Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Kitty Wilkins, Horse Queen of Idaho and North American Supplier [otd 10/9]

On October 9, 1936, the Idaho Statesman announced that “Kittie” Wilkins had died the day before at her home in Glenns Ferry. The Statesman then reminded its readers of her place in Idaho history, when newspapers celebrated Wilkins as the “Horse Queen of Idaho” and the “Queen of Diamonds.”
Kitty Wilkins. Elmore County Historical Research Team.

Katherine “Kitty” Wilkins was born in the Rogue River area of Oregon, in 1857. The family moved around a great deal after about 1861 – with stops in Florence (Idaho), Boise City, and then Tuscarora, Nevada. During those years, Kitty received an excellent education at Roman Catholic schools in Utah and California.

In the 1870s, Kitty’s father John developed an interest in stock raising. An acquaintance pointed out the fine grasslands available in Idaho’s Bruneau Valley, so John grazed a band of horses there as a sideline to their hotel in Tuscarora.

Shortly after the hotel burned down in 1879, he moved the family to the Valley. At that point, “Kitty” found her true calling: She discovered a special ability and affinity for raising topnotch horses. Her father and brother raised cattle, but in an interview (one of many) she said, “I haven’t got a bit of use for cattle, though I love horses.”

She had an active role in the business by the time she was twenty years old. Thus, the Owyhee Avalanche in Silver City, Idaho, reprinted (June 18, 1887) a Mountain Home item that said, “The Wilkins Bros., and Miss Kitty Wilkins, of Bruneau, come [sic] over to the city Tuesday, and shipped two carloads of horses to the Omaha market.”

Later that year, the Evening News in San Jose, California (December 14, 1887) described Kitty as “one of the most noted women of the West.”

By around 1890, she was basically in total charge of the horse operation. Historian Adelaide Hawes, who knew Kitty personally, wrote, “Contrary to public belief she did not don male attire. … When demonstrating her horses she rode a sidesaddle and wore the usual feminine riding skirt of those days. When riding the range she always rode a sidesaddle.”

Ride the range she did … being very much of a “hands-on” manager. And her personal “marketing” and sales appearances caused a sensation everywhere she went. Well-schooled, attractive, and quietly charismatic, Kitty dazzled reporters who interviewed her.

She sold only the best horses, and her knowledge impressed even professional horse dealers and breeders. In 1891, an article in the St. Louis Republic observed: “Miss Wilkins is a horse trader, and what she does not know about a horse is not worth knowing.”

Kitty Wilkins with carriage horse.
Elville Wilkins photo posted at GlennsFerry.org.
The ranch operated under the Diamond brand, which sparked another colorful nickname: “The Queen of Diamonds.” As early as 1890, the famous King ranch in Texas purchased 750 Diamond Ranch horses. For three decades, Kitty shipped horses all over North America, including train carloads for the U. S. Cavalry.

The ranch did well during World War I, but motorized vehicles had even then begun to depress markets for horses. Not long after the war ended, Kitty retired to a fine home in Glenns Ferry. She spent her later years associating with her closest friends and performing quiet acts of charity.

She last appeared in a public event in 1934, leading a parade for the Fort Boise Centennial Celebration (commemorating the older Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, not the Army fort built in 1863).
References: L. E. Bragg, More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Idaho Women, The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut (2001).
Arthur Hart, “Meet Kitty Wilkins, the Horse Queen of Idaho,” Idaho Statesman, February 10, 2009.
Adelaide Hawes, Valley of Tall Grass, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho (1950).
Sandra Ransel, Charles Durand, Crossroads: A History of the Elmore County Area, Elmore County Historical Research Team, Mountain Home, Idaho (1985).
Queen of Diamonds – blog about Kitty.

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