In Hanksville, Wayne County, nearly everybody has a relative who knew the outlaws.
One woman has a daddy who carried provisions to Robber's Roost when he was a little boy. Another has a mother who was one of only two women ever to be invited there. Then there's a fellow who has a cousin who saw Butch Cassidy in Price, years after he supposedly was killed."So many people have stories about Butch and the Sundance Kid," says Barbara Ekker. "They're our local `George Washington slept here.' "
Ekker, a resident and unofficial chronicler of Hanksville history, listens eagerly to every tale. She hears not only about outlaws but about pioneers, miners, ranchers, dreamers and drifters. She often tries to verify what she hears by looking up official records, asking around town, and by writing to dozens of the town's former citizens.
"Research is fantastic," she says. And, indeed, Ekker seems to love it, because she lives surrounded by her research.
The walls of her double-wide trailer home - where she and her husband Jesse are just finishing the task of raising five children - are full of photos. More photos spill out from the frames of photos, the frames of mirrors, and from kitchen shelves.
Pick one. You may find yourself holding a snapshot from 1987: Ekker's sons hold the pelts from their trap lines. Or you may be looking at 1889: The children from Hanksville's one-room school squint solemnly back at you. "Dave Rust, their teacher was only 16 years old. In those days they chose the smartest pupil to be the teacher," Ekker explains.
As she flips through photos and family history books, townsfolks parade through her conversation. She describes each person's character in a phrase and gives the highlights of his life in two sentences. "And this is a picture of Doc Inglesby," she says. "That old rock hound.
"Now Inglesby is the one who took moving pictures of the wild mustang that Charlie Gibbons captured.
"And Charlie Gibbons was the one who met Zane Grey on the train and told him about capturing a mustang and naming it `Wildfire,'. . .
"Of course Zane Grey wrote a book about it, called the book, `Wildfire,' too. . . Zane Grey was living in Arizona then, because he had TB. . . .
The great thing is not that Ekker hears so many stories, it's that she remembers them - every one she's ever heard, it seems like. She writes quite a few of them down. However, she hasn't written half of what she knows. She carries the memories of a town in her mind.
You need someone like Barbara Ekker to really make Hanksville come alive. Otherwise, when you drive through Hanksville you see only another small town, hot in the summer, full of abandoned cars.
For most Utahns Hanksville is only a stop on Highway 24, a place they can gas up, grab a burger and keep on driving - hurrying down to Lake Powell.
Which is too bad, because if you never leave the highway you never see Hanksville's old main street just a block to the south, with its old church/town hall built of sandstones quarried from the Fremont River. Ekker can remember watching movies there as young girl. Every Saturday night she sat patiently and waited while the first reel was rewound before the second one could be put on.
If you are touring and have time to spend a half hour in Hanksville you can get a flavor of the town. Just turn off U-24 at the sign pointing to the Henry Mountains and drive a mile or so to the Bureau of Land Management office. There they've reconstructed E.T. Wolverton's old mill. Wolverton used it as a saw mill and also to mill gold. At the BLM office, Barbara Ekker's niece hands out a brochure that Ekker wrote that tells the story.
After spending some time in Hanksville one might have the impression that current population is either named Ekker or Hunt. Well, that's not quite right. There is a Hanks.
Yes. If you stop at the store on your way out of town, the one thatis built into a hole in the side of the mountain, you can meet the owner, Charlotte Erwin. In Hanksville, she is the only remaining descendent, the great-granddaughter, of the man the town was named for.
Erwin may even be able to direct you to the town graveyard where Ebenezer Hanks is buried.
There on a high hill in a quaintly fenced cemetery decorated with tumbleweeds, plastic flowers and outdoor carpet (Astroturf being the only way to green up the plots) is Hanks' headstone. It says he was born in 1815, died in 1884, and had two wives and nine children.
The gravestone doesn't do justice to the adventures of his life - but Barbara Ekker does.
The way she tells it, Hanks didn't get to Graves Valley till late in his life. (In those days it was called "Graves Valley" because Indians made their burial mounds there.)
As Ekker describes Hanks, he was a wild young runaway from his father's farm in New York. She calls him a bar-room brawler who converted to the LDS Church and married a gentlewoman - Jane Cooper - then fled West with the Mormons to Nauvoo and on to Utah.
Hanks rode with the Mormon Battalion (Jane went along as cook) then set off for gold camps of California, though he knew prospecting was against Brigham Young's wishes. According to Ekker, Hanks made a fortune in California before President Young called him on a mission.
She says he was torn between greed and duty and delayed going on the mission for two years, during which time that particular mission was closed. He lost at least part of his wealth when he and fellow church member Amasa Lyman started a ranch in San Bernardino. The ranch failed.
Hanks moved back to Utah in 1858. He was still considered wealthy. He was elected mayor of Provo in 1861. In 1860, he married a second wife (because his first one was "bare, " according to a letter written by Charles Rich). The new wife, Sarah Casper, was a 15-year-old who was beaten by her father because she initially didn't want to be considered as a candidate for Hanks' affection, says Ekker.
Hanks moved his growing family to Beaver and Parowan before they ended up in Graves Valley. Two years after they got there, he died of complications from injuries he got building a barn with a son-in-law. It was his old ranching partner, Amasa Lyman, who spent $75 for a marble headstone for Hanks. Hanks' wife and children had been left destitute.
Some 15 years later the people who lived there renamed their town in honor of what was the most interesting man to date, but certainly not the last interesting character ever to inhabit Hanksville, Utah.
Barbara Ekker knows quite a bit about Hanks and his descendants. Back in the days before the movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," before Paul Newman and Robert Redford came to meet the relatives of the men they were portraying, people used to be more interested in Ebenezer Hanks.
Ekker's more democratic than most people. She's spent just as much time keeping track of Hankses and Ekkers as she has trying to pull together the pieces of the stories told by those who come to town claiming to be the children of famous outlaws.
Anything that happened in Hanksville is interesting to her. She digresses a bit to laugh at the fact that Zane Grey didn't write his stories about Wayne County the way they actually happened. "He got the distances all wrong, for one thing," she says. Why, when a little research would have showed him the facts, did he choose to make up the stories instead? Ekker doesn't understand storytellers like Zane Grey.
"I never even read fiction," she says. Barbara Ekker prefers the stories about real people.