Frontier Teacher In Tonto Basin

Chapter 6: School Begins On The Lower Tonto


After five days living with Andy and Jane Blake on Wild Rye Creek, teacher Angie Mitchell was escorted along Tonto Creek to the ranch of John and Mary Vineyard. There Angie would live until the ranchers finished building the teacher a house near the school. On the way there the little party picked up several of her students-to-be from other ranches. Several of the children would board with Angie and the Vineyards during the school term because distances from their homes were too great for a daily commute.

On her first day there, the teacher used her ability for keen observation to provide us with a description of an 1880 ranch house in Tonto Basin.

“September 26, (Sunday) The house consists of 1 room 16 by 16; dirt floor, pole house, thatched flat roof, no windows, open space; smak in the sides (calking between the logs). It has a rough fireplace and in this house live V. and his wife and 5 children: Will, John, Green, Ezra, and baby Agnes. Alice (Crabtree) and I are to stay temporarily. Great stars! It is located in a lovely place. Trees and fine views on all sides and nothing bleak or dreary about it.

“As to the furniture, 2 rough double bunks for bedsteads and hay-filled ticks – but four pillows, and that’s luck! Clean, abundant homemade quilts, a long homemade dining table, uncertain on one leg; two or three boxes used as trunks pushed under the bunks; 6 or 7 homemade stools; a rough table; a fair cook stove and a fair collection of heavy white crockery, and quite a lot of tins. (There are) calico curtains around one bunk, a cracker box cradle, a small lamp, some more block or bottle candle sticks; a Bible, almanac, one or two stock books and a few old papers. And that’s about all! Everything is clean and tidy though, and the family are very kind and pleasant spoken. V. is over six feet and built in proportion; while Mrs. V. is not much over 4 (feet) and weighs I guess about 90 pounds.”

The next day, Monday, Janie Blake went home while her husband Andy remained to help his father-in-law, David Harer finish the one-room school. The Greenback Valley settler was concerned that his grandchildren would have schooling, and saw to it that the teacher was hired. David Harer also sponsored the building of the schoolhouse.[1] It would be the first schoolhouse in Tonto Basin, and was located near the mouth of Greenback Creek.

The Harer family had migrated to Oregon in the 1850s. From there David’s branch of the family moved to California, then on to Arizona. David and Josephine arrived in Tonto Basin in 1875 with their eight children and son-in-law Florence Packard.

LeCount in his book The History of Tonto (page 68) writes, “At intervals some of the brothers of David lived on the Tonto, including Nathaniel Green Harer, a Methodist minister. He was a widower and his four children were reared by David and Josephine along with their own family.”[2]

The schoolhouse was finished by nightfall that Monday, Sept. 27. It was about a quarter of a mile from the Vineyard house, on the bank of Tonto Creek. Tuesday morning school began, with only four students. Andy Blake and David Harer returned to their homes.

Angie wrote, “After school Alice (Crabtree) and I went to Mrs. Hooks’, who is camped under a big tree.”

They probably were walking 10-year-old Belle Hook over to bid her mother goodbye. Mrs. Hook had camped there to see her daughter and son, 9-year-old Charlie, through their first day of school. After she returned to her home, the children boarded with the Vineyards for the rest of the term.[3]

That night as Angie recorded in her diary she wrote, “A man named Allison, alias Big Windy, stays at V’s tonight. Evidently they keep a station too.” 

Ranches in this isolated country often became “stations,” places where travelers could refresh their horses and spend the night. The man Allison, who spent that night there, does not appear in the 1880 census and is unknown to us. His nickname, “Big Windy,” indicates he was a braggart.

On the second day of school, Wednesday Sept. 29, Angie briefly records, “Johnny V. is a cripple so he has to ride and his mare is named Six Bits. Tonight while I was holding her and Alice saddling her, she bit us.” Perhaps the mare’s tendency to bite is the reason for her name, unless she was worth only $1.50.  

The next two days there are no entries, indicating the teacher was too busy with her preparations or too tired to write. However, she held classes on Saturday in order to make up for the previous Monday when the men were still building the schoolhouse. “The schoolhouse resembles V’s abode, only it has no door and is not as high or as large.”

Next we learn something of the 1880 Tonto Basin diet.

“Oct. 3rd Sunday. Board consists of coffee, milk, bread, bacon, and dried apples, all well cooked however. Twice we had beans and some jerky. Today it is bread and boiled chicken. Alice, Willie and I took a long, long walk. Got home at 7. A Mr. Persons has come to work for V. This house is like a New York omnibus!”

Although Angie was born on the East coast, the Mitchell family moved to Kansas when she was about 4-years-old. We assume she had later visited New York to know what a “New York omnibus” was like. She probably means crowded and noisy. As to the hired hand, William Persons was a carpenter living in the Lower Tonto area.

On Monday as the school week begins, we meet the Armer children.

“Oct. 4th, Sara and Melinda Armer aged 14 and 13 came to school this morning. They live over 7 miles from here on Salt River… Oct. 5th, Tom and Frank Armer came to school today.” These boys were 10 and 8.[4]

The children’s parents Henry and Lucinda Armer had traveled throughout the western states before settling in Arizona at Grapevine Springs on the Salt River. It was about 6 miles southeast of the mouth of Tonto Creek. Their homestead became known as Armer Gulch, and they lived there until the government purchased their land after the turn of the century because it would be covered by Roosevelt Lake. When they were required to move they established the A-Cross Ranch, 4 miles north of Roosevelt on the road to Pleasant Valley.

NEXT: A Mountain Lion Tries To Get In


[1] This information comes from Payson historians Jinx and Jayne Peace Pyle, in correspondence with Stan Brown.  

[2] Near by the map indicates “Methodist Mountain,” obviously named for or by the Methodist Harer family.

[3] The Hook children’s older sister Leah had married Tom Cline.

[4] Malinda Armer would die while still a teenager. Tom Armer would become head of the family after their father died in 1909, and during World War I he was elected sheriff of Gila County. Frank never married, and in the early 1920s he participated in a train robbery that landed him in the Territorial Prison at Yuma. He was shot during an attempt to escape, and the resulting lung ailment caused his death.


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