Scott Dyke: A cowgirl story — western horsewoman, champion cowgirl

Penny Philip, kneeling, Palomino Ramona and Penny’s younger brother Pete

By Scott Dyke

So there was an email from a Green Valley lady. She was interested in knowing if I knew of French Joe and what happened to him. It got rapt attention because there is a canyon named for him in the Whetstone Mountains, a place of great notoriety that featured the killing of Curly Bill by Wyatt Earp.

Furthermore, this lady, Penny Philip, spent the first year of her marriage in the Whetstones. Let the adventure begin.

Penny grew up in Tucson, having moved in 1950 from Illinois with her family. Her dad, James, had been working for a Russian Count, and when the Count bought a ranch in Tucson, James was offered the job as manager.

“My Dad told him if we moved to Tucson, the Count had to buy Dad a milk cow.” Done deal. Best bet is that the Count escaped the Russian Revolution with his life, and a bag full of rubles.

The GV Ranch was located on Campbell Avenue. Keep in mind that in 1950, the Old Pueblo was still old pueblos. “We had stock and boarded horses,” Penny recalled.

Penny took full advantage of what was offered with ranch life. She became an expert horsewomen and enjoyed success in the Junior Rodeo events. In 1960 she won the Champion Cowgirl award. The events she rode were barrel racing and goat tying, the latter being much like steer roping and tying, with bleating replacing bawls.

In 1961, Penny was crowned Queen of the Junior Rodeo. Married in 1963, Penny set off to experience the real cowboy life. Her husband, Sid Grover, was hired to work the Sands Ranch in the Whetstone Mountains.

French Joe’s ghost

Penny Philip with her Champion Cowgirl Award presented in 1960. Photo by Scott Dyke.

“That first year we lived in a line shack in French Joe’s Canyon,” Penny said. “It was quite remote. I listened to the Grand Ol’ Opry and could plainly see the lights of Tombstone. I spent a great deal of time ridding the place of sand. When I opened the window, the bottom half was on the ground, all this wind and noise would rush in. I thought it was the ghost of French Joe. The kerosene lantern would blow out. It was spooky! Joe never left my mind.”

Among the perils encountered were the constant presence of snakes. Their dog Rattler (seemingly well named) would confront them. The dog got bit and Penny rushed it to a vet in Tucson. The dog survived.

Penny also milked cows while her husband tended to the Longhorns. For those of you who were farm- and ranch-raised, milking a Longhorn was a bit more tricky than dealing with the tamer Holsteins or Guernseys.

In 1965 Penny moved to Lewistown, Montana, where hubby had secured a range management job with the BLM. She found work in a local sporting goods store. She continued to participate in rodeos all over Montana.

Penny remained in Montana for 40 years. While working the store, she met her present husband, Michael Wilson. It was a good match.

“Michael is really a mountain man. He still likes to shoot,” Penny said. Moreover, he is a good storyteller, like any honest to goodness Westerner.

They came to Green Valley in 2007, the draw being Penny’s family in Tucson. “It is a fine place to enjoy life, but, my oh my, Tucson sure has changed!”

Any regrets? Just one.

“I would have liked the saddle they gave to the boy who won the Junior Rodeo, rather than the purse!”

I was given the assignment of tracking down French Joe.

Yes, ma’am.


Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, Western writer, lecturer and researcher. He can be contacted at Article published at the Green Valley News and is republished here with the permission of the author.



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