I became interested in W. H. B. Kent as a result of reading one of his stories in Great Stories of the West edited by Edmund Collier. Thought his life was interesting and decided to share it with you.
Thanks to James G. Lewis of the Forest History Society for providing some of the background information in this article.
W.H.B. Kent c. 1905, photo courtesy US Forest Service
William Henry Boole Kent was born on June 24, 1878 in Meriden, Connecticut. He was the second of six sons of Silas W. and Mary (Chapman) Kent. His father was a manufacturer of carriage and buggy hardware, and later in life a sales representative for wagon and automobile spring manufacturers.
During William’s youth he spent many years at his grandfather’s farm near Remsen, New York and in the nearby Adirondacks. His grandfather was a successful farmer who built the family land holdings up to 430 acres. The years spent in the countryside and nearby forests were to shape William’s life and career.
William attended the Meriden High School and the Cazenovia Seminary and was football coach at Cazenovia. He used to say that none of them “took”. In preparation for a career in forestry, he attended the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse, New York finishing in about 1900. He entered government forestry work in April, 1900, just as forestry was increasing in importance in the United States.
The expansion of the American frontier to the West had ended. Stewarding natural resources for the public good had become an established concept; the establishment of the first national park at Yellowstone in 1872 demonstrated that. In a few years, the US Forest Service would be split off from the Department of the Interior and given the mission of sustaining healthy, diverse, and productive forests and grasslands for present and future generations.
William spent the first six months in the Black Hills on timber management plans.
Spent the winter of 1901 in the Black Hills, South Dakota. In the spring we were sent to the Wichita in Oklahoma. The Supervisor there was charging for grazing permits and putting the money in his own pockets. I was there for six weeks and then Ranger Whitney from the Black Hills came down as Supervisor and I went to Flagstaff some time in June.
…transferred to Division “R” in the General Land Office as head ranger. Subsequently posted to Yellowstone, Black Hills, Wichita, San Francisco Mountains, Black Mesa (Coconino, Sitgreaves, and Apache), and Grand Canyon forest reserves.
Expected to go down the Blue at once but got word to go to Cody, Wyoming, for a summer-long trip in the Yellowstone and Jackson Hole country. Got back to Flagstaff in November 1902 and went down to join Chapin on the Blue. I spent the winter there on the Harper cutting and making up a timber trespass case against the Arizona Copper Company.
The case was tried in Federal Court in Tombstone in June 1904. I was the key witness and the Judge named Knave (a Hell of a good name for him!) called me a hypocritical scientist (whatever that is). We sued for something around $100,000 and the Judge gave us $1,500 — stumpage value instead of the manufactured value that we were suing for.
We were not popular in the Washington, D.C. Office. It usually took 3 to 6 months to get an expense account through then. In the spring of 1903 we were fired from the Land Office (Binger Hermann), and very much delighted to be back in the Bureau of Forestry.
Coming back to the Bureau of Forestry in March, 1903, he began work in “the examination of proposed forest reserves” working mostly in the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon and Idaho) and the Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico). It involved locating, surveying and stock-taking of federally owned public lands of the western states. Because of local resentment (sounds just like today), this was as exciting and dangerous as any other occupation on the frontier. At times it had to be done secretively. Many forests exist today because of the work of pioneer foresters like W. H. B. Kent.
Kent was a great field traveler. He would start out on a pack trip with adequate equipment and, as one supervisory man says, would be “lost” for months in the wilds of Central Oregon on one of his inspection trips. In those days it was necessary to wait until his return, as there were no interior telephones or autos. One morning when the Chief Inspector’s patience was about exhausted, there arrived a wire, “GET MY BLUE SUIT OUT OF THE VAULT IN PORTLAND HAVE IT PRESSED.”
In 1905, he was in Arizona, again surveying boundaries.
In March 1905 I made a boundary examination of the Huachucas. Clyde Leavitt was with me on part of the trip. In Benson I hired a man with a team and buckboard, but only one saddle horse. After prospecting around, the City Marshal said he had Mexican in jail with a $12 fine against him, and the Mexican had a horse. I went to see the Mexican, and then to see the horse. The horse may have weighed 700 pounds, but I doubt it. The man offered the horse for $12. I have always been glad I paid 30.
