Lu Teaford: Queen of the Mountains

Pieces of the Past

August 3, 2011 

I will never forget that day in 1992, when Bill and Doris Seabury took me to North Fork to meet Lu Bowman Teaford. It was 78 years after she had become the bride of Otis Teaford, Madera County's king of the mountains, and did she ever have a story to tell.

"I would have done anything in the world just to be with my husband ... I didn't care if he was at the top of the moon," Lu told me.

A woman of less resolve might have given up -- it took courage to face wild-eyed bulls, charging bears and hungry mountain lions, but Lu never lost sight of who she was and with whom she traveled, and I never lost sight of the fact that I was talking with a true pioneer.

Lu was just a teenager when she first discovered the kind of life she would have as the wife of Otis Teaford. He had taken her from her Pine Ridge home in Fresno County and brought her to his family's ranch near North Fork. In May 1915, Lu found herself preparing for her first cattle drive. Little did she know it would turn into her first bear hunt as well.

The ranch was bustling with activity. Supplies were packed, guns were cleaned and cattle were gathered. By May 30, everything was ready and the crew hit the trail. The ultimate destination was Shuteye Mountain, via Grizzly Meadow. There was no road, just a path, and Lu was holding on to her saddle for all she was worth. She wasn't going to let anything keep her away from her husband.

When the 80 or so head of cattle had been driven to Grizzly Meadow, the Teafords and their cowboys set up camp. Otis taught Lu how to cook over an open fire, not only for themselves, but also for the 15 men who were working with them. At times, the pace got hectic, especially for the 15-year-old bride whose responsibility it was to feed more than a dozen hungry cattlemen three times a day.

Lu learned something else on that trip. There were huge claw marks on some of the trees. She did not have to be told why the place was called Grizzly Meadow. The bark on the trees provided ample evidence of the presence of California Grizzly Bears in the vicinity.

The Teafords had not been in the high country too many days before Otis, as was his custom, decided to go hunting, but this time he took his wife. Together they mounted their horses, and off they rode.

In less time than it takes to tell it, Teaford was on the trail of a good-sized deer. Without ever dismounting, Otis and Lu stalked their prey with precision. He knew what he was doing -- after all, he had bagged his first buck at the age of nine. Otis knew the way of the woods.

Just as they were closing in on their deer, Otis heard a familiar sound, a bear clawing at the trees in a small meadow not far from where they were hunting. Otis indicated that the animal was not alone, so he instructed Lu to stay with the horses while he proceeded on foot with his rifle.

Shortly after her husband disappeared into the woods, Lu soon heard a single shot. She waited for a second one, but it never came. Just then she heard her husband shouting for her to bring the horses. After making her way to the clearing, Lu witnessed an unbelievable sight. Otis had killed a Grizzly Bear with a single shot.

As he explained to her, when he had come upon the scene, there were two animals -- the huge Grizzly and a smaller cinnamon bear -- raking over a fallen log. The Grizzly immediately rose up on his hind legs and charged Otis, while the cinnamon bear fled the scene.

Teaford got off a perfect shot, but he didn't know it at the time. With the bear obviously wounded but still charging, Otis attempted another shot. Alas, his gun jammed. Onward the Grizzly charged until it reached Teaford. At that point, it dropped at his feet. The shot had been right on target, piercing the animal's heart.

It was only when Lu arrived with the horses that she found out why she had heard just a single shot. Otis and Lu stretched the bear out, and she struggled to hold its huge paws while he skinned it. When they got it loaded on one of the horses, Lu couldn't believe her eyes. That bear, hanging over the horse, dragged on both sides. "Now that was a giant," exclaimed Lu, whose memory of that day is crystal clear.

Lu Teaford continued her annual treks to the high country with Otis. By 1917, however, he had an added responsibility -- she was a mother. Nevertheless, she remained undaunted and steadfast in her determination not to be separated from her husband.

Therefore, Clifton Teaford, son of Lu and Otis, went on his first cattle drive at the age of five months. His mother put Clifton in an Indian baby basket, secured it to the saddle in front of her and followed the cattle up the trail again.

Lu and Otis lived a full life together in the hill country of Madera County. She often went deer hunting with him and once she helped him flush a particularly mean bull out of the forest. She even stood by his side when he lost his light while chasing two bear out of their hog pen at night.

Some might say that was too much excitement, but Lu looked back fondly on those pioneer days when big game was one of mankind's greatest challenges in the mountains of Madera County.

She also lived every day with her memories of the man who was her King of the Mountain, Otis Teaford. Born in a little cabin on site of what is now the Pines Village on the north shore of Bass Lake, but what was then just Crane Valley and Willow Creek, Teaford grew up with Madera County. He also grew up with Lu.

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