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Martha’s story begins all because two people fell in love, Stella Sophrona and Frederick Graham. Her mother, affectionately nicknamed “Phrone”, made her way out west in the late 1800s/early 1900s on one of the last wagon trains from Poplar Bluff, Missouri along the Oregon Trail. Her family ended their journey in Big Piney, WY. Martha’s father, Frederick, was twelve years old when he lost his father, David Parks. David, Martha’s grandfather, had fought in the Civil war where he was captured and treated as a prisoner of war. It was shortly after his release and return home that he passed away from injuries sustained as a POW. It was after this loss, Frederick rode, alone, horseback from Nebraska to Colorado to live with an uncle. These two souls, seeking the dream of a new life, eventually found their way to each other. They wed and made home to Big Piney, Wyoming. Stella and Fred went onto raise four children: George, Virgil, Martha, and Carol.
Martha Ann was born in Kemmerer, Wy to Fred and Stella Graham on March 15, 1929. If you can imagine, Martha was a “spirited and fiery” child. Her family resided in the Kemmerer area for over a decade. They would alternate winters in Kemmerer for school and summers living at Kelly Ranger station outside of Cokeville, Wy. Martha’s father was one of the original rangers at the time the forest service was formed in 1905. He remained a district forest ranger until Martha was ten. She spent hours upon hours of riding and months of living in the forest with her dad throughout these years. No doubt, she was a daddy’s girl.
You can imagine those guard station cabins needed a good face lift at the first visit of each summer. Upon arrival each year as a young girl, her parents would set her on the counter while they used the cabin broom to kill all the mice that had made home over the winter months. I don’t believe there was much Martha was ever afraid of or couldn’t overcome, except for mice. From this, she developed a lifelong fear of mice. In fact, she shared a story about a schoolmate who had caught onto her fear of mice. To play a joke, he placed a dead mouse in the pocket of her jacket. She said that when she reached into her pocket and felt the hair of that mice, she startled. She looked up to find the guilty boy laughing. He had made a big mistake as she walked up to him and socketed him a good one. It must’ve left a mark, as years later Martha attended the same event as this boy. He introduced his new wife who greeted Martha with excitement “having waited her whole life to meet the girl who put him in his place.” This would not be the only fight Martha started or ended. She was self-proclaimed as a “bit of a fighter”. It was quite some time before Martha outgrew this fighting spirit. Anyone who knew Bill, knows that he was quite the fighter himself. Maybe this is what drew the two to each other.
Frederick, Martha’s father, retired from the forest service when Martha was 10 years old and took a job with Taylor Grazing, a precursor to the BLM. After taking this role, their family was transferred to Pinedale where Martha would start her freshman year of high school. She spent much of her time rodeoing and playing basketball. She worked after school for Sonny and Frank Korfanta on and off for many years. Martha also worked in the summers for Ken Symes, at his soda fountain on the corner, across the street from the Cowboy Shop.
In her senior year, Ogden Pioneer Days would invite one participant from 30 Wyoming high schools for their centennial event. Pinedale chose Martha to represent. The girls met in Ogden for a week to interview and complete horsemanship tryouts, public speaking etc. Martha didn’t have a horse, so Gene and Ida May Pfister furnished her with one to use. Beth Richardson’s husband loaned her a horse to practice with and Penny Howard, who wasn’t much older than Martha, taught Martha about showmanship. Horses that were spoiled and “didn’t mind” were brought in for one day of riding tryouts. As Martha mounted horse, her dad said, “I don’t care if you win or lose, but you make that horse mind.” She had to reach down and jerk the bit with the reins, but he did mind. Martha won by a “very little” margin. Her dad was a quiet person and merely said, “I knew you could do it.” She said she was nervous in interviews but not when she was horseback. She and her dad came back to Pinedale then went to the Centennial Rodeo in Ogden in July. She was elected Queen just for the Centennial Rodeo. but one of the honors of Queen was the opportunity to ride in several other summer rodeos and a grand trip to New York, New York. She never knew what horse she’d ride but Gene Pfister always sent a horse for her.
