The main house on a ranch dating back to the 1870s burned to ashes Sunday morning, but members of the family who have owned it for 30 years and Tonto Basin fire crews prevented the fierce flames from spreading to other buildings.
In 1911, President Teddy Roosevelt slept in the ranch house that had grown over time as one generation followed the other on the banks of Tonto Creek about 18 miles south of Payson.
But as far as owner Forrest Gressley is concerned, it was the people who found refuge in the place that made it irreplaceably historic.
"President Roosevelt is one thing, but there was so much more that happened there beyond that -- that's just a needle prick compared to what's happened at our place," said Gressley.
Gressley, his wife Tamara, a surgical nurse at the Payson Medical Center, and their two sons aged 2 and 4, were all visiting family in Arkansas when the fire started from still undermined causes.
They were lucky. "The fire chief said if the boys had been sleeping in there, we would have never gotten them out -- it was that fast," said Gressley, 28.
Gressley lost all his possessions in the fire, except for the four days of clothes he had with him. His wife and kids did a little better -- since they'd planned to stay in Arkansas for four weeks.
Gressley's father and brother -- Randy and Jake -- tackled the fire with hoses and the help of neighbor Brice Rose, after calling the fire department. Fire crews arrived on the scene within 16 minutes of receiving the call at 3 a.m., rousing out of bed eight of the nine people who work for the small rural fire department, heading up Highway 188, crossing Tonto Creek and speeding down a one-mile dirt road to the Delchay Ranch.
The historic ranch was named for Apache Chief Delchay, who fought his last battle in the Tonto Basin war against General George Crook's soldiers on the ranch property. The ranch is now a 288-acre cattle and horse ranch, but raising Black Angus cattle won't pay all the bills, so Tamara commutes to Payson and Forrest commutes to the Valley, where he's project manager for a specialty construction company that handles big projects like Chase Field.
The 3,000-square-foot home had started as a carp-drying shack in 1874, morphed into a ranch house. It mostly burned down in the early 1900s, rose again as a ranch house and blossomed under Gressley's loving renovation during the past six years. The structure was "fully involved" when fire crews arrived and completely destroyed within an hour. But the fire crews waged a desperate and successful struggle to keep the fire from spreading into nearby pine trees and spreading to the more recently constructed home of Randy Gressley. Fortunately, crews could pump water from a pond in the front yard.
"If the fire crews hadn't been there, they never would have saved the other house," said Gressley.
Gressley's now taking stock and trying to figure out what he'll do next. One thing's for sure, he's going to rebuild -- and hang onto the ranch where he grew up, met his high school sweetheart and learned about life -- and family.
"When you grow up on a ranch, you have that freedom -- that lifestyle -- you become a different person. When you get thrown on the stoop down in the Valley, you realize what life's about and you don't want to raise your family like that."