Back When Sunflower Was A Store



For the past two weeks we have been visiting the history of Sunflower, a storied spot along the Beeline Highway as one drives across the Mazatzal Mountains.

We were recalling the seven charcoal portraits in the old Sunflower store, each of them telling the story of a character who roamed that part of the mountain.Tom Daniels was more than just a face on the wall of the Sunflower Store. He was known as a bootlegger. During the 1920s Sunflower was headquarters for some well-known bootleg, and stills were found for decades after in the canyons.


Among the many owners of the old Sunflower Store were, from left, Keith and Betty Leavell and Una and Clyde Johnson. The last owners were Beulah and Lawrence Lilly.

Tom Daniels was one of the known bootleggers, and his picture was included in the charcoal sketches on the wall of the store. After prohibition ended Tom worked the Little Daisy gold mine and was able to keep bread on the table. He died in 1954 at the age of 83. Tom Daniels would often share the bar with Ivy Crabtree, another face on the wall. It is said that every time the two met they would get into a fight. However, by the time they left they were good friends again, walking out arm in arm after purchasing their few groceries.

Crabtree was called a "banty rooster," and knew every hill, canyon,and mountain in the area as a prospector and cattleman.

John Muntson, another face among the seven sketches, was a professor from Indiana University who at the age of 30 came west to escape the rat race. He built a cabin in Reno Pass, and spent the rest of his life there. They say his occupation was reading his collection of technical books brought with him from the East. At the store he impressed old timers with his brilliant mind, but one year he was found dead in his cabin. Later the cabin burned down.

They say Chris Martin was the lucky one pictured in the seven portraits. In the late 1930s he found a gold-bearing rock worth $17,000 on the south side of Mt. Ord. However, Chris soon spent his fortune and had to return to prospecting. Neither he nor anyone else ever found another "floater" around Mt. Ord or Sunflower like that big one.

"Boulder Bob" Dupree lived in a cabin built entirely of bottles. It was located on Boulder Mountain so everyone called him "Boulder Bob."

Every once in awhile he took his burro train down to Mesa and replenished his supply of bottles. A rooster rode on the back of one burro and a dog on another, so that this unusual caravan was easily spotted by folks traveling the Bush Highway. They say he was very reclusive, but did stay at the store long enough one time for George Fredricks to capture his face in charcoal.

The seventh of the faces in the Sunflower store was Jessie Bushnell. Born in Illinois in 1881, Bushnell was 26 when he came to Arizona in 1907. Here he became a Forest Ranger, serving more than 30 years at districts in the Coconino and Tonto National forests.

In September 1928 he was assigned to the Verde station, near Mesa, and stayed there until 1945 when he retired.

It was during his years with the Forest Service that he frequented the Sunflower Store. He became a good friend of Bernie Hughes, and had compliments to give (in an interview after retirement) about how honest and careful the rancher was in reporting his cattle numbers for the allotments.

Driving through Sunflower one sees a sign pointing to Bushnell Tanks named for the ranger.

One whose face did not make it to the wall of the Sunflower Store was Kitty Joe. Signs on the new Beeline route proclaim a creek and a canyon named for this prospector who had a cabin and a mine near by.

The Kitty Joe creek flowed down into the Sunflower Creek. (After many fruitless inquiries I finally learned who Kitty Joe was from Mitchell Holder. However, nothing else has been discovered as to his life story.)

In 1958 the Beeline Highway was paved, and this brought much new traffic through Sunflower.

Clyde and Una Johnson were the next ones to take over the store and gas station. They said it was a two-building outpost -- the café/store and the outhouse. During those years it continued to be a social center for ranchers, miners, and tourists.

In 1976 Lawrence and Beulah Lilly took over the store, continuing its homespun atmosphere. Beulah cooked for customers on the old wood stove, and repeat customers came for her several specialties, including her famous enchilada style burros. However in 1984 the Lillys closed the doors for the last time on the Sunflower store and returned to their home in Gilbert. Legal troubles in the family had brought a court order that ended the business.

For more than 50 years this commercial enterprise in Sunflower had been the only refreshment stop between Phoenix and Payson. During the latter years property owners in the valley pressed to rezone the ranch land,and developers took up Sunflower Valley. In a final episode the store burned completely down, destroyed by unexplainable arson. Lilly never could get insurance on the building because there was no fire protection or nearby water.

For years, folks driving between Payson and the Valley enjoyed the twisting road through Sunflower, along Sycamore Creek. There the seasons were magnificently proclaimed in the changing greens of the cottonwood and sycamore trees.

The old Hughes ranch faded into the sunset as new homes claimed the land and grazing allotments were reduced. Too many fatal accidents occurred along that road as eager drivers refused to take their time and just enjoy the scenery.

Now Sycamore Creek is only a diversion from the highway to private residences and a ranger station. The new divided highway whizzes so fast through Sunflower and up over Kitty Joe creek on its way to Mount Ord one cannot even hear the whispers of Sunflower's picturesque history and the stories of those who spent their days here in a more leisurely time.

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