Although I had to shorten the stirrups to keep my feet off the ground, the pony very willingly carried me for six weeks in mud and rain and on slippery hills. Forgotten where we left the San Pedro to pull up the long slope to the Huachucas. Scouted out the north boundary, moving camp westward as necessary. Saw A. Permalee often. Suppose he is dead now. Went on past Fort Huachuca and over a very bad road down into the draw where R. A. Rogers was homesteading. In that draw, what wasn’t water was still damper mud. I floundered through the lane, hanging onto the wire. A man was waiting in front of an adobe building. That was the first time I saw Rogers. From there south and around the south side of the Huachucas, then west by way of Lochiel, Washington, Mowry, and Patagonia, and then to Nogales, with many all-day rides along the hills.
Kent was a colorful character – his friends called him Whisky High Ball; the name was derived from his initials, W.H.B, and his fondness for whisky. He wore a bandana instead of the regulation Stetson cowboy hat and read poetry to his trainees.
There was the story of the young and green Santa Rita hotel clerk’s refusing to give Kent a room or bath—after his weeks out on the desert and the clerk’s later discomfiture; his encounter and later triumph over a superintendent of the Crater Lake National Park in the heavy snow on Anna Creek, Oregon; of the time that he went into an Arizona court as a witness to a government timber trespass case with a loaded Colt .45 hid in the waistband of his trousers; of his insulting a very fresh traveling salesman in a Medford, Oregon, hotel by offering him a silver dollar to leave the room; of his being taken into the Navajo tribe and learning their legends and inner secrets, including the making of sand or mosaic painting; and toward the last, of his making a monkey out of a high-up Washington official out in Silver City and Alma, New Mexico.
Such a colorful character could not survive long in government service, and by December 1910 he had left or been forced out.
A few years later he was a forestry official in the Philippine Forest Service, and a new crop of stories grew up. In one or more outlying islands he became well known to the natives as “El Senor Kent, ” impressing them with his Navajo sand painting and other legerdemain. It is reported that he traveled from place to place with almost oriental pomp, followed by a retinue of cargadores, machete men, out-riders, couriers, orderlies, and guards. Villages warned of his coming dispatched natives to collect dressed poultry, beno, and other comestibles. When El Senor did arrive, the Mayor would declare a holiday, and a fiesta would begin!
Returning to the US in 1914, he began raising chickens and game cocks at his mother’s farm in Cazenovia, New York and became somewhat of an American authority on poultry. He wrote articles on poultry for the trade magazines.
In 1918, just a day before his birthday, he enlisted in the army (World War I) as a private and went overseas in Company L, of the 49th Infantry, later transferring to Military Intelligence. He saw some active service, met one of his brothers in France later, and was lined up for an officer’s training school when the war ended.
He returned to his mother’s farm in Cazenovia, living with his brothers and their families. He was a great favorite of his nieces and nephews; took them on hikes and picnics, and told them stories of his life in the west, the army and the Philippines. He never married.
In 1927, he sold his first story, The Killer, to Black Mask magazine. At the time Black Mask was not yet synonymous with hard-boiled detective fiction; it carried western, detective and adventure stories. Presumably this was a western story, and someone with a copy of the October 1927 issue can confirm it.
1928 saw his debut in Doubleday’s West. In 1930 he moved to Glendora, California where he lived until his death. In the first half of the 1930s his stories appeared in West and Street and Smith’s Cowboy Stories. 1942 was the last year in which he published a story in the pulps; it was the year his first novel, The Tenderfoot, was printed. It was followed in 1943 by Range Rider. He wasn’t a prolific writer, publishing about 50 stories in a long career from 1927 to 1942. He was featured on a few covers, a couple of which can be seen below.
Cowboy Stories, April 1934 and West, September 1934 – covers featuring W.H.B. Kent’s stories
He died on December 24, 1947. After his death, his two brothers, Robert and Olney, went up in a plane and scattered his ashes on Mt. San Antonio which he loved and which he could see from his California home.