Back When Forest Lakes Was A Mining Camp



As Memorial Day weekend comes upon us, our fancy turns to thoughts of vacations. The holiday marks an emotional beginning of summer. Families arrive for the weekends or for extended periods, opening their summer cabins or taking advantage of the campgrounds and rentals on top of the Mogollon Rim. Those of us who live below the Rim turn our eyes almost hourly to that great escarpment marking our northern horizon. It is our compass and also our hope that we can escape to the glorious forest to enjoy its playgrounds and beauty. One of the Rim's most majestic spots is the community of Forest Lakes, 37 miles east of Payson off Highway 260. It has a story to tell. This patch of over 1,100 acres was simply more of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest until a fellow named Reed Dennison filed mining claims in late 1939. The primary ore to be mined was manganese; a metal that would soon be much in demand as the world was plunged into war. Reed had a brother Alvis who was his partner in the venture, and Alvis' wife Marie Dennison had two brothers named Bill and Ted Wheeler, who also became partners.

Reed was killed in an auto accident in 1949, and Alvis Dennison, along with Bill Wheeler took over the mining operation. Alvis, his wife Marie, and their adopted son, Bill Dennison built a cabin there in 1955 and became permanent residents.

Marie's nickname was Merz, pronounced "Mertz," and the little settlement was soon being called Merzville. The road on which the Dennisons lived became Merzville Road, and the water spigot in front of their house was the only place miners and other locals could obtain water. Electric lines stopped at Christopher Creek, so life in the forest was relatively primitive. The United States government was purchasing the manganese and stockpiling it. Alvis designed an ore separation plant, located where the old dump was later placed. Water for the plant came from the first well, drilled by the Dennisons, and two large diesel generators furnished power for the separator.

Bill Wheeler and Alvis Dennison operated the mines along with two miners from Heber and five families from New Mexico's Zia Indian reservation. After the ore was washed out it was hauled to the railhead at Show Low and taken to the smelter in El Paso. Alvis died in the summer of 1964, and about that same time the government ceased to buy the manganese.

As the end of the mining operation came into view, the partners talked about trying to patent the land and make it a community of summer homes. Bill Dennison and his mother, Merz, supervised the operation, and Bill brought in a partner named, Bob Williams.

They were successful in gaining ownership of the land, and turned the mining claims into a subdivision. At that time the county had little or no requirements for developers to provide utilities, and the first lots were occupied without the benefit of ether electricity or water.

By 1967, 150 of the lots had either a house or a trailer on them. An association was formed to convince Arizona Public Service to bring electric lines up onto the Rim, while Merz and Bill Dennison gave the Association some land at Merzville Road and the Old Rim Road for a well and storage tank. Members of the Association had a key to the well house, and often there was a long line waiting to fill everything from 500-gallon tanks to small jugs. Later an old truck, with a 1,000-gallon tank, was bought and water was delivered to the lots for one cent per gallon. Merz and her family donated three acres to the county for a road maintenance yard and a fire station. In May 1968 the next permanent residents moved in and became prime developers of businesses in the area. They were Bob and Juanita Callahan, with their daughters Carol and Connie. There still was no community water system, but Bob was working for the State's Department of Public Safety. When he retired in 1972 he saw to it that a water department was developed for the community. Soon lines were installed that brought water directly to every lot. Spurred by their daughters' need to get to school, the Callahans were instrumental in obtaining the first school bus for the community, and Bob served on the Chevelon District School Board. the Callahans also built the steak house on Highway 260 and operated it for about four years. Although the old-timers continued to call the community Merzville, as did the Forest Map, new residents began using the name Forest Lakes. The close proximity of many Rim Lakes probably inspired the name, although the manganese mines throughout the community had left many depressions that accumulated water.

During the winter of 1967-68 it had snowed for 20 straight days, and the white stuff accumulated to a depth of 11 feet. It was soon obvious that Forest Lakes was going to become a center for winter sports.

In the 1970s an energetic fellow named Tim Grier moved into the community. This gentleman would make a name for himself over the next decades not only as an English teacher, Payson Town Attorney, writer, forest ranger, and skiing instructor, but he developed an extensive business in Forest Lakes for winter sports and year-round retreats.

Snowmobiles and cross-country skiing have become a big winter activity in Forest Lakes, not only for fun but also for Search and Rescue operations.

Early on, the Callahans' daughter Connie ran in the state women's snowmobile races at Forest Lakes, and their daughter Carol won a state snowmobiling championship. Merz Dennison and her son Bill died within months of each other in 1981. They had lived to see the fruits of their devotion to Forest Lakes. Their pioneering work provided a delightful retreat for those who own property and the rest of us who like to visit there with our friends.

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