Frontier Teacher In Tonto Basin

Chapter 5: The move to Lower Tonto



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This dress is typical of one Angie Mitchell might have worn in 1880.

The ranchers in Tonto Basin were about to receive their first schoolteacher. Angie Mitchell was staying at the Blake ranch on Rye Creek until the schoolhouse had been prepared downstream on Tonto Creek, as well as a place for her to live. It was Sept. 25, 1880, and the Blakes had gone to the store at Reno to get supplies and mail when Angie received an unexpected guest.

She wrote, “I had another surprise about noon. First, after I had changed my clothes, banged my hair afresh, and was wondering what upon earth I was going to do with myself the balance of the long, hot day, a stranger rode up. (He was) a rough, kindly looking miner. He viewed me with surprise and asked for Judge B(lake).”

At this point we wonder at her naivete. “He accepted my invitation to come in and wait, and suddenly turning said, ‘My little lady where on earth did a dainty bit of humanity like you drop from to light this dirty valley?’”

Her diary continues, “Who’d look for flattery of such broad description from such a source? I told him I had come to teach the Lower Tonto School, and would go there tomorrow. He stared and exclaimed, ‘You teach down there! It’s like putting a hummingbird into a mud lark’s nest.’”

Angie added, “Now that’s what I call encouraging.”

She then proceeded to describe the outfit she was wearing. Her description gives us insight into the kind of clothing “city girls” were wearing in those days, but also the degree of vanity she was bringing to this rugged frontier life.

“I had on my pet dress for hot afternoons. A white lawn[1] with delicate pink flowers made with a ruffle edged milk-lace and beaded with the same; a broad sash tied at back of the lawn, tucked waist trimmed with insertion and lace and a little pink bow’ cut pointed in neck and filled in with lace and rather short ruffled sleeves trimmed with more of the lace. All of ordinary quality and common style and not new, but clean and crisp. All my own make. My stockings were flesh color balbriggan[2] with pink Irido[3] on the instep and my slippers (I never wear shoes except when I must) one strap black opera sandals with bows. My skirts of course were all white and trimmed, and he may have seen the edges of them as I sat on the steps. But I haven’t got a perfectly plain garment in my wardrobe and I wonder now if I had not better have made some.”

As Angie’s story unfolds, her use of such detail, while tedious to some readers, will prove very helpful in picturing life as it was in frontier Arizona. 

While she was contemplating her attire, the Blakes returned. Angie heard the stranger say to them, “That’s a dainty bit of girl-hood, but I’m sorry for her if she’s to teach down yonder.”

Then she heard Judge Blake respond, “She looks more like a living rosebud in that dress than anyone I ever saw. But she’s got grit enough to teach any school around this country, and she’ll run it to please herself.”

Angie added, “Janie looked at me and laughed and said, ‘You’ll need your grit in lots of ways.’ …. Next time I go into barbarism I’ll wear nothing but dark calico and unbleached sheeting, hot underclothes and hob nail shoes!”

She learned that the miner’s name was Louis Cordin.[4]

The next day, Sunday, Sept. 26, Andy and Janie Blake take Angie to the ranch of John and Mary Vineyard, where she would live until the teacher’s house was built. Mary Elizabeth Vineyard was the sister of Narsissis Jane (“Janie”) Blake, and both women were the daughters of David and Josephine Harer. Angie often refers to them as ”the girls,” and they became her closest support during her tenure in Tonto Basin.

The Vineyard family included five children, who would figure in Angie’s diary: Willie 10, Johnny 9, Green 4, Ezra and “baby Agnes.” The first three were recorded in the 1880 census, but somehow the last two were not listed there.

The diary follows the daylong trip to the Vineyard ranch, and on the way we are introduced to a number of Tonto Basin residents who will play prominent rolls in the episodes to come. They pick up some of Angie’s new students, since many of the children of necessity live with the teacher or at the Vineyard’s during the school term. The distances were too great for a daily commute. 

“At Adams’ Jeff Adams and Alice Crabtree joined us and went to Crabtree’s with us… At Tom Cline’s we stopped for Belle Hook, and she came on home.  We reached John Vineyard’s about 5…. Mr. Harrer (sic) father to the ‘girls’ was there also, and their younger sister Alice.”

It needs to be understood that all of this takes place along Tonto Creek near today’s Roosevelt Dam. Roosevelt Lake has covered the area since 1911. The Harer ranch was a number of miles up Greenback Creek in Greenback Valley, and their daughter Alice would live with Angie throughout her time there. Her reference to the Adams family is of interest because they had settled what later would become the 76 Ranch at the junction of Wild Rye and Tonto Creeks. John Quincy Adams and wife Emma settled there in 1877, and they had five children. John A. Adams was born in 1852, his twin brother Jack Adams was called “Cap.”[5] Jeff Adams, born in 1858, would later marry Alice Crabtree. Cordelia Adams, born in 1865, had married Bush Crawford in August, just before Angie arrived, and they ranched at the mouth of Greenback Creek. A daughter named Texas Adams was born in 1868.

The Crabtree girl, Margaret Alice, was 14 or 15 years old, and her family lived on the Lower Tonto.  She had apparently been staying at the Adams’ ranch, where her boyfriend Jeff Adams lived, and now returned home with the party. Alice Crabtree’s father and brothers were freighters, hauling supplies in and out of Tonto Basin.

She refers to Tom Cline. Thomas Jefferson Cline, born in 1852, was the son of one of Tonto Basin’s patriarchal families, Christian and Margaret Cline. They had migrated from Indiana to California, and after several other moves had settled in Tonto Basin in 1876. Tom Cline had married Leah Hook, daughter of James and Rebecca Hook, the year before Angie arrived.[6] Belle Hook, age 10, was at her sister Leah’s, and she joined the party as they made their way toward the school. 

NEXT: Lower Tonto School Begins

[1] A semi-sheer household linen

[2] Balbriggan is a knitted, unbleached cotton fabric used for underwear. The name comes from a coastal town in northern Ireland, probably the name of an ancient clan.

[3] Rainbow colors or iridescent.

[4] The 1880 Federal census lists Louis Corden, 47 years old, from Apache County.

[5] His actual name was James Monroe Adams.

[6] Leah’s name was actually Annie Leah Garner. Before her mother was married to James Hook, her previous husband was Leah’s natural father.


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