Ranches At The Crossroads



Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 12

The Apache Chief Delshay had been dead three years and except for rumblings at the San Carlos and White Mountain reservations, what settlers called "the Indian problem" was relatively quiet.

In 1877 a cattleman, named for America's sixth president, John Quincy Adams, staked a homestead on Tonto Creek at its junction with Wild Rye Creek. His family odyssey had been similar to many who settled the Tonto Basin and Mogollon Rim areas during the late years of the 19th century.

Their trail led from Texas to California after the Civil War. Rumors of fabulous grazing lands in Arizona Territory reached the ears of sojourners for whom things in California had not worked out as expected. Furthermore, the gold rush in both California and Alaska had petered out and word of gold strikes in Arizona made backtracking even more enticing.

The Adams family was among those who came to Arizona from points west. They found their way to Tonto Creek at the confluence of Wild Rye Creek, the place where Tonto Creek sweeps down from the mountains and begins its journey through the Tonto Basin. Over time the water has cut a broad valley between two great mountain ranges, the Sierra Ancha and the Mazatzals. Numerous streams and washes cut into these mountains and feed the waters of the Tonto.

It was at the junction with Rye Creek that the John Adams family constructed a two-room jacal under a huge walnut tree on the banks of the river. The primitive dwelling was simply a depression in the ground walled with upright poles that were chinked with mud.

We hear little more about the Adams, except for their daughter Cordelia, who would marry another Tonto Basin rancher and settle downstream at Greenback Creek. But that's a story for later.

Other Tonto Basin ranchers may already have been running cattle in the Rye Creek area when the Adams family arrived, particularly Christian Cline who, with his five sons, brought nearly 2,000 head into the Tonto Basin. A succession of ranchers operated the claim during the 1880s, including Edward C. Conway. In 1891 he was the first to record the "76" brand, a name that came from the fact the Rye Creek confluence with Tonto Creek is 76 miles from the county seat in Globe.

During the 1880s and 1890s so many cattle were imported into the Tonto Basin and the Rim Country a plague of overgrazing took place. The areas of patented land around ranch headquarters were not sufficient to contain so many cattle, and the range was pushed back from the rivers into the forests and mountains.

This intense and uncontrolled use of the land resulted in erosion and scrub-growth conditions that continue today. To complicate matters for the ranchers, there was a prolonged drought in the 1890s that lasted until 1905. It occasioned bankruptcy for some ranch families.

The need to control the use of government land also precipitated the establishment of the Tonto National Forest and the program of grazing allotments. Eventually the 76 Ranch included, along with the deeded homestead, 36 sections (nearly 25,000 acres) of Forest Service grazing permits. Hardly any of it was flat, and the local joke was that "if the 76 were ironed it would probably be 76 sections instead of 36."

The 76 Ranch changed hands several times, and in 1912 a rancher named Cliff C. Griffin became the owner. Griffin had arrived in Tonto Basin in 1884 and bought the squatter's rights to the area later covered by Roosevelt Lake. When the dam was completed and the lake began to fill he moved his cattle to the 76 and formally named it the "76 Quarter Circle" ranch. Conditions for grazing were still so good there that it was said 18-month-old. grass-fattened steers would dress out at 470 pounds, and one, two-year-old weighed 630 pounds after being butchered. Talk around the local cracker-barrels was that the meat was so thick, steaks could be cut from outside the ribs.

Griffin brought Devon cattle with him to the mouth of Rye Creek. Most of the herds brought from Texas were Longhorns, and various mixed breeds came from California.

Little attention had been given to upgrading the stock until the dire grazing conditions made it necessary to build more value into each animal. Some Angus had been introduced in the mid-1890s, then the Durham, and finally Hereford, became the primary breed on the range.

Except for a short hiatus, Griffin owned the 76 Ranch until his death in 1943. After that, his daughter, Margaret (Mrs. John) Armer, who had married into another ranching family from Tonto Basin, operated it. The Armers ran the 76 for a number of years until its operation was taken over by the neighboring Brown and Martin families. By this time the owners were absentee partners. During its 100-year history it was said that every local cowboy who ever rode a horse had worked for the 76.

