties that friends and neighbors say hundreds came for, and that upset some neighbors because of the noise, according to police call records.
In 2004, he ended up getting into financial trouble when he agreed to pay a private company $72,000 plus 25 percent interest for an unknown reason. By 2011, that judgment was up to $342,601.
Westbrook, his granddaughter, questions the deal.
In 2007, Pima County appointed a public fiduciary to watch over his money and his land due to what the county said was “his susceptibility to financial exploitation.”
There were two types of people in Keeylocko’s life, his friends say. People who saw how special he was and loved him, and people who saw how special he was and somehow tried to take advantage of him.
Keeylocko’s health failed him many times, but he often overcame it. He beat cancer twice, his granddaughter said.
It all “kind of took a toll,” Westbrook said. “But he would never give up. Instead of him getting mad, and kind of fighting back with force or anger, he would always fight back with love, parties and getting people together.”
Bury me at Blue Dog Saloon
“I’ll be buried here on this land. I sure will be. And if you don’t do that, I’m going to come back and haunt you all. … I’m going to do that. (laughs).”
—Ed Keeylocko, 2013 video, ALCHEMYcreative
Keeylocko died on Christmas day, Dec. 25, 2018.
He wanted to be buried out behind the Blue Dog Saloon.
Ahead of a memorial to celebrate his life, friends have been working to patch up Cowtown.
After word spread that the ranch was in disrepair, his friends came together organically to help. Every weekend since, a group has shown up ready to work.
The ranch is in bad shape partly because it hasn’t been tended too much in the past few years, and partly because of what vandals have done to the place.
In December 2018, a man and woman in a blue Ford Ranger reportedly stole the town’s generator and other items.
During that time or at other times, thieves also stole thousands of dollars in coins, karaoke equipment and his U.S. Army uniform, according to Keeylocko’s friends.
The statue of Jocko Graves also is gone.
After the snow stopped falling on the recent chilly day at the ranch, Clark climbed onto the roof of the Blue Dog Saloon.
Bang, bang, bang. The pounding began.
Clark started to use what materials he could find around the ranch, whether it be metal or old doors, to reseal the roof.
Getting the ranch back up in business means a lot to Clark, who was DJ at the ranch for years.
“When I announced him coming up (for karaoke) I would say, ladies and gentlemen, the man, the myth, the legend, Edward J.B. Keeylocko,” he said, standing with Burt outside the saloon.
His voice breaks at the end of his thought, and he tears up. He wipes his eyes. The men are quiet.
“Well, there never will be another Ed, I’ll tell you that,” Burt says.
A legacy of equality
“The difficult, I’ll do right away. The impossible, it might take me a few days longer.”
—Ed Keeylocko, 2014 documentary by Jan Rydzak
On the weekend of March 15, Keeylocko’s family, friends and others who want to celebrate his life will gather at the ranch for a classic Cowtown weekend.
The Edward J.B. Keeylocko Memorial Weekend will include a candlelight vigil on Friday night, with music and storytelling. The burial will be on Saturday, and activities will continue all weekend.
Guests are invited to camp, eat and drink, as always.
Westbrook hopes the community’s generosity will continue as the family tries to maintain his legacy on the ranch. She now owns the ranch through a company called Three Rivers Cowtown Keeylocko.
Westbrook started a GoFundMe for a Cowtown Keeylocko memorial and rebuilding fund.
People have posted on the page expressing their condolences.
“This man stood for everything that America was supposed to be as we talked about equality,” one person wrote.
By March 13, the page had raised just over $5,000 of its $100,000 goal. That’s not nearly enough to bring the ranch back up to working order.
The family formed a nonprofit called the Keeylocko Pioneering Legacy Organization. Westbrook said she plans to try to bring some sort of school on the ranch that will allow young people to explore agriculture.
“His image, his brand, is so important for what is going on in our world today,” she said. “People need to know that there is another way … The concept is, he chose love over hate.”
Up until the end, Keeylocko was a dreamer, Westbrook said. She wants to take his dreams further.
After all, it was at Cowtown where the man who was constantly searching finally found a home.
“When I die,” Keeylocko told Arizona Public Media in 1995, “they’ll have to say, well, that old fool. He probably died trying accomplish something and he didn’t really know what it was.”
“And maybe he was chasing something and didn’t know he probably had already caught it.”
Main photo courtesy of Brandi McDowell. Dylan Simard contributed to this story.
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