The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 17: National Forests Established

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Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

The original Forest Ranger Station, circa 1908. A second station replaced this one later, at the same location, and today is part of the Rim Country Museum complex.

In 1905 an event took place that profoundly affected the life of settlers in Payson and the surrounding Rim Country: President Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service. 

Some years earlier, President Benjamin Harrison had been authorized by Congress to establish Forest Reserves, setting them aside from public domain. In 1891, 15 reserves were created, and in 1898, President McKinley created the Black Mesa Forest Reserve. Its southern half ran from Tonto Creek east to Safford.

Until then, all government lands were open to public access, and ranchers simply agreed among themselves where they would range their cattle. However, by the 1890s the forests and bottomlands of the Rim Country had become so overloaded with cattle, the range was greatly deteriorated. Yet today, the results can be seen in areas of heavy erosion. Thickets of bushes and small juniper trees called chaparral replaced the tall grass touted by early settlers. To add to the problem was the continual herding of sheep bands through the area in their semiannual migration from the desert to the high country and back again. This caused additional destruction of the range. An early government report stated, “Large areas of low tableland and rolling hills which were formerly covered with grass now contain a worthless growth of low sunflowers from one to two feet in height. The grass has been completely destroyed on almost all of the mesas and low hills within the sheep district, and as a result the cattle industry has been curtailed. This not only means a great financial loss to the cattlemen, who are the real home builders, but it means a loss of hundreds of dollars to the treasury of Gila County.”[1]

Nonresidents in the Salt River Valley were the primary owners of the sheep, and conflicts between herders and cowboys often resulted in violence. With the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service came the demarcation of sheep drives, specific corridors along which the sheep were allowed to transverse but not allowed to trespass on ranchers grazing allotments.

In 1904 a census of all cattle, goats, hogs on government land, was ordered, and a charge of 10 cents for each range cow was instituted. In 1905 the charge was raised to a dollar per cow, and a deadline was set for all goats and sheep to be off the range. A 1904 report described the area east of Tonto Creek as having “about 25 ranches, some of which are simply cow camps, and are inhabited not more than six months during the year ... A small settlement consisting of seven ranches, two stores, and a post office is located at Pleasant Valley ... also Ellison Post Office about seven miles east of the valley. With these two post offices the residents are kept in touch with the outside world by a semi-weekly mail from Payson, where it is brought by stage from Globe ... At Gisela Post Office, 12 miles south of Payson, is found a small settlement of six or eight families located in the flats of Tonto Creek, and forming one of the largest settlements on the creek. Most of the settlers are stockmen, the Postmaster heading the list with 1,000 Angora goats.” [2]

This reference is to the John Holder family. They had been raising Angora goats on federal land in the vicinity of Payson for almost 20 years when the national forests were established. In the winter of 1901-02 an unusually heavy snowfall had killed many of the goats and Holder decided he needed a warmer climate for them. In the fall of 1902 he took his reduced herd and purchased a ranch along Tonto Creek at Gisela. There he opened a store and became the Gisela postmaster.

At the time the U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905 Payson had been getting its supplies and merchandise by pack trains that traveled from Phoenix or Flagstaff. However, when the Apache Trail was punched through from the Valley to Tonto Basin, in order to facilitate the building of Roosevelt Dam, the pack trains were soon out of business. Local packer Lewis Pyle was now looking for work.

Lewis Pyle had purchased the old Apple Farm on Ellison Creek and his hogs thrived on the fruit from the old Ellison orchards. Now that he no longer had the pack train for income, Pyle decided the new U.S. Forest Service would be a good employer. His decision was based on a chance encounter a few years earlier.

In 1901 at the age of 19, Lewis had gone back to school, and according the records of Globe School District #18, he enrolled in the Rim Rock School. His teacher was the wife of a forest ranger named William H. Reed who worked on the Black Mesa Forest Reserve. Over the next few years, Pyle became acquainted with ranger Reed who interested him in working on the forest. Reed taught Lewis how to use a compass and gave him a forest ranger’s manual to study. He then put his young student to work counting sheep and cattle in the Black Mesa Reserve. In the summer of 1905, Reed encouraged him to take the exam in Flagstaff and become a full-fledged forest ranger.

