Progress In The Pines

Pine and Strawberry people make the difference

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The villages of Pine and Strawberry, which are joined at the hip beneath the Mogollon Rim, are more than convenience stops where tourists can browse through quaint antique shops and grab a bite to eat at a 1950s-style caf
There's more to these close-knit communities than fine restaurants and quiet, cozy inns.

There's more than the oldest standing schoolhouse in Arizona, built in Strawberry in 1885 and the Pine museum with its pioneer displays. There's more than Pine's

old stone structures and farmhouses, community center, churches, library and fine, spacious school.

There's more than historic Strawberry Lodge and, across the Beeline Highway, Strawberry Market. There's more than the towering ponderosa pines, the hiking trails, the mountain streams, the snow in winter and wildflowers in spring. There's more than the Strawberry Festival in summer and the Northern Gila County Fair in September and a dozen other such events.

So much more.

As longtime resident Rose Harper, who owns MVP Realty, says, it's more about the people.

"It's like Norman Rockwell here, stepping back in time," she says. "People care about each other. You can dial any 476 number at random and get help."

She mentions people such as Fire Chief Paul Coe and "his boys," who are dedicated, well-trained and essential to saving lives and protecting homes and the forest they're built in. She talks about the business owners who engage in friendly competition, send customers to one another, and are currently forming an organization that meets monthly in a cooperative effort to improve the community.

Harper talks about newcomers who've bought established businesses and are trying exciting new ideas, such as Jeff and Sherry Machemer at the Strawberry Market who are pushing more winter activities. They brought in Santa Claus (employee Jody Johnson's husband, Shane), a Christmas angel tree for children's gifts, a turkey giveaway and other special events during the holidays.

It's people meeting together to make quilts, paint pottery and run the food bank. It's service clubs like Kiwanis and Rotary. It's people going about the business of serving each other from doctors and accountants to gas-station attendants.

It's people who make the Pine-Strawberry School more than a building people like Ray Pugel at Coldwell-Banker Bishop Reality who helped raise $57,000 for the Credit for Kids program in 2000. Pugel and his employees, along with Stockman Bank and Pioneer Title Co., sent out more than 7,000 letters asking Rim country taxpayers to help schools by participating in the three-year-old state program that allows them a $200 tax credit on their Arizona income tax when they donate that amount to public school projects (or $500 to a private school).

Principal Kathe Ketchem says Credit for Kids has helped the school's athletic programs, helped fund a $50,000 facility for football, soccer and softball, has assisted drama, art, and music programs and funded character and leadership programs.

"We were able to send 30 seventh- and eighth-grade students to Chapel Rock in Prescott to the Rope Challenge program, which builds teamwork and trust," Ketchem says.

People like fifth-grade teacher Art Hood make things happen in Pine and Strawberry. He dedicated 12 of the 16 years he's been at the school to building the music program.

"We had one drum and one saxophone when I came here," Hood says. "We collected cans, held auctions, sold popsicles at lunch and had a very successful magazine subscription sale to buy instruments. I kept them repaired to make them last. Now, we have everything even violins and electronic keyboards."

In this school of 240 students, the music program now includes a 35- to 40-piece band formed by students in the three upper grades; a fifth-grade band numbering 28; a jazz band with about 20 students; a recorder class for fourth-graders; a strings class for kindergartners; piano class; and a choir. Daria Mason has been the music teacher for the past three years.

Hood, who with his wife, Sharon, raised four daughters in Pine, says he discovered music in the third-grade when he began playing the saxophone, and decided to make it his career. He understands firsthand how important creative activities can be to a child.

The people of Pine and Strawberry, estimated to be about 8,000 in the summer and about 5,000 year-round, share a common problem along with the good life they enjoy in their mountain retreat a serious lack of water. Two citizen organizations are working diligently toward some solutions to the problem: The Pine-Strawberry Improvement Association and the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District. One project they pushed is Strawberry Pond, on two acres at Dan's Highway and Bob's Bend. It's now filled and landscaped, says Steve Scott, a member of the improvement association. Not only will the pond serve as a recreation area, it will provide the fire department with valuable water reserves for controlling residential and wildland fires.

Other projects the groups have promoted include a pipeline to bring excess water from Strawberry to more water-needy Pine and water exploration at a deeper level. Currently, the focus is on getting a feasibility study done with Brookes Utilities for a storage reservoir to relieve surge demand, Scott says.

"It would be an interim solution to a chronic problem. In the summer when there is peak demand, the community is put on level-five restrictions, and it's hard on people. There are lots of complaints," he says. The building of new subdivisions is putting even more strain on the water sources available. Developing the reservoir would take three to four years.

"The long-term solution will require new water sources," Scott says.

Another pressing problem is the overgrown forest that surrounds the towns. Fire Chief Coe is excited about a grant application in the works for all the Rim country towns, which would provide about $200,000 to develop a plan to thin out the wildlands and educate the public so people can see the need for it.

"What we have now is not a natural condition," he says. "The overgrowth is killing the forest. If that grant goes through, another huge grant is available to actually carry out the thinning."

Another old problem is disappearing getting sick and injured people to the hospital and giving them emergency care at the scene. Coe is proud of a new ambulance and new equipment such as cardiac monitors on both the department's ambulances. He's adding more people who will get intensive training in the near future. Living so far from a hospital the nearest one is in Payson 18 miles south isn't as risky for Pine-Strawberry folks as it used to be.

It takes all kinds of good people working together to tackle the problems and preserve the special quality of life that makes Pine-Strawberry residents want to stay, many of them for several generations. Some first traveled to the area as children on family vacations and now are building retirement homes. Some with lots of money are escaping the stress of the city for 7,000-square-foot dream homes with grand views. And some are like Jack Tripp. He arrived four or five years ago, he says. What brought him to Pine-Strawberry?

"Poverty," he says, with a sly grin. Tripp has done it all, lived all over the country, mostly in cities, and he thinks he's found the right place. Once a high school science teacher, he's now content in the role of the traditional mountain man, selling his chain-saw-carved bears on the porch of the Strawberry Market.

When his 10-year-old dog was killed by a car a while back, there was an outpouring of sympathy from his neighbors. Now he has Charlie, "a Strawberry mountain dog a mix of everything in the area," Tripp says. Charlie was given to him as a puppy by a local man who'd heard of his loss.

You can't beat people like that.

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