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HomeNewsLocal NewsA Legendary Arizona Cowgirl | Women's History Month

A Legendary Arizona Cowgirl | Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, and we celebrate Holly Gibson Despain from Heber, Arizona.

Holly Gibson Despain was born on February 27th 1989 to Larry and Janet Gibson in Show Low, AZ at Navapache Hospital. Her two big brothers Shane and Travis welcomed their precious little sister. Less than two years later baby brother Will joined the family.

The Gibson’s are a ranching family, and the kids go from the crib to a saddle to the back of a good horse.  Holly was a natural Cowgirl and made the job look glamorous even when covered with our natural “minerals” or dirt. She could rope and ride with the best Cowboys in the herd.

In February 2010, Holly married Frank Despain, bringing together two local ranching families with roots spanning many generations in Arizona. Together, Frank and Holly have three sons, Trey (13), Clayton (11), Casey Ray (7), and their precious daughter Ashlyn (5)

Frank and Holly Despain
Frank and Holly Despain.

March 21st, 2023, Holly was taken from us much too soon, at the young age of 34. She died in a tragic car accident while traveling on Highway 260, going from Heber to Show Low. We miss her daily presence. We want to preserve this legendary Cowgirl’s memory and ensure her stories live on. We want her children to have ways to remember the days they rode horseback with their Mom. 

Holly Gibson Despain holding her son while she works cattle at the Black Canyon Ranch.
Holly Gibson Despain holding her son while she works cattle at the Black Canyon Ranch.

In 2016, when my Dad, Richard Gibson, passed away, my Niece, Holly told me a story. She said one of her sons, Trey or Clayton, asked her, “Mom, what is a legend?” She said, “Well, son, a legend is someone who is so special they will never be forgotten when they are gone.” 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines legend as a story coming down from the past. As it turns out, Holly described herself perfectly. 

Holly Gibson Despain mending fence at the Black Canyon Ranch.
Holly Gibson Despain branding cattle at the Black Canyon Ranch.

When her Dad, Larry Gibson, described her, he said, “She was the best Cowboy that ever worked on the ranch. She knew what that mean old cow would do before the cow did.” As a little girl, she worked as a Cowhand with her Dad and brothers and continued the job throughout her life. She rode from Dry Lake to the Mogollon Rim, following behind herds of cows. 

Holly and her husband, Frank, raised their children in the ranching lifestyle. From the time they were just a few months old, the kids rode double with Mom or Dad until they were big enough to ride a horse alone. Branding cattle was a family tradition, and everyone learned to pitch in. Holly frequently took the job of branding or vaccinating the calves. 

Holly loved to rope and was a volunteer teacher for our local National Day of the Cowboy events. She loved the Cowboy life and was an excellent example of living the Cowboy Code. 

Holly giving roping lessons at the Local Farmers Market in Heber.
Holly Gibson Despain giving roping lessons at the Local Farmers Market in Heber.

According to the organization National Day of the Cowboy, the Code includes the following: 

  1. Live each day with honesty and courage.
  2. Take pride in your work. Always do your best.
  3. Stay curious. Study hard and learn all you can.
  4. Do what has to be done and finish what you start.
  5. Be tough, but fair.
  6. When you make a promise, keep it.
  7. Be clean in thought, word, deed, and dress.
  8. Practice tolerance and understanding of others.
  9. Be willing to stand up for what’s right.
  10. Be an excellent steward of the land and its animals.

Holly lived this way and left a legacy to be proud of. She was active in 4-H and Navajo County Fair activities throughout her life. She was quiet yet determined, and she had a way of touching people’s souls. Holly’s artist spirit captured the beauty of everything she created.

Holly Art MOUNTAIN DAILY STAR
Drawing by Holly Gibson Despain.

