Watching the news reports of the Picture Fire in the Sierra Ancha, my attention was suddenly focused on the evacuation of the Spring Creek ranch.
That is one of the few white spots (homesteads) on the forest map of that area, the place where the Rim country's famous "Slim" Ellison was raised. I was later relieved to learn that the fire veered away from Spring Creek, but what a good time to review some of the history of that rugged country.
Spring Creek is deep in the heart of the Sierra Ancha Mountains. Today it is practically inaccessible to all except "jeepsters"and hikers, it has been the location of many exciting events throughout the days of settlement.
Riding the old mail trail between Gisela and Young one descends into a deep, broad valley cut over eons of time by Spring Creek. It was an ideal location for Tonto Apache Indians to farm and hunt during their three or four hundred-year occupation.
In the summer of 1866 a cavalry unit out of Fort McDowell crossed the Mazatzal Mountains and the Tonto Basin, penetrating the Sierra Ancha. They were led by a detachment of Pima Indian Scouts, who knew the territory from years of staging raids upon the Apaches.
The scouts showed the soldiers a fertile valley with an Apache rancheria and a large farm at its northern end. The month was August and the harvest had already been taken. The camp was temporarily deserted.
The soldiers named the place Meadow Valley, but because their shoes were worn out they retreated.
In October a detachment of soldiers retraced their way to Meadow Valley, which seemed to be a center of Tonto activity and livelihood.
The Military Department of the Pacific planned to establish a military post in this region.
For several days the soldiers explored this stronghold, destroyed Apache villages and stores of food, and killed 15 warriors. Nine women and children were taken prisoner. Once again the soldier's boots had worn out, Apache signal fires burned from the surrounding hills, ambushes awaited at every hand, and one of the lieutenants came down with fever. They returned to Fort McDowell with the recommendation that a military post there was not feasible.
Their commander said that a wagon road into the Sierra Ancha would be impossible and a post in the heart of Tonto country should be established west of there. It was after that the army sought a location for their post in Green Valley (Payson), but determined that also was too far for a supply line. Instead they settled for Camp Reno, a temporary post in Tonto Basin near today's Punkin Center.
Throughout the Apache War the U.S. Army continued to search out Meadow Valley and surrounding Indian camps. After the war was over, Meadow Valley became a prime spot for homesteaders. By 1880 a Canadian named Louis O. Houdon built a cabin there as he prospected and mined the surrounding mountain. The mountain was subsequently named after him.
When the Apache raiders broke out of the reservation in 1882, Houdon was visiting the Sixby Ranch (later spelled Sigsbee) on Haigler Creek. The Indians came that way to steal horses, and the raiders killed Houdon as well as Charlie Sixby.
An Army detachment and Indian scouts pursuing the raiders were camped at the Houdon ranch when the surviving Sixby brother came for them and took them to see the devastation left by the raiders. (Thrapp in his book "Sieber" says Sixby found the army encamped at Rye, and took them to his ranch from there, page 247.)
Once again, in the fall of 1887, the ranch on Spring Creek became the scene of violence. It was near the opening of the Pleasant Valley War when a skirmish in that feud took place at the Houdon cabin. Local ranchers were using the cabin as a range camp, and Louis Naeglin, Tom Watley and Al Rose were there. It was the morning of Nov. 1 when Al Rose went out as the others were fixing breakfast. He yelled back that somebody was after their horses.
Tom and Louis ran out in time to see Al Rose shot and killed by an unidentified assailant. It was one of the early killings in that feud which lasted many years.
By 1898 Col. Jesse Ellison had claimed the Spring Creek valley and was running cattle there. His son Perl, father of the author Glenn "Slim" Ellison, settled the Spring Creek Ranch, and the father and son struck gold in some of Houdon's old mines at the north end of the valley.
In 1903 one of Jesse Ellison's wranglers, Carrel Wilbanks, bought a portion of Ellison's Spring Creek claim, and brought to it his "Flying W" brand. Carrel Wilbanks, who was nicknamed "Andy," married Ruth Stewart, daughter of the Payson Sam Stewarts. The Wilbanks family ran 4,000 head of cattle, and their spread included Soldier Camp, Bread Pan and Spring Creek, all places you can find on the forest map.
On June 7, 1922 Andy Wilbanks was shot and killed near Spring Creek while driving 1,000 head of cattle to the railhead in Holbrook. One of our researchers into Flying W history has correspondence from a Wilbanks relative in Texas that says, "Carrel Sr. who owned the ranch was shot and killed by his brother William on a cattle drive. William got off without serving jail time but caused a split in the family." Well, that's a tidbit for another story.
Carrel Wilbanks Jr. was 17 when his dad was killed. He took charge of the cattle drive, getting them safely to Holbrook. He then took over the ranch and cared for the family, finally buying out all of his father's land and cattle. Carrel Jr. married Leslie Greer, and he died in 1977. Both father and son are buried in the Payson Pioneer Cemetery.
The Flying W Ranch was owned by a series of seven owners after Carrell Jr. sold it in 1948. The present owner, Michael J. Frey, has the ranch for sale along with a very modern house he built not far from the old Houdon cabin which still stands. This historic valley, nestled deep in the Sierra Ancha, was spared from the fire that raged from Picture Mountain.