Lewis and Forrest Hale went together for the test. Since the use of guns would be one of the tests, the two men practiced on the way shooting an old frontier six-shooter and a .30-.30 Savage carbine rifle. Lewis said he had always been a slow reader and at the written test he was the last to turn in his paper. The test supervisor said to Ranger Reed, “I don’t think Pyle is going to do very well on the field tests because he was the last one to turn in his paper.”

Reed quickly responded confidently, “You watch Pyle in the field tests tomorrow and he will show these other fellows up.”

The next day Lewis’ score was second best of the group in handling the gun. When it came to how fast he could pack a horse or mule, his years of experience paid off and in two-and-a-half minutes he packed the animal well enough to last a day’s travel of 18 miles. The test of chopping down a tree was a snap. He had been chopping trees since he was 9 years old. They assigned him the biggest tree available, and he was the first of the group of 13 to get his down. He finished the entire field test in second place. Forrest Hale also passed the test, and Ranger Reed said he wanted them to be the first two rangers on the Tonto Forest Reserve that was about to be created.

On Oct. 3, 1905, the Tonto Forest Reserve was established running west and south from Tonto Creek. Pyle’s job on the Black Mesa Reserve ran out Dec. 1, and Reed contacted them Dec. 15 with the new position. [3] 

In 1906, the Forest Reserves were transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. It was at this point that the overgrazing of the Rim Country reached its peak, and the authorities knew that radical steps were required. Lewis Pyle had the task of informing all sheep and goat owners they had to remove their stock from forest land. He said it went against his grain, the hardest job he ever had to do. He could not see the conflict regarding goats since they only ate brush and cleared the land for grass to grow. But the Holder family had to evacuate their goats, and by the spring of 1906, they had moved their herds to New Mexico, 76 miles from Magdalena.

In 1907, the forest reserves were renamed national forests, and Roosevelt added 99 million acres to the system. In 1908, the government dissolved the Black Mesa Reserve, and divided it between Apache, Sitgreaves, Coconino and Tonto National Forests. The primary purpose of the Tonto National Forest was for watershed protection. Two-thirds of the forest drains into the Salt River by way of Tonto and Cherry Creeks, and one-third drains into the Verde River directly or by way of the East Verde River and its tributaries. Governmental agencies established policies that all this water was needed and indeed belonged to the Valley of the Sun for its agricultural purposes. One government paper states, “Since all water from the Tonto Forest is needed to fully utilize the excellent agricultural land in the Salt River Valley, which is capable with irrigation of bearing splendid crops, the administration of the Tonto Forest as to grazing, timber cutting, alienation of lands, etc., should be administered by the effect of contemplated action on the waterflow conditions ... Almost the entire (Tonto) Forest area is topographically unsuited to agricultural development.” (See note #1)

By 1908, Payson had become the seat of the Payson Ranger District, and a local cowboy who knew the territory well, Fletcher Beard, was appointed as the first forest ranger in Northern Gila County. Incidentally, he had married Lewis Pyle’s sister, Nellie.

So it was that the Forest Service offices became an integral part of the Payson scene, and the rangers and their families assigned there became part of Payson’s social scene. The second of those Forest Service offices still stands today and is part of the Rim Country Museum complex.

[1] Tonto Land Classification Assessment 1914 by District Forester Arthur Ringland, Oct. 20, 1914 report to Washington, D.C.

[2] Proposed Addition to the Black Mesa Forest Reserve by A. E. Cohoon, published by U.S. Forest Service.

[3] Lewis Pyle worked intermittently between the Forest Service and his ranch until 1922, when he went to work full time on the Coconino National Forest. He retired in 1946. The stories about Lewis Pyle are from his own words, 1) in an oral history taped by Nick Hauser in 1970. The tape is #592, and is in the Rim Country Museum; 2) Oral history of Lewis Pyle in “The Early Days” A Sourcebook of Southwestern Region History, Book 1, Report #7,” page 153, USDA Forest Service, Southwestern Region, 1989).

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