Martha went to New York with Gene Autry and Everett Colburn, who had rodeo stock at the Centennial Rodeo and then took it all to New York in September. Madison Square Garden was the beginning of the NFR where contenders met at the biggest rodeo in the U.S. Martha had to get to Everett Colburn in Ft. Worth, TX, so she flew from Rock Springs to Denver, Dallas, then onto Ft. Worth. Arriving in Dallas, she had to change planes in the dark. All she could see was an invasion or influx of crickets, on all the walls, covering the windows, on ceilings and crawling along floors. Martha thought, “What did I get myself into?” She made it to Ft. Worth the next morning, met the girls and stayed a couple of days. They took a train to Chicago, changed trains to New York. Grand Central Station was the first thing she saw and “it was overwhelming, but a beautiful place.” Her bags didn’t make the change in Chicago so for two days she did not have her luggage. The girls stayed at the Paramount Hotel, downtown, right on Times Square. Martha said, “from then on I never stopped.” Between New York and Boston, she was gone for two months, but said, “I was too busy to get homesick.” There were so many things to do, Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. There were famous entertainers in the basement of the Paramount. They went to beauty shops to get all dolled up. They attended the opening of the World Series. When it came time to go to the Army/Navy game, Martha went with one man from the Army and one man from the Navy.
Their chaperone was Ova May Edwards, but the girls called her, “Fluff.” She was very prim and proper, always dressed to the nines. She and Martha became wonderful friends. The girls had to exercise their horses. It was not a televised event, so the girls went ahead of the rodeo for publicity. They made radio and public appearances. Martha remembered riding horseback in the Grand Entry and parade. Gene Autry’s program included longhorn cattle that the girls were also charged with keeping distanced from him. Something was planned every day. Often, many of the girls did not want to participate in the activities so were allowed to stay back together. Martha said she loved all the trips. She “went everywhere and did everything.” Much of the time it was just Martha and Fluff exploring New York. On the night of Martha’s debut at Madison Square Garden’s rodeo, the Pinedale Lion’s Club sent her a huge bouquet of flowers. She was always supposed to say she was from Ogden, but usually said she was from Pinedale. Martha rode the same horse throughout the program. He had a tendency to buck now and then, as “he was scared to death of manholes.” A pickup man stood by on horseback in case Martha got in a jam. This trip was a highlight for a girl who had never left Sublette County.
After graduating Pinedale High School, Martha played basketball for Weber State for two years, then transferred to University of Wyoming for one year, studying physical education with a minor in science. Bill always thought this is where her son Tony got his basketball talent. The ski talent in the family came from him.
Bill and Martha’s love story begins long before their meeting. Bill’s grandfather Seaton came from Colorado over Togwotee Pass. When he made his way to the bottom, around Moran, he came to cross the Buffalo River. Martha’s father, who was a forest ranger working to build bridges at that time, was the first man that he ran into when he came to Jackson hole. They were good friends from then on. It seems that destiny had already written their future when they met a dance where Bobby said to Martha that she needed to get to know “that guy,” pointing at Bill. Bobby, Bill’s brother, became Uncle Bobby years later.
Bill asked Martha to marry him and when school let out in December 1950, Martha’s mom and Carol went to get her in Laramie. Martha’s mom wanted to stop so that Martha could pick out a wedding dress, but she was not feeling well. She finally agreed as they were passing through Rawlins. They stopped there at a dress shop. Martha told the story that she just picked one because she felt too awful to care. When she got home, her illness continued. She went to the clinic in Pinedale then sent onto the Jackson hospital to have appendix out on Christmas Eve. Two weeks later, she married Bill Saunders on January 10, 1951. She always mentioned that it was -40 degrees on this day.
After wedding, Bill and Martha moved to Sheridan for a brief time before settling in Wilson. Here, both worked for Gil Ordway at Fish Creek Ranch. Their lives would grow together for the next 70 years. They built a family of five children and pursued several entrepreneurial ventures. Bill was a passionate skier. In the 1950s, they decided to build their first ski shop, a simple 2x4 shack near the current ball fields at the base of Snow King. They built this on their own with the instruction of Bill’s father. Martha worked right alongside Bill, even nailing rafters through the nausea of pregnancy with her first child, Zane. This shop ran for a matter of years until they built a proper building with a ski shop and lunchroom in the front and repair and tuning business in the back. As they began establishing a presence in the Jackson Ski culture, Bill was soon elected as ski club president. During this time, they instigated a ski program, the “Little Waxers.” Their racing program grew to 85 kids (preschool to high school ages) and 13 volunteers. There wasn’t a job Martha wouldn’t do. She worked in the lunchroom, as a gate keeper, and as a timer. She wiped the noses of every kid in Jackson on that Mountain.
