By Valerie Shelton, Former CR Editor/Friend
“I’m not a cowboy,” Kenny Melchor would say, as he looked you square in the eye donning his Stetson hat, high-waisted Wrangler’s secured with a shiny belt buckle and his signature, you-can-hear-him-coming boots. “I’m really just a horseman,” he would say.
Despite Ken’s insistence that he wasn’t a cowboy, those that knew him best knew he certainly was. A good horseman? Sure, Ken’s buddy Jim Manfredo confirmed that. According to Jim, there had been some question about how good Ken could ride and that question was answered one time in the high country, when Kenny’s horse started bucking wild and all Ken did was laugh until the horse finally laid down and he just hopped off.
“There was a pine cone under the saddle blanket,” Jim said. “So yes, Ken could ride!”
But he did so much more than ride. Even Ken admitted that for 15 years he was privileged to work alongside Barbera Green and herd cattle up in God’s country. “I became a partner in her cattle business and from 1983 to 1997, I got to be a cowboy,” Ken said during a Let’s Talk Clovis event.
His wife, Donna, said early on in their relationship, Ken took her horseback riding in the high sierras and it turned out Ken was searching for cattle that went astray.
“I looked down and I saw hoof prints and fresh, still smoking, cow dung and I told Kenny there was no way I was bringing cows in,” she said. “I told him I was a recreational rider only. Then as we rode into Family Camp, we spotted three pairs of cows with their calves. They were calmly grazing at which time, I told Kenny, ‘We can handle this, let’s bring them in.’ But it was too late, our Jack Russell terrier spotted the cows and all hell broke loose. The horse I was on instantly went into work mode, jumping over logs and working the cows. I threw the dog across the saddle horn, held onto her with one hand and held the reigns in the other – all while getting hit in the face with branches as we brought the cows into camp. We almost brought the cows back into camp, when at the last minute they bailed off the side of the mountain. After that, he would jokingly tell everyone, ‘Oh, Donna is a recreational rider only.’ That was the most fun I ever had in the mountains.”
Teasing Donna was one of Ken’s favorite past times. Of course, Ken got his fair share of teasing too.
Though his cowboy buddies describe Ken as an excellent packer, horseman, and high country guide, he did have one little flaw—just as Einstein couldn’t tie his shoes, Kenny had some trouble keeping his horses tied up.
“You could count on Kenny for everything, you just didn’t let him tie up the horses,” Ken’s best friend Bill Lovelady said.
One time, Bill and Curtis Esquibel said they searched for one of Ken’s loose horses for two and a half days. Curtis and Ken had tied their horses to a tree and at first, when they all noticed one was missing in the morning, Curtis said Ken assumed it was Curtis’s.
“He kept saying ‘I told you how to tie ‘em up 10 times and you don’t listen’ but then I told him it was his horse that got loose, and he just said ‘oh’ and we started searching for it,” Curtis said.
Another friend, Elias Mahfoud met Ken 15 years ago after one such horse tying incident.
“While camping at Tule Meadow by Wishon Reservoir on an early morning while starting the campfire I saw two loose horses with ropes around their necks walking out of the meadow,” Elias said. “I walked to the next camp and knocked on the trailer, yelling ‘Sir your horses are walking away.’ I hear a grouchy voice ‘What do you want?’ and say ‘Sir, your horses are gone!’ I came to find out later, Kenny is not an early rise person. He came out and I had him get in my car and we drove down McKinley Grove. We found the horses on the road heading home. That evening, Kenny invited me to have some cherry pie that he made in his dutch oven. It was the best pie that I ever had.”
Bill and Tom Farman also recalled the humorous story of how Ken got the nickname “pork chop.”
“One time we went up with pack animals and Ken was working with this mule,” Bill said. “This was not the best mule so it wasn’t all Ken’s fault, but it started bucking and you could see all the food flying out of the pack so we decided to unpack a horse and get out an empty ice chest to collect all this loose food. Well, one of the items was a package of nine pork chops and these pork chops got bucked every which way. Some were in the pine needles, some in the dirt, and then there was this one that stuck to the side of a tree.”
“We ended up just leaving it there,” Tom added. “That’s when we started calling him pork chop.”
While Ken was a true Clovis cowboy, most of the time he spent in the high country wasn’t for work, but play. He got his love for the outdoors from his parents. Ken first learned to fly fish as a young boy and became an expert. Donna said he got this passion for fishing from his mom, a local school teacher.
Dave Taylor, a high school friend, said he remembers playing baseball on the Fresno High field with Ken during the week, and spending Friday, Saturday and Sunday with him up in the Sierra.
“Baseball was where our relationship started,” Dave recalled. Ken and Dave graduated in 1960, but just two years ahead of them were standout pitchers Jim Maloney, Dick Ellsworth and catcher Pat Corrales—the backup of Johnny Bench—and just two years behind them was pitcher Tom Seaver.
“Fresno High had a great baseball program, but the thing I remember most about Ken is our fishing trips together,” Taylor said.
Curtis said Ken was the one who taught him the art of fly fishing and he was amazed at how good he was.
“I looked to Ken as a father figure,” Curtis said. “He taught me to fly fish and I just wasn’t that good. I think I aggravated him.”
Ken was also an excellent hunter—a trait he inherited from his father who was an excellent marksman. The skill served Ken well out deer hunting and when he served as a Marine Corps E4 during Vietnam.
Greg Sassano said Ken was such a remarkable shot, he could shoot down a deer without even pulling the trigger.
“Ken and my dad went deer hunting all the time and I remember one story where they’d targeted the same deer,” Greg said. “Kenny sighted it and before he could fire, it went ‘boom’ and he looked around wondering how that could be since he didn’t even shoot!”
Close friend Bob Carter, who Ken knew since his days playing baseball at Fresno High, said Ken was the epitome of an outdoorsman.
“He loved the outdoors, was an excellent fly fisherman, horseman and quite a shot,” Bob said.
Ken loved escaping to the countryside so much, it often interfered with his day job.
“We had a lot in common and loved traveling in the back country,” Bill said. “We used to think we loved fishing and hunting, but really we just loved being there. He was a great salesman. He worked for a few radio stations—that’s where he really learned to sell—and then for Herb Bauer, and then he opened his sporting goods store, but his issue there was he would always close up shop to head to the hills. His love of the mountains would overtake him.”
Throughout his lifetime, Ken held a variety of positions as a salesman. He worked for the only local country radio station back in the 60s, where he was in charge of entertaining artists when they came to town. Donna remembers he one time loaned his guitar to a country music legend who had forgotten his, and one time he brought Tanya Tucker to Jim’s Place and when she heard someone singing karaoke to one of her songs, she had to get up and perform. It was against the restrictions of her record label contract at the time, so she used an alias, but as soon as she started singing, the bar fell silent. Folks at the bar figured it out and the next night, there was a line down the street outside Jim’s.
In later jobs, Ken worked as a super salesman who, as Donna says “could sell ice to an Eskimo.” He sold everything from sporting goods at Herb Bauer and his own shop on third street, Gateway Sporting Goods, to insurance, to cars, to, of course, advertising. Ken’s business-savvy could be attributed to his father, who owned and operated a local radiator shop while Ken was growing up.