HEAP OF LIVIN’: Memoirs From the Mountains of Southern California

HEAP OF LIVIN': Memoirs From the Mountains of Southern CaliforniaBy Dolores Mckenzie Atmore Gentry
Transcribed by Eloise A. Richer and Bonnie Ketterl Kane

Mrs. Gentry writes the true story of three generations of her family, the wagon train from Texas to the homestead on Tejon Ranch in Southern California. At age fifteen, she unknowingly marries the leader of an outlaw gang of cowboys and is left to prove up his desert claim. For years her only friends are the Joshua trees and a cowboy at a neighboring ranch. (prose & poetry) .

8½ X 11, black & white illustrated paperback, 397 pages, $21



We are so fortunate that Glenn “Bucky” Alzola was willing to share with future generations these stories written by his grandmother, Dolores McKenzie Atmore Gentry. Eloise Richer took on the difficult task of transcribing Mrs. Gentry’s hand written notebooks onto the computer. In the process she was quite amazed to find that one-third of what as written was in prose and two-thirds in poetry. Because the text was apparently written at different times, there was duplication of the stories in the prose and poetry. Bonnie Kane then spent many months incorporating the poetry into the prose where applicable and putting all in a more chronological order.

Shortly after the first 300 pages were completed another McKenzie family descendent, Louise Ralphs Hagler, came forth with another 150 pages of her great Aunt Dora’s handwritten text – all of which was then incorporated into this epic story.

For the most part the text, spelling and punctuation has been left as Mrs. Gentry wrote it, except that a great number of quotation marks were added to make the text more understandable. Many of Dolores’ misspellings, or separation of words which are really one word, have been marked with a “~” symbol and many more just left as is. Most of the photos used are from Dolores’ collection unless otherwise noted.

Dora Gentry, as she was more commonly known in later years, was bom Dolores Isabell McKenzie in 1888. The story she has written begins with how her grandmother Laurissa left Texas, continues with the marriage of her parents, takes the reader through the many life experiences Dolores shares from childhood to womanhood, and most interestingly tells of her days married to the leader of a “gang” of cowboys. The stories she tells give us excellent insight into life in areas south of Bakersfield on the Tejon Ranch, the Tejon Indian reservation, at Fort Tejon, in Gorman, the Antelope Valley, at Willow Springs, in Lancaster, Tehachapi, the Santa Clara Valley and even in Los Angeles; all taking place from the 1860’s to the 1960’s.

It is thought that Dolores was in her seventies when she decided to write down the many stories she had so often heard as well as those that she experienced.




All day long the sun had crept slowly over the Texas prairie untill- at last it dropped suddenly from sight beyond a smoky horizon. As Laurissa stood in the door way of a one room cabin, she thought the sun looked like a big red apple, tossed in to a sea of purple wine sauce. The sound of her own voice sounded strange to her as she spoke out loud,”there’s nary a hill lookin- west, a body can see might nigh to Californie- I reckon.”

For the past three weeks there had been no one for Laurissa to speak to and always a silent person, some days she would forget to speak at all. An almanac hung on the wall, and each day as the sun set Laurissa would draw a line across the date. As she turned from watching the sun set, she was glad she knew her numbers although she could neither read or write “To day is March 16 – 1863, makes three weeks since Bird rode away.”

Never before had he left her for so long a time, always when he rode to the settlement for supplies, he would return on the fourth day: Laurissa knew Bird (her brother) was only eighteen, and no doubt lonely for young company, but after the second week went by she knew something serious had delayed him. She picked the year old baby from the floor and fed her some mashed beans, and a small helping of dried apricots. Sister Ellen had sent Laurissa a flour sack of dried apricots Xmas, and they had been worth their weight in gold.

Laurissa had not been back to the settlement for six years., She was just fifteen when she married Henry Miller, a tall handsome young cowboy and they had moved their cattle forty miles out from the settlement, a place named Sun(?) down in centeral- Texas.Togeather- they built a one roomed house, a barn big enough for two saddle horses and a pack mule, and fenced in about an acre around the buildings. To the east, south and west, the praire- lay perfectly flat., but just back of the cabin to the north there were a few low hills. Miller had built at the foot of the largest hill because he had found a small spring there. By the time Laurissa was eighteen she was the mother of a boy and girl.

