The History Of Sunflower Valley



This week we continue to look at the history of Sunflower Valley.

We have seen how it was the site of an Army outpost named Camp O'Connell during the Indian War in 1868. For years after that, until the Apache Trail was put through in 1905, Sunflower was a camping site for the burro trains that supplied the Rim country from Phoenix and prospectors that explored every inch of the Mazatzal Mountains.


Bernie Hughes worked from dawn to dark on his ranch into his 80s. He was either in the saddle or at the wheel of a pickup truck, inspecting, helping, worrying and planning.

As the turn of the century approached, the sons of Emer and Margaret Chilson, settlers in early Payson, began investing in ranch properties and establishing a cattle business. Sunflower became one of the early Chilson ranches, but by 1904 the drought had become so bad the cattle were dying of starvation.

The Chilsons gathered up as many heifer calves as they could, for if they could get them through the drought they could start again. The calves were fed with the limbs of cottonwood trees from the ranch and grain bought in Phoenix. They kept them in the Sunflower Creek bottom where the cottonwoods were growing, and when rain finally did come the calves were not smart enough to get out of the creek bed. A cloudburst drowned most of them.

In 1912 the Chilson brothers sold the Sunflower Ranch to the Babbitt family and bought other ranches in the Rye Creek drainage, closer to Payson.

Now enters Henry Bernard Hughes. He was born March 28, 1884 in the state of New York, and came with his parents to Phoenix that same year for his father's health. His father, John T. Hughes, began with a blacksmith shop at 4th Street and Adams, but soon went into the meat-packing business. He developed a 160-acre ranch west of the town on Buckeye Road, and there Bernard Hughes, known as Bernie, grew up to be a cowboy. In fact he loved the ranch so much he dropped out of school after the fifth grade, ran away from home and went to work on ranches and at the mines.

To bring him back into the family his dad purchased the Dos-S Ranch south of Sunflower in 1905. John put his sons Bernard and Howard on the Dos-S to manage it, and by 1914 the boys had bought it outright from their father.

To support themselves they took outside jobs in addition to ranching, Bernard worked on building the Roosevelt Road.

But the Hughes Brothers Cattle Company thrived, and they bought the Cottonwood Ranch north of Saguaro Lake in 1914. That same year, on June 24, Bernard married Cecelia Kelly, and to accommodate her, they lived in Phoenix the rest of their lives, commuting to oversee the ranch.

Howard died of influenza in 1918 and Bernard bought his share of the business. He and his wife had four children: John B. Hughes, Thomas, Mary Nell (who became Mrs. John Whitney), and Adelyn (who became Mrs. Patrick Kilbane).

In 1926 Bernard purchased the T. J. Cline ranch at the foot of Four Peaks, and in 1931 purchased the Sunflower Ranch from the Babbitt family. The holdings were expanded to other ranches on the Verde River until Hughes had joined 23 different brands under the one "Circle-Bar" brand.

In 1939 Bernard sold part of his holdings near Sunflower to another brother, John. John was killed in a truck accident in the 1950s.

Of Bernard Hughes it was written, "From dawn to dark this 100 percent cowman for many years was in the saddle or at the wheel of a pickup truck, inspecting, helping, worrying, and planning." (American Biographical Encyclopedia, Arizona Edition, 1967, Vol. 1, page 152).

At the age of 80 he was still riding, but several years later he was content to let his wife care for him in their Phoenix home.

A mercantile businessman named Charles Harry Connolly had brought his family to the Rim country from Kingman during the depression. There he and his wife, Merle, had a dry goods store, but the hard times closed it down. He worked for awhile with Arizona Game and Fish Department at the Indian Garden's fish hatchery and then became a game warden. During this time the Connollys had three sons, Harry, John Richard (called Dick), and Thomas.

In 1941 Charles Harry Connolly made another change of vocation, and the family bought the Sunflower Store from a family named Davis. By that time the Bush Highway had been punched through the Mazatzals, following the approximate route of the old Reno military road.

It was natural for a store to be placed at this junction. Dick said, in an oral history, "There were probably about eight cars a day, and all eight of them stopped." That was not really enough to earn a living, so in 1943 or 1944 the Connollys moved to Payson where Harry senior opened a dry goods store and proceeded to build several buildings on Main Street.

While in Sunflower, Harry Connolly was a supplier for the Hughes' outfit. Just five miles away was the Pine Mountain mercury mine operated by Earl Conway.

These two men teamed up to bring a railroad of sorts to Sunflower. They packed out a section of narrow gauge rails and an ore car that had been part of the little railroad carrying cinnabar ore. Using scrap iron they made a pretend engine for their railroad, laid nine feet of track, and set "The Great Sunflower Railroad" out along the road. An askew sign, also made of scrap iron, read, "Stop, Look, and Listen" and another sign read, "Sunflower MUST and will have a main-line railroad."

The attraction was enough to invite tourists to stop, and it became a landmark over the years.

In 1943 an artist named George Frederick stopped at the store and enjoyed it enough to return many times. Each time he came he would draw the portrait of one of the characters he met there. The store-restaurant-bar was the social center for ranchers, prospectors, and tourists; whoever came that way. Workers at the store could fill in guests on the stories of these faces. Seven of Frederick's charcoal portraits peered out from the wall of the store, and among them of course was Bernard Hughes.

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