Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
he pages of history are filled with characters who were bigger than life, and Visalia has had its share. One was an amazing adventurer named Abraham Henson Meadows.
Abraham was born to John and Margaret Meadows on March 10, 1860, near Elbow Creek, just outside Visalia. John was a cattleman and also a preacher with strong pro-south political leanings. So when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, John declared, “No son of mine shall bear the name of a president who brought this shameful war upon us.” So, in protest, he changed baby Abraham’s name to Charles.
Charles and his brothers and sisters grew up around cattle, and the tall lanky boy learned the ways of a cowhand. He could ride a horse, shoot and wrangle, and learned them all while attending school in Visalia. He even rode his horse to attend Visalia Normal School.
In the 1870s, California passed fencing laws prohibiting cattle from grazing openly, an obvious move to protect crop farmers. This restriction frustrated many cattlemen, including John, so in 1877, the patriarch of the family loaded his wagons, gathered up the horses and cattle, and moved the family to the Arizona Territory. They settled near the town of Payson and called their new homestead Diamond Valley Ranch.
Although inviting, the country was dangerous and, five years after their move, John and one of his sons were killed by Apache Indians. Charles was incensed by his loss, and he began pursuing those who he felt were responsible. So at age 22, for a short time, he became an Indian fighter.
In 1884, anxious to show off his riding talents, Charlie entered his first rodeo roping contest in Payson. He liked it, so he entered another cow roping event on July 4, 1886, in Prescott, Arizona, and won first prize.
For the next few years, he made quite a name for himself on the rodeo circuit. Not only was he talented, he and his pure white horse named Snowstorm looked the part. Charlie was handsome, standing about 6-foot 5-inches tall with a lean frame, long hair and blue eyes, and wore buckskin clothing with fringes. His rodeo fame caught the attention of Wild West showmen Buffalo Bill Cody and Captain “Happy Jack” Sutton. At various times, Charlie worked for both, performing in their shows. Charlie traveled with them throughout the country and in many places all over the world. Buffalo Bill is credited with giving the rising star his show name, Arizona Charlie — a name that stayed with him the rest of his life.
By 1893, he decided that he wanted his own show, so for the next two years or so, Arizona Charlie and his Historical Wild West troupe performed wherever they could. On Tuesday, June 27, 1893, he even brought his show to his old home town of Visalia. There was the normal parade and the show, which included bronco riding, lassoing, pony races, American Indian dances and even a simulated attack of a stagecoach.
One of the highlights of the day was
a contest between a bucking bronco named Skyscraper and a well-known Visalia cowboy named Ah Tie. Arizona Charlie dared the local rider to try and stay on the horse, a buckskin-colored animal he described as “wild and unmanageable.” He offered a $20 prize and Tie agreed. According to a Daily Morning Delta reporter, “Tie cinched the beast, adjusted his spurs, and putting the blinds over the animal’s eyes, jumped into the saddle.” Skyscraper immediately started to buck, trying to throw the rider, but Tie “sunk his spurs in the animal’s haunches and gave it a whipping with his hat.” The “plucky rider” would not be thrown and he won the prize money. The crowd loved the contest.
Soon, Charlie began to tire of the show circuit and disbanded his troupe. Now he had his eyes on another adventure. In about 1897, he headed north to Alaska to seek his fortune. He tried his hand at digging for gold with some success, but the related hardships associated with the hunt did not appeal to him, so he ended up in Dawson City, Yukon Territory.
While there, still a promoter, Arizona Charlie began a newspaper called the Klondike News in which he took every opportunity to self promote and extol his adventurous life. In the winter of 1898-99, the town nearly burned to the ground. Always the entrepreneur, Charlie decided to build an elaborate entertainment theater. He hired a well-known architect and, in six months, the Grand Opera House, later to be called the Palace Grand, was finished. The grand opening was held on July 18, 1899, with Charlie on center stage as the proprietor and manager. He was in his glory.
After numerous other ventures, Charlie eventually settled in Yuma, Arizona. It is said that he was one of the first to own a car there. It was a Reo automobile and, on one occasion, it was reported that he couldn’t get it to stop.
But always a man with a plan, he figured that he could just run the vehicle into a sand dune. Fortunately for him, he didn’t have to; he ran out of gas first.
As he entered his senior years, he was plagued with medical problems. His friends always cautioned him to take care of himself. His standard response was always the same, “It’ll be a snowy day in Yuma, Arizona, the day I die.”
In 1931, Charlie was invited to be a guest of honor at the Fourth of July rodeo festivities in Visalia. He quickly accepted the invitation and the 71-year-old man drove himself to town in his Model T Ford. Charlie had a good time visiting with his many friends.
On Dec. 9, 1932, Charlie Meadows breathed his last breath. The 72-year-old adventurer had become the victim of his own hand. He had suffered from varicose veins and, while performing surgery on himself with a pocket knife, he bled to death.
It just so happened that the evening of the day he was buried in Yuma, snow fell. It was the first snow recorded in the 80-year history of the U.S. Weather Bureau there.
Arizona Charlie age 32
arizona charlie cowboy group 1886
Arizona Charlie Palace Grand