The History That Flows Along Christopher Creek

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Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 7

In 1943 Gene and Annie Davis -- not related to the earlier John Davis -- bought the ranch from the Kohl family, but the name Kohl's Ranch with its good will continued. Soon after the new owners took over, the old lodge burned to the ground.

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The Ashby family -- Glenn Ashby (far right), his grandfather Lin Ashby and brother Norman -- purchased the Isadore Christopher's property in the early 1900s.

Gene and Annie built a two-bedroom cabin to live in, and continued to operate the Cowboy Barn. In 1950 they sold the ranch to the Hollingshead family, and in April 1951, 8 acres along Tonto Creek were deeded to the Arizona Board of Regents and the Arizona State University, then the State College of Arizona.

This area adjacent to Kohl's Ranch was dedicated for use as a retreat and conference center for the college and university faculty, staff, student groups and other nonprofit organizations.

In 1958 the name "Camp Tontozona" was adopted for the center. The university football team held their spring and summer practices there on a football field that runs beside of Tonto Creek.

A year after deeding the site to the state, in 1952 the Hollingsheads sold Kohl's Ranch to Michael Mikols, who had come to America from Poland after the Second World War.

He subdivided much of the remaining property, and built 41 units plus a new lodge. With Mikols' European contacts, the ranch came to be known overseas, and along with the attraction of nearby Zane Grey lodge, many international visitors began to come to the Rim Country.

In 1983 it was sold again, and although the new owners remodeled extensively, including the demolition of the old Cowboy Bar and dance hall, Kohl's Ranch continued to carry the name, the legends and the hospitality garnered for more than 100 years.

As one treks down stream from Kohl's Ranch, another storied creek brings additional water to the Tonto. It is Christopher Creek. This tributary flows from the east, and it was so important for the settlement of this region we will follow it a little over a mile to the community of the same name.

This place with its cabins, restaurants and resorts was named for a French-born pioneer, Isadore Christopher. We can't be sure when Christopher arrived on the scene, but when he signed the Great Register of Gila County in 1882 when he was 32 years old. That also was the year his ranch house was burned down by the Apaches.

Tradition tells how Christopher was out hunting or working his range cattle when the cavalry detachment came through in pursuit of an Apache war party. The renegades left a trail of blood and fire all across northern Gila County.

In Pleasant Valley they killed several ranchers, and continuing along a trail toward Tonto Creek, they burned Christopher's cabin to the ground.

When the cavalry arrived they found what they believed to be the old settler's charred remains among the ruins. They conducted a burial service out back of the smoldering cabin before continuing after the Apaches.

It was only later that Christopher himself arrived on the scene, not as a ghost but as the real person. What the soldiers thought to be his burned body were the remains of a bear Christopher had shot, skinned and hung up to cure in his cabin.

After the fire Christopher immediately set to work building a second-log cabin which still stands today along the banks of Christopher's creek. Perhaps it was the Apache scare of 1882 that made him decide life was too short to be alone, and the bachelor frontiersman began to seek a mail-order bride.

Women were hard to come by, and unless one could win the hand of a local teacher or find the sister of a neighboring cowboy, the alternative was to send back East for an adventurous female.

Isadore Christopher had two experiences with this plan, one more successful than the other. When his first mail-order bride arrived in the Rim Country she was neither pleased with the remote setting nor with the primitive conditions her proposed groom offered her.

She turned down the marriage and returned home. Christopher's second attempt, however, became the love of his life.

Mary Hole was born in England and when she arrived in Payson, the Isadore

she met was quite different from the Isadore known to his neighbors.

He decided not to take a chance the second time and altered his appearance. He shaved, cut his hair and donned a new suit. Mary stayed, and they had many happy years together.

The cabin was well built, and much of the chinking between the logs is still the original gray clay mixed with hog bristles. Christopher sold the homestead in 1907 to Lewis and Kate Bowman, who in turn sold it to the Ashby family.

I visited with the late Norman Ashby, who, with his brother Clay, moved to Christopher Creek when he was 16 years old. He told me of finding a letter buried in the chinking between the logs.

It was from Mary's sister, a letter of condolence as if someone had died. Perhaps a child of Mary and Isadore. Mary died in 1905 and is buried in the Payson Pioneer Cemetery. It was more than Isadore could handle and after struggling with his grief for a few years, the namesake of the Christopher Creek settlement moved away to San Bernardino, Calif.

When I paid a second visit to the sturdy cabin, I met a new generation of the Ashby family. He said, "You know that story about the army burying the burned carcass of the bear and thinking it was Isadore himself? Well, it's true."

"How do you know,?" I asked.

"Because when I was digging in the garden out back I uncovered the bones of the bear. They are really there!"

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