That Arizona has no indigenous monkey species should surprise no one. What is surprising is that in July, 1915, an entrepreneurial few of the just under a hundred residents of tiny Parker banded together in what they named the "Colorado River Monkey Company" to trap and sell monkeys captured in a rugged nearby canyon.
In 1882, a gold rush of sorts attracted miners and the usual cast of mining-town characters to the area. Mining hubs brought not just the soiled doves we all know and love from westerns, but a unique and very ethnic blend of laborers as well as many who saw potential to part the mining fools from their money. Among them were Chinese launderers and cooks; Cuban cigar makers; Irish miners; gamblers; and assorted entertainers. The 1880 census of the territory reads like a credit list of an old episode of Gunsmoke. The stereotypical organ grinder of the time - an Italian man generally of low social status - was commonplace in old Arizona as he was of the large eastern cities. The organ grinder would frequent street corners in towns, playing tunes on his hand-organ while a trained monkey, typically outfitted in a velvet jacket and a fez, danced and entertained the crowd while collecting the coins thrown his way.
Loved by some, despised by others, the humble organ grinder nonetheless took his business seriously. In 1887, they paid between four and five dollars just to have new tunes installed in their instruments. That year, a hand-organ vendor in New York offered the latest hits: "Cricket on the Hearth," "White Wings," "When Love is Young," and "Rocking the Baby." The old standbys - "Denny Grady's Hack" and "Baxter Avenue," among them - continued to draw in the street crowd, but "Mikado" was already fading. In the big cities of the east, an organ grinder could make upwards of $3.00 a day plying his trade.
In 1910, the Arizona Republic spoke with delight of an organ grinder who stopped by the corner of Main and Macdonald in Phoenix. The monkey, described as red-hatted and red-coated, entertained passersby with antics such as climbing onto spectators' shoulders and taking their hats to put on his own head, or hugging children. The organ grinder tipped his hat to those who tossed at least a nickel, and the change flowed freely into the monkey's paws.
An organ grinder visiting Bisbee in the spring of 1912 didn't fare as well. There, the Bisbee Daily Review wrote disparagingly of him. "The organ grinder in the employ of the Monkey was an Italian. He was a big, strong, brawny Italian, and it was to laugh to see him turn the little crank that released the notes. Even the monkey, essence of foolish mirth, appeared as dignified as a United States senator compared with the big strong man and the little music box." The paper continued on: "There are man Italians in Bisbee, and some of them are numbered among the city's best citizens. The spectacle of one of their countrymen working for a monkey for one hundred per cent of the cup receipts conflicted with national pride, and an indignation meeting was called. They indignated to a fare-you-well, and passed resolutions to the effect that no Italian should shame Italy's traditions by forming a co-partnership with a monkey." The city's proud Italians apparently intimidated the organ grinder; the paper described it as being "said in a convincing manner," and the organ grinder took the afternoon train to Douglas.
It may have been a reception of this sort that greeted a much earlier organ grinder who visited Phoenix in 1883. The Weekly Republican wrote: "Two organ grinders were in our city Saturday. We also noticed several men with guns. Our readers are capable of drawing their own inferences." The papers of the time were coy and occasionally cryptic; the western towns were then small enough that if everyone didn't already know what was going to be in the papers, they at least knew the general plot lines and characters.
Apparently the organ grinder who entertained the miners in the Parker valley in 1882 lost his pair of monkeys. They took to the hills and bred, spawning what would, by 1915, be a colony of several hundred monkeys. The monkeys frequented Cunningham Pass, and it was there the Colorado River Monkey Company proposed to trap them for sale. Monkey shops were not unknown in Phoenix, back then, and - in the absence of drunken sailors - it was the young women of high society who often boasted a pet monkey.
Coincidentally (or not), in 1882 - the year the monkeys escaped in Parker - Edward Woods was hunting near the Cerro Colorado Mine in southern Arizona in what is now Pinal County. He and his hunting buddies spotted five white-faced monkeys with ringtails. They shot at them, claiming to have killed three of them; the other two monkeys fled into the mine shaft. Although the newspaper reporter acknowledged the story was incredulous, he wrote that Woods' "veracious character and total abstinence," and the fact Woods and friends offered to swear out an affidavit were a testament to the truth of the encounter. There are, in fact, white-faced new world monkeys that range far south of the United States, but most Arizonans of the time were more likely to see such wonders at the popular "dog and pony shows" or circuses that traveled through.
Professor Gentry's Dog and Pony Show boasted "25 monkey actors" during its 1899 Phoenix appearance, while "The Great Floto Shows" of 1904 brought monkeys, baboons, and apes in addition to Herr Litzen's Funny Dutch Elephants, the Ben Hur herd of Arabian Stallions, and Black Belle, the Smallest Horse Ever Born. Clearly, the monkey market boomed during territorial years.
But back to Parker. I can find no record of the success (or lack of it) of the Colorado River Monkey business. The river-side settlement, originally founded to service the Indian agency on the reservation, is situated in a valley with mountain ranges to three sides. To the north were the Whipple Mountains, to the southwest, the Riverside range, and - amusingly - to the east, the Gibraltar Mountains. Considering the fame of the Barbary macaque monkey colony on the iconic Rock of Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain's coast, perhaps the colony of Parker monkeys were just an early victim of bad navigational directions, looking for Gibraltar in all the wrong places.
Copyright (c) 2017 by MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared * Thank you for liking, linking, sharing, +1ing, tweeting, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thank you for visiting and sharing my appreciation for western history! *