We just met the Belle Starr of the 21st century!
And she's every bit as interesting, lively, and feisty as her namesake of the Wild West days in the 1800's.
Just east of Bisbee, Arizona, boondocking at Belle Starr's Silverado Ranch in March, 2008 was a most remarkable camping experience.
The working ranch provides RVers with an opportunity to participate or just watch the various activities involved in desert ranching. Belle provides a dry-camping area (with wi-fi access) in exchange for a donation or help with the various ranching chores.
We discovered, as I'm sure many others have too, that the best part of the arrangement is the opportunity to get to know Belle herself.
By the time we left we had totally fallen in love with this 80 year old woman and I realized that camping on her ranch was one of the most unique experiences we've encountered in all our years of RV travel.
What makes Belle Starr so special? We had a long visit, during which Belle toured me around the ranch and we chatted. Here, in her own words, is her remarkable story:
"Shortly after I married my third husband, he was killed; unknown to me, I had married a member of the Mexican Mafia. After that, for my own safety, I decided to change my name. I did some research about Belle Starr of the 1800's and decided to have my name legally changed. I became the Belle Starr of the 21st century.
"I was born and raised in Kentucky, but the most important fact of my life is that I was born a blue baby. I was laid aside as dead, when my aunt noticed a movement in me and put me in hot water, then cold water, and revived me. I believe there had to be a divine intervention. I believe in a God, who saved my life for a purpose. Everyone's life has a purpose, but it's up to each of us to figure out what it is.
"Because of the difficult birth forceps were used, my spine was damaged, and I had Cerebral Palsy from birth. The doctors told my mother I'd never survive. But I've got three quarters Indian blood and my Indian grandmother made me teas to drink. For 2 years I lived on bananas, buttermilk and Indian teas. And at 4 years old, miraculously, my spine grew together.
"When I was 8 years old, my father bought me a horse for mobility. My parents treated me as normal. I went to college, travelled all over the world...I've done it all. But this is the dream of my life ... to be ranching and to help those with special needs.
"My husband was killed when I was 52 years old and my life changed. I had travelled a lot with my music." (Belle wrote 2 songs that were each #1 on the country charts for a period: Why, sung by Harrison Jones, and Running Back For More, by the Bailey Sisters.)
At 52, Belle left the Nashville scene.
"I began riding motorcycles and shocked everyone I knew; to be doing this at my age! My mother disowned me. I left a beautiful home in Kentucky, hit the road in a van for a while and on a ride through Arizona, in 1991 I saw a 'for sale' sign. On impulse I bought this ranch within 45 minutes of seeing it.
"I've always been around horses and loved animals. I started my ranch life by breeding Appaloosas, but soon 'aquired' other animals. "
Besides the horses we saw donkeys, burros, free range chickens, doves, peacocks, a Chinese pheasant and 3 dogs. I estimated more than 100 animals live on the ranch. Each has a name, of course. Belle says she will sell them but does not kill or eat the meat herself.
I asked, Why so many burros? Belle replied with a grin, "Poor planned parenthood -- birth control, but I finally stopped it by putting all the girls in one corral and the boys in another." As we continue our tour and she introduces me to Tinkerbelle, a baby burro only a few weeks old; I have to ask, How did this happen? Belle laughed, "One jumped the fence." Then she introduces me to Picasso, father of many, who is roaming the yard, unemcumbered by fences.
In 2000 Belle Starr sold the Silverado ranch and moved herself and all her animals to another property near Holbrook, Arizona. That's when she discovered she has Multiple Sclerosis. Two years later, the new owners of the Silverado couldn't pay the mortgage and the ranch ended up back in her hands. She decided to come back. She feels that running the ranch, doing the chores, helps with her mobility. She adds, "There's only one way I'll ever leave here now..."
10 years ago Belle opened her ranch to RVers for boondocking. "Boondockers are just real nice people on the whole. I've met so many wonderful people and I just love people from Canada. I provide them with a place to dry camp, and they give me a hand or a donation. It's expensive to keep all these animals with a bale of hay selling for $14.00 now. "
For a woman over 80, Belle Starr has plenty of ambitions. She currently offers trail rides, a petting zoo, wireless Internet, guided hiking, rock-climbing and a setting for western weddings, and campfire cookouts. One of her horses is even trained to dance for your entertainment. Her dream for the ranch is to develop it into a therapeutic ranch to help people with special needs.
But Belle realizes she needs a business partner, perhaps 2, for all these endeavors. She has the property, animals, buildings, buggies and equipment already in place and would cut the right person in for 50%. If you think you're the right person and are interested, Belle would love to hear from you.
The ranch already provides a service to local people with disabilities. Belle charges nothing for them to come and use the facilities for the day.
The Silverado ranch itself also has a colorful history: Originally part of a Spanish land grant, a young woman by the name of Beulah Gibson inherited 560 acres from her father in the late 1920's. Soon afterwards, a wealthy rancher somehow got control of all but 40 acres. (Belle is sure it was a swindle.) Almost destitute, Beulah borrowed money from another rancher and he ended up taking over the last 40 acres.
Belle says, " I feel that Beulah's spirit is looking out for me now. She's making sure that I'll never lose the ranch or have it taken away from me." With this in mind, recently, Belle set up her enterprise as a legally incorporated foundation, so that the ranch and its charity work can continue after her death.
When you meet Belle Starr yourself, you'll realize that although she's over 80 years old, she's still full of life and that's not likely to be any time soon.
Between Douglas and Bisbee on Arizona Highway 80, look for the Silverado Sign on the south side of the road, precisely at mile marker 353.
Belle Starr's Silverado Ranch
5189 Hwy 80
Boondockers are welcome to phone or email ahead, or just arrive but please only in daylight hours. If you find the gate closed, you may open it, drive in and close it behind you.
Be ready to enjoy your time with your hostess: the legendary Belle Starr. And please, say hello from us.