Frontier Teacher In Tonto Basin

Chapter 16: A Gila Monster comes to School


The young teacher at Tonto School was about to encounter another unwelcome critter, this time in her classroom. It was Friday, Nov. 12, 1880, a warm summer-like day according to her diary.

“I furnished a good deal of amusement for my school today quite unexpectedly. I was hearing a geography class and feeling something tugging at my dress as if there was a weight on it, shook it off and went on with my class. Presently feeling it again I looked down and there lying on my dress skirt, in array of sunlight, was as hideous a reptile as I’ve ever seen. He was black and yellow and tawny, and had a body like a monstrous lizard, a spiky-looking tail, and a head like a snake. It was over a foot long,

“Lord! I gathered up my dress, and with a yell one could hear a mile, jumped on the stool I had been sitting on.”

She goes on to report that, “the commotion that ensued beggars description.” Several of the female students upon seeing the monster followed their teacher’s example and jumped up on the furniture. The youngest child broke out in frightened sobs. However, some of the older children who had seen these creatures before laughed and said, “Why teacher, that’s nothing but a Gila monster.”

“Well. I’ve heard lots of stories about those uncanny dwellers in Arizona.” Angie continued, “but I’ve never seen one before, at least on his native heath. I was sufficiently reassured to collect my wits, but I took pains to jump off my stool on the side the monster was not.”

She called for a recess, and while the children went out to play she invited more information from the experienced ones. “The scholars said that by some the Gilas were believed to be poisonous, but that they personally knew that some people actually petted them, and that they did not bite unless very angry. It was not an easy matter to make one angry enough for that, but they could blow themselves up, as Willie phrased it, `and puff their breath in your face and make you awful sick.’

“In the meantime our Gila has leisurely taken himself home and disappeared down a hole in the corner near my desk.”

After this the “monster” became a regular visitor in the classroom and the teacher sought to befriend it. On Thursday, Dec. 2 she recounts what had happened during the interim of several weeks.

“I’ve forgotten to say that the Gila Monster who gave me such a scare comes out every morning and suns himself. I’ve taken to picking him gingerly by the tail and putting him on the back of my desk where he lies out at full length in the sun. Sometimes he snaps up an unwanted fly and seems to enjoy himself greatly. I cease to fear him, though it will be long before I shall consider him handsome. I stroke his scaly back with a pencil and he likes it apparently. Some day I’ll try to make him mad. I want to know if it is true about the `blowing.’”

It was almost two weeks before she pursued her experiment with the monster.

Monday, Dec. 13, “Made my Gila monster mad enough to seize the pencil firmly between his teeth and bite it. Aside from a broken pencil, for I broke it trying to make him let go, no damage was done and I teased him with that pencil a good half day at intervals before he showed any special sign of temper. But he did not blow.”

The next day she had success. “My Gila monster `blew’ today, and I honestly believe if a person was in a tight room, and one of them puffed that terrible breath nearly in their face, that the person would die. It nearly killed me and I was sick most of the afternoon to pay for it. But I’ve learned that it is not a fable by any means.”

One wonders what her students were doing throughout these various antics as their teacher played with the critter. Presumably it brought much delight and laughter to break the monotony of the classroom day.

Soon after her first encounter Angie became aware of other Gila monsters in the vicinity.

Nov. 13, “Today I saw another Gila Monster. One of Mrs. Vineyard’s hens, she has only a very few, stole her nest & is setting near a rock pile. Willie found her a few days ago and today as we went past I showed it to Clara. To the surprise of us all, a Gila not quite as large as yesterday’s ran out and into the rocks. On investigation we found it had eaten up all the eggs but one, but the hen who was close by had not been harmed.”

The social life of families in the late 19th Century consisted of much visitation back and forth among neighbors and friends. Angie Mitchell’s earlier daily record while still in Prescott reflected this primary form of entertainment, but in the Territorial capital there were churches to attend with “sermon tasting” almost a sport. There were balls, concerts and dramatic productions at several theaters and halls, and there were dozens of saloons where people congregated to create gossip and sometimes violent acts. However, these more sophisticated outlets were not available to Tonto Basin families, and the movement of people among themselves became a primary diversion.

During the rest of November the teacher recorded such daily events. We share them here in order to preserve many of the names.

“Nov. 12 - Redman and young Dave Harer came this evening, the first another brother and the second a nephew, son of James I believe. There must be more Harers and their sons and grandsons than the patriarch Abraham had descendants. Dave Jr. is married and has several children but I guess they are in Phoenix.

“Sunday Nov 14 Read a while. Then Sarah and I went to walk & were gone a long time, till way after dark. Carter Hazelton came at noon. Redman & D. Harer Jr. left today.

“Mon Nov 15 24 scholars (in school). Alice’s eyes too sore for her to come. John Cline came to the school house at noon & brought me some cash from Mr. Hancock and I paid Mrs. H. my board tonight.”

Apparently the county school board subsidized the Tonto Basin school.

“Nov 16 [Tuesday] Belle who has been staying at Mrs. H’s (Hazelton’s) went home unexpectedly last night. Don’t know what is wrong. We’ve been out of candles again for several days and are burning twisted rags in bacon grease again and it is not as brilliant as gas - quite. Green & Redman H. came today.

“Nov 19 [Friday] Mrs. Hazelton is worrying greatly about Carter who started to Blake’s the other day and was coming back again right off. So Sarah and I walked over to Mrs. Hook’s camp to send Tom Fowler in search of him. Mrs. Hook returned this evening from Phoenix.”

Note, Tom and John Fowler were sons of Mrs. Hook from a former marriage. The 1880 census, taken earlier that year, listed John Fowler, born in 1833, at the Whipple Barracks in Prescott.

“Nov. 20 [Saturday] Tom F. came at 4. Reports Carter all right and that he went to Phoenix with Dave Jr., Jasper and the rest.

“Nov 23 [Tuesday] Sarah and I went to V’s (and later the other girls came) this evening.

“Nov 25 Thanksgiving Day Last eve while sitting near Mrs. Hazelton’s camp fire I got a spark in my eye & oh how it hurt. It has burned it again, only it’s the other eye, just as the fire did in the woods at home & such a night as I spent. Today it is little better. This eve Sarah and I walked up to Mrs. Crabtree’s to say goodbye and to return a book, as they go to Phoenix tomorrow to live. This has been a wretched Thanksgiving.”

Note, in the Prescott segment of Angie’s diary she was caught in a forest fire outside of town and had a similar injury to one of her eyes.

“Nov 26 [Friday] I can’t say that my walk improved my eye, as I can’t do anything at all with it. Not even open it. So Sarah taught for me today, and got along nicely.

“Nov 27 [Saturday] After enduring an indescribable amount of misery with my eye last night - it felt about midnight as tho’ a spike was sticking up in the middle of the eye - so I forced the lid up and succeeded in getting hold of something much longer & larger than any eye winker could be and that felt rough - probably a bit of half burned wood and such a relief as it was. I fell asleep & today my eye is nearly well, only weak. Cut and fitted dresses for Alice and Clara.”

NEXT: A hike almost ends in disaster


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