History Of Tonto Stores And Stopovers

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Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 13

Some settlers along Tonto Creek found that they could earn a better living operating a store than they could by raising cattle.

Way stations were much needed in the isolated Tonto Basin to service the growing number of ranchers and the travelers who passed between the Rim Country and Globe or the Salt River Valley. One of the earliest of these was the Watkins Store at the mouth of Slate Creek.

Captain William C. Watkins of Tennessee was 48 when he settled on Tonto Creek in 1882, and brought to it the H4 brand. Like so many of his contemporaries, the appellation of "Captain" was bestowed because he served in the Civil War, although he would have only been 17 when it ended.

The local school records, as well as the Great Register of Gila County, which had to be signed by all men who wished to vote, indicate that Watkins may have had brothers or cousins with him. [1]

The Watkins Store was opened soon after the family arrived, and a post office named "Tonto" was established in February of 1884, with a James B. Watkins as postmaster. The spot soon became a gathering place for the far-flung community.

Captain Watkins' son, E. M. "Chub" Watkins, reminisced about his father in a 1926 interview with ranger Fred Croxen. He told how much richer the grazing had been at first, before so many cattle came in. "Where now (1926) 150 head of cattle is considered a good roundup for one day, they used to round up at least 2,000 head and it took two days to work the bunch."

He also told how his father owned a number of greyhounds and how they ran "jack rabbits all over the mesas along Tonto Creek from the box to the mouth."

His quote continues indicating how overgrazing in the last two decades of the 19th century had resulted in devastating erosion. "There were no washes at all in those days, where at present arroyos many feet deep are found and at places cannot be crossed." [2]

However, what W. C. Watkins was best known for was his fine string of racehorses. Up in Payson, horse racing had become a primary attraction at the annual Fourth of July celebration. The pent up emotions of cowboys who had spent months in isolation on the range found an outlet in the drama of the races. They pitted their ponies against others of matched speed while bystanders made wagers.

On June 13, 1885, Globe's Silver Belt newspaper put out this invitation, "The people of all the surrounding camps and ranches will congregate in Payson on the Fourth."

By the next year the horse racing event was so popular it was given two full days. On July 3 the races were held at the Watkins' ranch on Tonto Creek. W. C. Watkins' fine horses were quite a draw, not only that day, but also the next when the races moved to Payson's Main Street. The Watkins brothers won and were challenged to another horse race scheduled for Aug. 18. A race of matched horses put up by the Watkins family and the Emer Chilson family was the main event. The horse Chilson rode was from an equally famous string belonging to the Houstons of Star Valley. It was named Desert, and Chilson won the race to collect $1,200 in wagers.

The fame of the Watkins horses attracted rustlers operating out of Pleasant Valley. In 1887 the infamous feud between the Grahams and Tewksburys launched what came to be called The Pleasant Valley War.

That year Captain Watkins passed the word that if the rustling of horses and cattle did not cease he would ride to Pleasant Valley and stop it himself. He got his answer when in less than a year, his store was robbed of a large quantity of merchandise. Watkins and his sons followed the robbers' trail closely enough that the fleeing felons abandoned their three horses and cached the stolen goods.

The abandoned horses and saddles proved to be the property of Tom Graham.

Store owner Watkins then got up a posse of 27 men along with a peace officer, and followed the trail directly to the Graham ranch. The Arizona Silver Belt, on May 12, 1888, continued the story. "This party finally induced the insiders to surrender but not before the robbers had got away. The posse laid in wait some time and the two robbers thinking the coast clear came in for grub. But by an untimely noise the robbers again managed to escape. Watkins' party claim to know the robbers well, and named Waddell and Dickerson, the former being known as Tom Graham's foreman. The people here are aroused and determined to put a stop to such work."

It is apparent the violence that threatened Tonto Basin was more than Watkins and his family wanted to contend with. The publication Hoof and Horn reported in its Dec. 20, 1888 issue, "We are informed that a Mr. Taylor of California has purchased the Watkins ranch and improvements for $2,750 and all the cattle at $12.50 per head. The purchaser has secured a great bargain, the ranch being worth (more than) the purchase money. Mr. Taylor is also bringing 1,200 head of cattle from New Mexico, which were unloaded at Holbrook and brought as far as Delshay Basin where the drive was abandoned, owing to the miry condition of the ground, the result of recent rains. Captain Watkins does not give possession of the ranch until next May."

Undoubtedly the herd from the abandoned cattle drive was allowed to graze, and later rounded up and taken to the ranch.

There are no Watkins children in the school records of Tonto Basin after 1888, and no Watkins names appear on the biannual Great Register in 1890, apparently confirming that the family left the area.