Then one day Miller rode in real serious, and told her he was going to join the regiment that was camped at the settlement. “Your parents are now dead Laurissa, but I thought that you could go back to the settlement and stay with your sister Ellen while I am away.” But Laurissa said “No., this is the home we have built togeather-, and if you will get my brother Bird to stay with me, I will stay right here untill- you come home. If we both leave this place our cattle will drift away, and you will have nothing to come back to.”

Bird Kolb was a husky, broad shouldered lad of sixteen when he came to stay with his sister.

It was only a week or two after Miller left when Laurissa realized she was again pregnant. At first she cried a little thinking of the long months with out her husband, but Henrys last words had been, “Good bye my dear, and if you find that you are pregnant, dont- be down hearted, for I will be mighty glad and proud., If it’s a girl name her Susan after my mother.”

For six months Bird and Laurissa lived through each lonely day, one exactley- like the other. Occasionally a Texas Ranger or some stray rider would bring news of the war, or of some Indian trouble. Laurissa had never seen an Indian and was. not much disturbed.

When she was six months pregnant two soldiers drove up to the cabin one eavening- in a wagon, and on a bed of straw in the back of the wagon lay Henry Miller, just a shell of the handsome young husband that had rode away to war. Quickly the soldiers explained that Henry had been shot in the shoulder but the army Dr. had thought him quite well enough to make the trip home. Henry said all the boys at camp had taken the measeles-, but that he had stayed in the settlement for nearly three weeks so as to make sure he would not bring the desease-
home. As soon as Laurissa put her arms around him, she knew he was burning with fever, and by morning she knew it was indeed measeles-. The soldiers stayed and helped her all they could, but on the fourth day they carried young Henry up the hill and buried him under a scrub mesquite.

In the weeks that followed Bird thought if his sister would only cry or complain he would be able to stand it better. For endless hours she sat with folded hands, speaking only when spoken to, and careing- for the children only when Bird scolded her.Ellen and her husband came and stayed when it was time for the new baby and stayed untill~ the baby girl was ten days old. Bird and Ellen begged for days for Laurissa to return to the settlement but all she would say was “No I’m stayin right here.”

Finely Ellen said she was takeing- the two children back home with her, where they could get vegetables and milk. The only comment Laurissa made was, “Yess- Ellen I reckon that’s best,” and after they were gone she never spoke of them again, but would climb the hill each afternoon and set for hours by Henrys grave.In the months that followed Bird rode to the settlement only when forced to go for supplies., and always he had returned with in a few days. Always he would tell Ellen that Laurissa was takeing- good care of the new baby, but seemed to grow more silent each day. At last Bird told Ellen that he thought Laurissa should be forced to leave the cabin, “for I’m a tellin you Ellen, Rissie is a mite tetched.”


When baby Susan was seven months old, Huffstutter, Ellens- husband brought out, in a wagon a young milk cow with her first calf. He also brought three young pullets and a rooster. For the first time Laurissa seemed to take an interest in living, enjoyed makeing- butter and cheese, and make pets of the young chickens. Bird made a stout coop and nailed it to the barn wall where the chickens would be safe from the coyotes. A light ladder reached from the ground to the coop. The milk cow’s calf was nearly old enough to wean, and soon she grew heavy with a calf again and had to be dried and turned on the range. Laurisa told Bird she would feel rich when Molly had her calf, and the pullets grew old enough to lay.

It was on the 10th day of March that Sissie layed- her first egg, in the wood box back of the stove, and a day or so later Laurissa heard the red rooster crowing like mad, and she found two new eggs in the manger. Not being able to write, she drew a picture of a hen, and an egg beside the number ten on the almanac. After putting the baby to bed on the 16 of March Laurissa stood in the doorway a long time., listening to the howl of a lone coyote far out on the prairie to be answered at last by one quite near the cabin. She heard the rumble of a bull talking to the herd as he led them in to water. The cattle had not been in to drink for several weeks as there had been many thunderstorms to fill pot holes, and green grass was high enough for cattle to nibble.

