A close relationship between forest rangers and the people of Payson existed from March of 1907 when the Tonto National Forest was established. The ranger’s station and house, along with a barn for horses and mules, were the center for the Payson Administrative District, and the first ranger assigned here was Fletcher Beard, a cowboy turned forest ranger.
The primary purpose of the Tonto National Forest has always been to protect the watersheds of the Salt and Verde Rivers, but a primary concern for the residents of Payson has always been fire protection.
In the late 1930s the District Ranger in charge was Clyde Moose, and his assistant was Ed Fuel. Clyde was over six feet tall with short, sandy hair, very friendly with town folks, and was usually in uniform, neat and trim. Ed was short, bow-legged and bald; he was also a local rancher who had raised cattle south of Jake’s Corner and owned the 3-V brand. The cattle ranchers felt he was one of their own, with whom they could easily communicate. He talked their language and knew their problems first hand.
The dedication of the rangers was demonstrated when a fire was reported in the Mazatzals. It was off-season and no trail crew was available. Ed was away, so Clyde had to go and fight the fire alone. He loaded his horse, drove to the Bar-T-Bar ranch on Deer Creek, and then rode up the mountain trail to within a half-mile of the fire. The trail became too difficult for the horse, so he tied it and walked the rest of the way carrying his tools. Lightening had struck a green tree and set the pine needles around it on fire. The flames had spread to dead logs and brush, but Clyde worked around the parameter and contained the fire.
He walked back to his horse to retrieve emergency rations, and then had to go a mile to Pigeon Spring to water himself and the horse. He had cleaned and boxed that spring a week before, so he knew the territory. The horse couldn’t reach the water, but the ranger found a discarded half-gallon container, so narrow the horse could only reach the top few inches. Clyde kept topping it off with an old can so the horse could keep drinking.
Horse and rider then returned to get as close to the fire line as they could. The ranger knew he had to stay there overnight and keep putting out the embers. He unsaddled the horse and hoped a bear would not come along to cause the horse to break loose. Again he walked up to the fire area, and though the sun had set, he worked in the dim light.
A thunderstorm was brewing, and the brush shelter he erected leaked until his cloths began to be wet. He knew he could become extremely cold when wet at that altitude, so he abandoned his shelter and stood under a little pine tree. As it became saturated and dripped on him he would step outside its branches and hit it with his shovel, knocking off the water and then stepping back under the branches.
Between showers he darted out to shovel the deep burning embers onto the damp ground where they would go out.
In his memoirs he tells what happened next.
“I was shoveling on the upper portion, then walked to the lower side and was working there when I heard a bear running down the hill near my heels. I made a big swing with my shovel so as to hit him about the upper part of his legs. I hit nothing, but my shovel passed over a big rock rolling down the hill. I suppose the fire had burned its support and it rolled down. It gave me a scare, and I have to admit I was a little spooky up there alone anyway.”
About 3:30 in the morning the moon came out to give light. The fire was out and Clyde was wet and cold; the horse was restless.
He wrote, “It was a beautiful sight,” as he rode down the mountain. “The clouds were hanging low and the tops of the higher mountains were showing above the clouds. When I got back to the Bar-T-Bar ranch, the cowboys were eating breakfast and I ate with them.”
During regular fire seasons the rangers had a regular crew of men working along the mountain trails, ready to fight fires. Ed Fuel’s project was to pack in their supplies and supervise their work.
The big problem was getting word to the crew when a fire was spotted from the Diamond Point Lookout. At last some representatives from the regional office demonstrated a couple of two-way radios. The little sets, each about the size of a shoebox, worked on batteries. Clyde explained to them the inaccessibility of the Mazatzal Mountains, and how long it took to get to a fire once it was reported. It took six to eight hours for a messenger to reach one of those trail crews.
Clyde and Ed negotiated to have the first two-way radios in the region, one located at the Diamond Point lookout and the other to be with the trail crew.
Fire watchtowers were built on Baker’s Butte, above Strawberry, on Diamond Point and on Mount Ord in the Mazatzals. Like others in the Rim Country, the Mount Ord tower and cab were erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936. The CCC also built the narrow switchback road to the site, rising nine miles from the mercury mine camp on Slate Creek. The remnants of the well-built culverts and retaining walls of hand mixed cement and native stone can be seen today, but an alternate, well-graded road has since been built to the top. The seven-foot square, pre-fabricated steel cab was built by the Aermotor Company of Chicago, Ill., famous for their windmills and tanks from 1888 until the company went out of business in the 1960s.
In 1983 the Forest Service announced that the historic tower would be replaced, and the Phoenix chapter of CCC alumni petitioned to salvage the upper 22 feet of the tower and the cab. Their hope was to place it in the Phoenix South Mountain Park as a monument to the work of the CCC in Arizona. The agencies involved agreed to the plan, but the lack of volunteer labor led to placing the artifact in storage at the Blue Ridge administrative site near Saguaro Lake.
In 1989 when the Northern Gila County Historical Society established the Museum of the Forest (later named The Rim Country Museum), leaders Jim Lipnitz, Don Dedera and others launched a move to save the old fire watchtower. The Society requested permission to display the tower and cab “on the site of the old ranger station on west Main Street in Payson. This is certainly a historic structure and would be a wonderful way of educating the visitors to our Tonto National Forest in the safe use of the forest,” wrote Dedera.
Such objects from Federal government agencies cannot be given to private entities, but could be transferred to other government agencies. The Town of Payson interceded, taking ownership and then turning it over to the historical society. The tower and cab were brought to Payson by a crew from Arizona Public Service, then erected and refurbished at the museum by a crew of local volunteers. It was May of 1991 when the display was rededicated in its new location, at the same time the Museum of the Forest was opened. Standing just west of the museum it is a permanent display, not only to educate the public but as a memorial to the CCC and the fire fighters who have protected the people of Payson over the many years.
Sources: Oral history and memoirs by Ranger Clyde Moose, in Rim Country Museum archives. Archives of the Tonto National Forest, in Phoenix.