However, William Watkins' son Ezra and his wife Sarah had returned to the community of Tonto by 1894, when Ezra M. Watkins signed the Great Register. He continues to appear in the Register until after the turn of the century. The Tonto Post Office was closed in June 1902, and the mail directed to the Cline Post Office farther down the Basin. This suggests the Watkins store was being replaced as the community established by Florence Packard at Reno Creek took on importance.

Packard, the man with a woman's name, had moved from Missouri with his parents to California and later to Arizona. He met and married Sarah Harer in Tempe, and they came to the Tonto Basin in 1875 together with her father David Harer. Florence Parkard's parents also migrated to the Tonto.

Florence and Sarah moved several times to different ranch locations in the basin before staking a homestead claim where Reno Creek comes down to join the Tonto. Reports differ as to when he opened his well-stocked store, either in 1907 or 1912, but it was after his wife Sarah died in 1902.

Tales abound about the prowess of Florence Packard as a lion hunter and trapper. Packard's son Bill and wife Rhoda (Goswick) operated the store most of the time for their dad, as he was busy with his hunting and prospecting trips. He would often be gone with his hounds for a month at a time, sometimes on foot without the help of horse or mule. Wearing moccasins and carrying a .22 rifle, he returned with a load of hides worth as much as $20 each.

He prospected for gold as he traveled and often brought rich samples back for assay. The family prospered, sported the first automobile on the Tonto, the first phonograph, and other amenities.

The importance of the lion hunts in that region is illustrated in the remembrances of E. C. Conway from Greenback Valley. Historian and author Jinx Pyle quoted Conway recalling another famous lion hunter, Floyd Pyle. "Once he caught an old she-cat with four big kittens. He got them all off a deer kill. Floyd said he noticed that old female was baggin' up again (about to give milk) so he cut her open and there was four kittens inside her. He figured that was going to be the last kill she made for those big kittens. He rid the country of nine lion just on one hunt that time! Nine lion would have killed some cows, you bet! Lions favor horse meat above anything. A mare and colt just can hardly make it in this country. An old female lion like that with kittens, she'll kill two deer a week all year long, and if she can't find the deer she'll kill cows!" [3]

Local folk claim Packard killed at least 250 lion in his career. Florence died in January 1932, and is buried with his wife in the Cline Cemetery of Tonto Basin. The location of the Packard store would later be called Punkin Center, and after 1917 it passed through the hands of several merchandisers. [4]

The Packard store became the social hub and a central meeting place for the people of Tonto Basin. By 1915 several of the far-flung schools in the Basin were consolidated here, and in 1925 several Tonto Basin post offices were also combined at this location.

Like ranches and farms that carry the name of the original owner for years after they are gone, the store continued to be called the Packard Store. However, early in its history the affectionate name of "Punkin Center" was bestowed on this little community.

It is important for outsiders to realize this is not a misspelling of "Pumpkin," but is pronounced just as it is. Like a trademark, the Tonto Basin residents carefully guard their colloquial pronunciation.

Two different stories persist about the origin of that name. The most obvious is that it came from the annual pumpkin growing contest held in the area each year. The competition was fierce among residents to see who could produce the largest pumpkin, and the Packard Store was the official weighing station. [5]

The other story is told by the old-timers, and is probably more authentic. At one point in the history of the Packard Store, John Norton used the store as a regular stop on his freight wagon run from Phoenix to Payson. One day upon arrival he noted Florence Packard's Model T Ford with the owner standing beside it. "Well I'll be darned," exclaimed Norton, "It's Uncle Josh from Punkin Center." Uncle Josh was a turn-of-the-century comedian who recorded early phonograph records. He purported to come from Punkin Center. The name struck a familiar note chord because of it being a center for the annual pumpkin festival.

As late as 1953 The Arizona Republic could report that Punkin Center "is a typical Out-West community where there is free dancing every Saturday night, and during the winter cowboys compete in Sunday calf ropings."

Notes

[1] From 1883 to 1889 the names of several sets of Watkins parents and their children, including William C. and Sarah Watkins, appear on the records of several Tonto Basin schools.

[2] Croxen papers, Rim Country Museum Archives, Payson.

[3] The Payson Roundup and Rim Review, "E.C. Conway Remembers Florence Packard" by Jinx Pyle, April 21, 2004.

[4] Subsequent owners were Harry Wilson, Mart McDonald, Bill Colcord, Joe Cornett, "Jip" Toot. After a tenure of 27 years the Toots sold the store to John and Carolyn Dryer around 1968. Over the years the store was enlarged, and moved to a larger building nearby.

[5] "The History of Tonto: A Bicentennial Project by The Punkin Center Homemakers," edited by Al LeCount, 1976, page 35.

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