Her friend, Kelsee Bradshaw, Spokesperson for the National Day of the Cowboy and representative for the Cowgirls Historical Foundation spoke about meeting Holly. She said I had the great privilege of calling Holly Gibson Despain my dear friend. The first time I met Holly we were branding at her Grandma and Grandpa Gibson’s ranch. I was their new neighbor and Grandma Bonnie was so proud of Holly and was so excited to introduce me to her. Holly came out with her soft, sweet smile and her peaceful presence with a baby in one arm and ready to help with the branding with her other arm. I knew instantly that she was my kind of friend. 

Over the years we enjoyed horse rides, bonfires, family bbq’s, good conversation and laughter, and play dates with all our kids. Holly could ride, rope, and work as hard as the men. And than she could turn around and cook delicious meals, can her garden vegetables, tenderly care for all children, and patiently show love to anyone in need. You would never hear her complain or gossip. She was so proud of her ranching and western heritage and so proud of her beloved family. She was patriotic and loved the beautiful land in which she lived.

She often noticed the simple beauties and curiosities of nature. Holly loved being a mom to her precious children and a wife to her beloved husband Frank. She didn’t want any recognition for the good things she did and she was grateful for what she had, never seeming to want for more. She had a strong testimony of our Heavenly Father and our Savior Jesus Christ that she kept close to her heart.” 

Holly Despain walking down the path holding her children.
Holly Gibson Despain walking down the path holding her children.

Kelsee continue, “Holly lived every word of the Cowboy and Cowgirl code of Conduct. And I believe our families and communities would do well to live by it too. Holly would want that because Holly knew personally the importance of those values and the joy and gratitude they bring. And now we have the opportunity to let her legacy live on as we strive to do the same.“

Her friend Leti Porter gave the best description of Holly she said, “She was tough and kind all at the same time. She was loyal, soft-spoken, and strong. She was humble. She was a hard worker and had a tender heart. She had the ability to see past imperfections in others and love people anyway. She was a life-long learner. She was dependable. She said her prayers. Being a mom was her passion, and she was good at it. She was beautiful inside and out. As much as she loved ranching and riding she loved her family even more. She was an incredible human being-the best kind.”

Holy Despain branding cattle at the Black Canyon Ranch.
Holly Gibson Despain branding cattle at the Black Canyon Ranch.

She was the kind of friend who would call and say, “What can I do to help?” Sometimes, she would bake the most delicious lemon meringue pie you had ever tasted and give it to a friend or family member who might need a pick-me-up. 

Her friend, Laceymae Hunt, described her in a tribute, “Holly was an angel on earth. She was one of the sweetest people I know, but if you went after the people she loved and cared about, she would defend them to the end, and you would see her get fired up. It didn’t happen very often because she was such a Christ-like person. She was always, always, always willing to serve anyone and everyone. She was quiet and shy but hilarious, quick, and witty. She was the friend who would volunteer to do your chores and feed your animals if she knew you would be away from home.”

Holly Despain branding cattle at the Black Canyon Ranch. On the gorse in the red shirt. 
Holly Gibson Despain branding cattle at the Black Canyon Ranch. On the horse in the red shirt.

Ashley Westcott, a friend of Holly’s and a locally famous Country singer, wrote a song about Holly. Ashley has been a headline performer at the Arizona Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Prescott and will be performing there in October, 2024. She is a member of the Stage Coach Band, and you may find her performing at the Gaslight Music Hall in Oro Valley, AZ, or other local venues. She recently traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, and recorded three singles. One song is titled Taylor, AZ; it has a patriotic theme and will surely be a hit. 

We are anxiously awaiting her recording of Palomino Sky, Holly’s song. It is beautiful and leaves a haunting vision of Holly, “Now she’s riding with the angels, thundering across the sky, she sings sweet melodies, crying by and by, her boots may be dusty but her spirit’s soaring high, she’s roping the dark clouds in that palomino sky.” 

When you travel through the forest around Heber, they say you can sometimes hear the sound of a horse’s hooves running through the trees. You can imagine it might be that Cowgirl Angel, her long auburn hair blowing in the wind on her Palomino Mare, rounding up one last herd to take to that pasture in the sky. 

Kathy Gibson Boatman

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