In 1983 a modern chapter began for the famous ranch. A city girl who was a teacher (and a vegetarian) was married to a businessman in Phoenix, and together they decided to radically change their lifestyle. Troy and Judy Neal went into debt to purchase the 76, and soon had made a decision to treat it with "holistic range management." Their plan was based on the observations of an African ranger who saw how massive herds of grazing animals on that continent got along. Their constant movement churned up the soil, fertilized it, and pounded it. They stayed in one place only long enough to prune the grass but not destroy the roots. By the time they returned months later the area was once again rich with grass.

The idea was for ranchers to divide their land into many pastures and rotate the grazing animals. Their hoof action and fertilizer would nurture the soil.

The Neals saw this plan as an opportunity to bring environmentalists and ranchers together with a common goal instead of fighting each other. They invited a team of wildlife specialists and environmental groups to the ranch and discovered that both sides took joy and pride in finding eagles' nests, watching deer graze with the cattle, turtles sunning on the rocks, and observing a white swan that had set up housekeeping along Tonto Creek.

As a result the 76 Ranch was selected as one of the seven best ranches in the United States for riparian management. None of this protected the Neals or other ranchers along Tonto Creek from the ravages of nature.

In January 1993 an 11-inch rain changed the course of Tonto Creek and washed away most of one field. In addition, another prolonged drought before and after the turn of the 21st century caused many ranchers to go bankrupt. Herds were drastically cut and families became entrenched in their efforts to survive.

The history of Tonto Creek is inseparable from its many tributaries. The next one downstream from Rye Creek is called Hardt Creek. Heinrich Frederick Christian Hardt had come to America from northern Germany as a youth, and in 1864, at the age of 22. he joined the Union Army from New Jersey. After surviving the Civil War he came west and settled in Arizona Territory.

Finding work on the ranches in Tonto Basin, he attended a Methodist Camp meeting at which he met Annie Harer, one of three daughters for whom The Three Sisters Mountain was named. They were married soon afterward, in April of 1875. At first they farmed within the protected environs of Ft. McDowell, on the Verde River, but about 1881 moved to the Harer ranch in Greenback Valley, the headwaters of another of those Tonto Creek tributaries.

Soon the Hardts established their own homestead claim on the creek that would carry their name. It was located up from Tonto Creek and on the dusty road from Globe to Payson. Because of the family's hospitality their house became an overnight stage stop. Riders on the horse-drawn stage (which also carried the mail) came to eagerly anticipate Annie's cooking, which included quail and venison in all seasons. It was said that even the game warden asked no questions he so enjoyed the good food. Annie also operated a vegetable stand from which travelers could help themselves and leave the money in a container.

Heinrich Hardt suffered from arthritis, and his younger children could not remember seeing him walk. For years he had to be lifted on and off his horse. He died of pneumonia during a severe snowstorm in the winter of 1898, and Annie moved to a small farm in Gisela. [2]

She sold the homestead claim to the O.C. Felton family. Felton followed the gold rush to Alaska and prospected, and was known for his participation as a cowboy in Wild West shows. Once settled on the old Hardt place, he continued it as an overnight stop on the stage route.

Tonto Creek was in Yavapai County until 1889 when Gila County was extended to include the ranch lands of Tonto Basin and the East Verde drainage. However, settlers were still used to looking west to Prescott for their county seat and in 1890 the Yavapai Board of Supervisors appointed Felton sheriff.

To be continued.

The continuation of Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 12: Ranches at the crossroads will appear in the July 19 Rim Review.


[2] After four years she and the children moved again, to a mining camp on the East Verde River called The Coppers where she opened a boarding house. To this day that location is called Boarding House Canyon. Annie died in 1939, after retiring in the early 1920s to Payson and then to Chandler, Arizona. She and Heinrich are buried with others of their family in the Hardt cemetery near Jake's Corner, the name later given to their former ranch.

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