A Tailing Tale about our young lives with donkeys

Life in the Early Days

By Maggie Magoffin

(From: Life in the Early Days by James K. Ramstetter. Permission of use given by Mary Ramstetter). Much of our young life was spent with donkeys. We used them from the time we were seven years old till we reached the age of fourteen; we then outgrew them and went to using horses.

We had about four miles to travel to the little country school. We did walk it once in a while, but not for long. The folks got us a couple of donkeys. One was a donkey mare, not very old and brown in color and we called her Bessy. The other was an old grey donkey, slow but gentle and quite smart. He could figure out how to open almost any kind of gate. I ended up riding him to school with my younger brother because Bess had bucked me off. My twin brother and younger sister used Bessy.

Our first trip to school was uneventful. Our first trip home was a disaster—the grey donkey laid down and died. All four of us got on Bess and rode her home. We arrived home all bawling our heads off. Our dad wanted to know where the grey donkey was—we blurted out as best we could that he had died on the way home.

My dad saddled up a horse and I got on the horse with him as he wanted to see what happened to the old grey donkey. We rode over to the spot where he had died—he had not died, but was grazing as though nothing had happened. My dad told me he was just playing a trick on us.

We had one place where we had to ride under a fence. Our dad had raised the wires up and tied them together so we could ride under the wires if we lay down low as we passed under the wires. One time, as we were passing under the fence, my younger brother, Walter, did not lay quite low enough and the wire caught him by the seat of his pants and I rode on without him, leaving him hanging in the air. He was screaming his head off. We managed to back the donkey back under him and get him unhooked from the barbed wire.

In snowy weather we took a longer way home and were able to stop at our grandparents to warm up for the rest of the trip home. About a quarter mile from our grandparents place we had to cross over an icy pond. The donkeys were afraid to walk on ice. The minute they stepped on the ice, they would sit down and refuse to move. The only way we could get across the ice was to have our sister go ahead and pull on the reins and my twin brother and I would have to push the donkeys in a sitting position till we slid them to the other side of the pond.

The following summer Bess was missing one morning. We went searching for her. Our pasture had about 400 acres of hilly country. We finally found her, but she was not alone – she had the cutest little baby donkey. The folks never told us that she was expecting and had decided to surprise us. We put a bridle on Bess and led her and the baby donkey home. After about two weeks, we started to ride Bess again. We had named the baby donkey Flossy. Wherever Bess went Flossy always followed. When she was about two years old we started riding her. Eventually, we quit using the old grey donkey as he was getting slow and would choose to sit down frequently.

We got another donkey from one of our grand uncles. He was larger than Bess, but was nice to ride and was quite smart. As we got older our dad made up a set of harnesses. The new donkey was named Dick. Bess and Dick made a good team and we had plenty of buggies to hook up to. We had a small spring wagon and used it to haul wood. We had lots of fun and a lot of problems too.

The donkeys liked to go fast when they were hooked to a wagon and they were full of tricks. If you were driving through a gateway, they would speed up and swing over and catch the gatepost with a wheel. If you were going very fast, it would often break the wheel and sometimes cause you to lose whatever load you had.

One time we had quite a good-sized load of poles and were following the old log road through the timber. We were going down a steep hill almost too fast and all of a sudden the donkeys turned into the timber. The front wheels caught on to some trees and brought the wagon to a sudden stop. The load of poles slid forward and buried the donkeys. My twin brother and I managed to jump clear. The donkeys were lying under the load braying their heads off as they were pinned to the ground. We managed to reload the poles on to the wagon and get back on the road. The donkeys were somber the rest of the day.

Most of the time we did not have much trouble, but one thing the donkeys would stop for was when they came to a bridge. They would tap the bridge with a foot over and over, cock their ears forward and listen. We eventually found out that they were trying to locate the main beam that the bridge planks were fastened to. When satisfied, sometimes they would try to cross the bridge in one leap.

We used the donkeys for many years, but when we reached the age of thirteen and fourteen, we switched to horses. We turned the donkeys loose as was the local miner’s custom, and left them to very capably live and forage for themselves in the mountains.

From Maggie: If you have any interesting stories about family or acquaintances who have lived or still live in Gilpin County or the surrounding areas, please contact me. You can reach me at 303-881-3321. Email me at, or mail me at P.O. Box 746495, Arvada, Colorado 80006-6495.

Be sure to check out my website for past columns at

The first two books in my Misadventures of the Cholua Brother’s Series are available on my website, on, and for $12.99 ea. + shipping. They can also be bought through the Gilpin Historical Museum and Mountain Menagerie in Central City. Watch for the release of the third and final book in the series Bonanza Beans available in late February or early March. Cholua Brothers Mining Company specialty coffees can also be purchased at Mountain Menagerie in Central City or from their website at

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button