In the late 50’s, Bill and Martha bought the Wilson rodeo, held behind the Stagecoach bar. Here, Martha was a charter member of the Wilson Wranglers. Their daughter Sheryl was a rick rider for the rodeo through this group. Eventually, they moved the Wilson rodeo to Jackson where it became a family affair. They owned the Jackson rodeo for twelve years. Before moving from Wilson into Jackson, the family would run their horses from Wilson to Jackson for the rodeo. After moving into Jackson, life was dictated by the seasons. They would run the ski shop and race in the winter and rodeo in the summer. The boys took care of the bucking horses and cattle. Martha was Bill’s right hand man. There were only a few non-family members working for them. In the 60s, Martha worked as secretary for Jackson Grade school and was a founding member of Teton Barrel Racing Association. Their two oldest children graduated from Jackson High School, shortly before moving to Bondurant.
Martha and Bill moved to Bondurant in 1972. Here, they established their ranch business. At that time, the valley was nothing but willow bottom. Together Martha, Bill, and their kids worked to clear willow and sagebrush so to put up their hay fields and pastures. Their first year, they put up 35 ton of hay. Over 40 years later, they were putting up 600 ton per year. Martha could typically be found running the swather or the rake in the summers, orchestrating brandings, feeding six mouths and following her kids to basketball games and cheerleading around the state. She was glad when the last child graduated, after 29 years of kids being in school. What she didn’t know is that there were 14 grandkids, 13 great grandkids, and one great-great grandchild coming in future years.
Being in Sublette country, their kids were supposed to attend school in Pinedale. However, bus services had not yet been established and the family was still hauling hay to Jackson to feed the cattle they had there. Martha needed to find a solution, so she attended a school board meeting to request bus services as they were not able to take the kids to Pinedale for school. The school district had to either pay tuition for the kids to go to school in Jackson or provide them with a bus. Due to her efforts, the Bondurant bus service was established. She said she must have been out of her mind when she looked back on the bus on which they had to ride. Martha remembers about thirteen moose that occupied their yard that year. They were occasionally aggressive, so the bus had to pull up close to the house door to pick up and drop off kids. They weren’t pleased they were there.
Martha worked for the Bondurant postal service for more than twenty years, retiring as postmaster. She was an active member of the community, a ranchwoman, and mother. Over the years, Martha was involved with the Girl Scouts, Ladies Guild of Bondurant (later the Bondurant Community Club), Bondurant Church and museum. She was involved in efforts to provide a collection of oral interviews on Bondurant history. In doing so, she founded POPS organization to “Preserve, Organize, Protect, and Share” Bondurant history. Her dedication to community and rodeo, afforded her a Lifetime member of Teton Barrel Racing Association and Cattlewoman of the Year from the Cowbells in the early 90’s.
There are dozens of stories of my grandmother, for many of which my grandfather was by her side, and she, his. I know you all have many memories of your own. As our paths continue to cross in the future, please share these stories with her family, so to keep her spirit alive.
After 93 rich years of a remarkable life, Martha peacefully joined her parents, son, husband, and siblings. Her final days were spent at Jackson Hole Hospital with her daughter, Laurie, by her side. Martha was adored by all those who had the pleasure of knowing her. She was immensely proud of all her children and family. I can still see the joy in her eyes she always carried when surrounded by her family and friends. She dedicated her life to community, hard work and success, friends, and family. She was everything I admire. She was all things grace and grit.
Martha Ann Graham Saunders was preceded in death by her parents (Stella Sophrona and Frederick Graham), siblings (George Graham, Virgil Graham, Carol Yvonne Graham Schupman May), husband (Bill Saunders) and her son (Zane Saunders). She is survived by her children (Sheryl Saunders, Fred Saunders, Laurie Saunders Hanson, and Robert Anthony “Tony” Saunders).
Celebration of Life
Saturday, November 19, 2022
St. Hubert’s Episcopal Church
In lieu of flowers, your gracious donation will be appreciated to Martha’s passions of community and history to one of the following:
Bondurant Community Club
PO Box 71, Bondurant WY 82922
POPS (Preserve, Organize, Protect, and Share) Bondurant History
Founded by Martha Saunders
PO Box 71, Bondurant WY, 82922
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