Keeping Karl May Alive in the Old West
Welcome to the Apache Spirit Ranch. It’s a slice of the Old West—with some admittedly modern amenities to spare—nestled just two miles from the historic landmarks of Tombstone.
Horseback riding, western entertainment, and cowboy cuisine are some of the items listed on the ranch’s itinerary. It promises guests the opportunity to connect with the history and culture of the region.
But those who book a reservation at the ranch, hoping to lose themselves in the sweep of the Old West, have a chance of experiencing something bit more unexpected. Something a bit more German.
“The largest groups that have come [from outside the US] have been from Germany,” said Michelle DeSplinter, who works at the ranch’s reception desk. “We just had a group of 15 last week.”
In fact, as DeSplinter further explained, Germany is responsible for roughly half the ranch’s guests.
But the German doesn’t end there. Ranch CEO Peter Stenger certainly looks the part of a dusty cowboy, but when he speaks, it seems he’d be more at home in Das Boot than True Grit.
That’s because Stenger, by birth and upbringing, is German. In the ranch’s reception lobby, clustered around a large fireplace, are many books. Some of them are in German. And most, if not all, of those German books display the same name across their spines.
Karl Friedrich May, whose last name is actually pronounced “my”, was born in 1842 in a small town in Germany—then called the Kingdom of Saxony. During the 1870s, May dabbled in various genres of writing until finding his knack with travel stories. Fueled by his own imagination and others’ letters from the region—including the exploits of Chief Cochise—May began writing tales about the American Old West from the early 1880s until 1910, two years before his death.
May’s primary hero (and reported alter ego) was Old Shatterhand, an American frontiersman of German descent who rode with an Apache chief called Winnetou. May swept his readers into the world of the Old West and did so with vivid detail and captivating creativity. In fact, in the opening paragraphs of The Oil Prince, May takes a moment to describe the San Xavier del Bac mission:
“It was located approximately nine miles south of the then-capital of the Arizona Territory in the valley of the Santa Cruz River. It was established in 1668 by the Jesuits, and, because it was such a beautiful building, such a shining witness to civilization in the midst of the Arizona wilderness would have surprised the travelers.
“At each corner of the building rose a high bell tower, its front displaying rich sculptural ornamentation. The main chapel supported a large dome, and on the walls were heavy cornices and tasteful decorations. The structure would be an adornment to any large city.”
Not a bad description, considering May never came within 1,000 miles of the San Xavier mission or the entire American Southwest. In fact, May’s sole journey to the United States took place only four years before his death in 1912, and during that visit he traveled no further west than Buffalo, N.Y.
“Jules Verne wrote about the moon and he never went there, either!” said Karl May Museum curator Anita Skinner. The 75-year-old woman from Luxembourg, admittedly a voracious reader, had been hired to curate the museum because she spoke several languages, including German. May’s books have thus far been translated into 42 languages, she explained, and are still widely read throughout Europe.
As it turns out, Stenger is also responsible for the museum, which displays many of the Native American items May collected, as well as a detailed account of his life and works. Stenger established the museum in Tombstone in 2012, the centennial anniversary of the author’s death.
“He is the most read author Germany ever had,” Stenger said. He spoke of May with abundant enthusiasm, considering it an honor just to tell someone else about him. As a boy, he watched the Eurowestern film adaptations of May’s books, starring Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand and Pierre Brice as Winnetou. Like so many others across Europe, Stenger found himself catapulted into a faraway land of Cowboys and Indians.
But Stenger isn’t just a fan of May and his books. To him, they’ve evolved beyond mere works of fiction.
While in Dallas studying real estate in 1999, Stenger spent the final two weeks of his trip in search of something he had always wanted to see: buffalo. He wanted to see them, Stenger said, because of how prevalent they had been in May’s stories. He made his way north, eventually discovering a ranch north of Silver City. Though he ultimately found the ranch disappointing, Stenger met and befriended Joe Saenz, an Apache then working as a wrangler on the ranch. As Stenger began making annual trips to the United States, he and Saenz would ride the southwestern territory.
“It was just a wow feeling,” Stenger recalled of his time with Saenz. And it’s not hard to see why. The German Stenger riding with the Apache Saenz mirrored the dynamic of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou. Stenger was living his childhood Wild West fantasy.
In 2007, after spotting a “Ranch land for sale” sign enroute to the airport in El Paso, Stenger was spurred to build his own ranch. Saenz agreed to help, and after a year of preparation and building, the Apache Spirit Ranch was open for business.
While Skinner might have compared May to Jules Verne, Stenger was quick to equate the German author with Louis L’Amour. More than just providing amusing tales to pass the time, May gave Germany and the rest of Europe a hero not unlike Robin Hood, and taught them the braveness of the natives. Even though he never ventured where his heroes rode, May left an indelible impression of the Old West upon the people of Europe.
It seems only appropriate that Karl May be kept alive in the town too tough to die.