Ed Keeylocko sauntered into the Blue Dog Saloon, took
a seat and gestured toward the bartender.
“Let me have a little tequila, sugar.”
Today it was just Keeylocko and the bartender. But often visitors walk into this bar, sit next to Keeylocko, 79, and whisper in his ear, asking where they can find Ed Keeylocko. They want to see the cowboy they’ve heard so much about.
“Some people think I’m mythical,” he smirked, while his weathered fingers cupped the tiny glass of tequila — neat, with no salt.
Keeylocko is the founder of Cowtown Keeylocko, an 80-acre spread with handmade buildings of wood and tin. Founded in December of 1974, it’s located about 40 miles southwest of Tucson, at the end of a bumpy dirt road where a sign greets visitors: “Population 5 — most of the time.”
Technically, it’s a working ranch in the middle of the desert, with a Tucson postal address. But to Keeylocko, it’s a Wild West town — his town — and folks around this part of the state tend to view it the same way.
The town is an odd mixture of the real and the fanciful. There’s a “library” with books, and a barn with real cows, pigs and chickens. But the “general store” is essentially a wooden building filled with stuff that no one would buy.
There’s even a cemetery where friends’ ashes are buried, and a mesquite tree festooned with various discarded boots. And, of course, there’s the Blue Dog Saloon — the main attraction — which feels more like a large barn, with dirt floors and a heavy coat of dust. A weathered green baby carriage hangs from the rafters, though it’s not clear why.
For decades, word of mouth has brought Tucsonans to the ranch for parties, some opting to sleep at the property campgrounds — if they sleep at all. Producers have staked out the grounds for movies, but usually the only residents are Keeylocko and one or two ranch hands.
Visitors come for the atmosphere, which mainly means hearing Keeylocko tell stories. Like the one about the rambunctious Australian blue heeler — a cattle dog — who is his saloon’s namesake. Or the time he brought a saddle on an airplane headed for Pittsburgh. Or how he served as Richard Pryor’s double in the movie “Stir Crazy” and appeared in “Buffalo Soldiers.”
Keeylocko says his aspiration has been to live life simply and honestly, like a real cowboy. He built this makeshift town — his own version of paradise — around that idea.
Some of the posted rules? No cussing, spitting on the floor or leering at the ladies. Use of the f-word carries a $5 fine. He believes that an honest living comes from working hard.
Keeylocko was born in South Carolina in 1931. Abandoned by his mother, he was rescued by a woman who gave him the name Keeylock (he added the O later). He left home at 14 and traveled America as a hobo before serving in the Army for 23 years.
He then attended the University of Arizona, earning degrees in agriculture, because he wanted to breed aggressive, well-armed cattle that could protect themselves on the range. (“Give them back their horns,” he says.) After experiencing discrimination at a cattle auction, Keeylocko, who is black, decided to create his own ranch.
Keeylocko’s life is as unpredictable as the Wild West. He’s an ordained minister. And he has traveled the country giving lectures on black cowboys.
“There are people that believe that people like me only play basketball, football, dance or maybe play the banjo,” he said. “What they don’t know is there were black cowboys long before there were white cowboys.”
His life has made him open to welcoming anyone in his town, regardless of color, or as is the case in southern Arizona, regardless of citizenship. He’s known for chasing the Border Patrol off of his property.
“I tell people that Cowtown Keeylocko doesn’t choose who comes here,” he said. “That’s the real West.”
Those he welcomes include illegal immigrants who come for water from the U.S.-Mexico border, less than 50 miles away.
On this hot afternoon, Keeylocko continued to nurse his tequila at the bar, sweating slightly.
Aside from the faint hum of a fan, which didn’t provide much relief, the only sounds were insects chirping. Keeylocko’s eyes became soft. “A person has to go back to the land,” he said. “It creates thought.”
A friend of Keeylocko’s, a singer named Fred Lee, once wrote a song about the place. Keeylocko says Lee wrote only two kinds of songs: tales of love and heartbreak (which were about his wife) and ballads about Keeylocko.
A ranch hand played a tape, and Lee’s country voice began crooning:
It’s not a dream of silver and gold, it’s about the life of Keeylocko.