At last convinced that the wild life, or the cattle had not been disturbed by Indians-, or a stray rider, Laurissa turned from the door, put on her flanelette- nightgown and knelt to pray. “Dear God please send my brother home safely tomorrow.,” and for the first time tears wet her pillow.

Next day about three in the afternoon she looked towards the settlement, and saw a rider coming at a gallop. Blazed face bay, Yes- that looked like Prince, but surely it was not Bird returning with out the pack mule. Well who ever it was they would be hungry. Quickly she built a fire in the small cook stove, ground coffee, and pounded thejerkey.

When the table was set she looked out again and saw that it was truly……….

(Missing a Page)

………..said, “you best move your saddle before it gets dark, coyotes have been a comin right to the door at night and if you dont- get it out of reach they will chew your saddle strings and latigo.”

“Rissie you just have to listen, I will tell it all from the day I left here. The first eavening- of the day I left, I rode in to the settlement after sundown. I could see people camped all up and down the creek, and I knew a wagon train was headed for California.

I rode straight on to Ellens- place, and I could see the smoke house a fogin- which I thought was funny for this time of year, but Huffstuttler had butchered every hog and the smoke house was full of ham and bacon. They were fixin to join the wagon train.

Camped under the cottenwoods- in Ellens- front yard were three brothers, each with a wagon on his own. Their names were Rawl, Ace and David McKenzie. Rawl has a wife and some young ones, Ace has a young Indian girl for a wife, David is not married. They were all building a wagon, so I helped shoe horses, mend harness- and I eaven- helped Ellen wash up all the bedding, Oh! there was a thousand things to do.

Ellen was the one that coaxed me to ask David if my sisters- family and me could go in his wagon to Calif. David said I sure could, because he needed every man he could get. He said his wagon was completely empty excepting for a new axe, and a few things like that. I never told him you were a widow. These McKenzie brothers have an extra wagon loaded with grain and food, and notions, to trade with the Indians-, and Ellen says they are fair well off.”

“Well four days ago I started home so you would have time to get ready, it were sundown when I left Ellens, and when I reached the old Baxter place, which is now owned by a rich Englishman named Duberry, that has only been in Texas three months I met a young girl driveing- some milk cows home. When I lifted my hat like a gentleman should, she ran to me and said, please mister I want to talk to you.

She asked if I was going to Calif, with the wagon train., She said she would be my wife if I wanted her to, or maybe I would hide her in a wagon. I asked why, and she told me she had been raised in an orphanage in England and the catholic- church had sold her to Dueberry, to be a governess to his children, but instead she was only a household slave.

She said the missus- was jealous of her, and would beat her nearly every day, and the master hated her too, because she fought him when he tried to make love. I felt like putting a bullet between his eyes. She said she had no one on earth, that cared whether she lived or died, that she was sixteen, and her name was Rosealee., She was the prettiest thing I ever looked at, so I lifted her up in my arms, and parson Grey married us., We stayd- with him two days, and then I took her over to Ellen.

David McKenzie is the wagon master he has been out to California about eight years ago, and he knows all about the trail, and now that the war is over, he is helping his brothers find a new home.

I was worried about what he would say but when he saw Rosealee he said, ‘Why you pretty little fairy princess.’ Then she jumped right in his arms, and asked if she could call him Uncle David., He said ‘sure, I am an old man, tomorrow I will be thirty seven.’ Tomorrow eavening- they will be here Rissie, and you will see them all. I have to have your answer and it has to be now, I have had no proper rest or sleep for a week, I’m tuckered out. Ellen needs you bad, theres- nothin here, look at baby Susans- pot belly, nothin but beans and jerky to eat and there wont~ eaven be that when I leave.”


Laurissa sank down in her little rocking chair, and looked at Bird a long time. At last she said., “Yes Bird I’ll go.” Bird knelt by the chair with his head in her lap, and all the worry the work and excitement of the past few weeks overcame him and he cried like a baby.

Laurissa said “I know I have been a worry to you Bird, but at first I could feel Henrys~ presence, now in this past few weeks I know he is no longer here, so I am ready to leave too.”

When Bird went out to feed the horses Molly was drinking at the trough, and she, with a 2 weeks old calf, was soon corraled. Laurissa was pleased to find the bag bursting with milk, and Bird said they would be able to take the cow with them.