The Wild West In The Rim Country

Chapter 20: The disappearing miner 

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Newly elected Justice of the Peace Cal Greer found a gunnysack filled with bones on a shelf in the Payson jailhouse. They posed a mystery that sent the JP searching for answers, and what he discovered put some pieces of the puzzle together. The mystery was clarified later by the research of Lois Prante Stevens, a niece of the dead man.

The bones belonged to Christopher Frederick Prante, son of Ernist (sic) and Mary Prante, born on Dec. 22, 1861 in Friendship, Ind. It was common usage that caused Fred’s name to end in “y” instead of “e.” He was the third son in a family of 10 children and life was hard. Fred’s father was subject to periods of depression, and a month before the boy’s 11th birthday his father committed suicide. Mary was overwhelmed with the responsibility of children ages 1 to 17, and her small herd of cattle hardly made a living for them. She planned to move near her brother in Peru, Neb., and sent the two older sons ahead to buy some land. Instead, they went to nearby Louisville, Ky. and squandered the money. They returned home empty-handed and it was four years before Mary could recover enough to fund the move. This time she took the children with her, except for Fred who was given the responsibility of driving the livestock to Nebraska.

The year was 1879, Fred was 17, and he never appeared in Nebraska. His family believed he had been killed when rustlers stole the stock. However, Fred appeared again in public records on Oct. 17, 1892 when he signed the Great Register of Gila County.[1] The address was Globe, and he was prospecting around the county. Where he had been for the previous 12 or 13 years remains part of the mystery, but during subsequent years his name appeared on a number of mining claims around Payson and Gisela. One of those claims was co-signed by David Gowan and W. E. Frazier in February 1897 – it was for The Smuggler Mine.

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Stan Brown photo

The Old Payson Jail on McLane, near W. Main

His name appeared again on the Great Register of 1900, and for two decades Pranty worked his claims and making an impression on the memories of local ranchers. Carrell Wilbanks described him as “soft spoken, medium build, fair complexion.” He had a cabin made of cedar logs in the Sierra Ancha, east of the Wilbanks’ ranch headquarters in Gisela. The actual location was on the ridge of Sheep Mountain, between Gun Creek and Alder Creek. It was his base camp for weeklong prospecting trips. He found just enough gold to keep himself in groceries.

“He never bothered anybody,” Wilbanks recalled.

In 1914 he signed the Great Register again and voted in Gisela.

In Starr Valley, the Ogilvie family remembered Pranty as an “educated gentleman,” who had graced their table more than once. The parents of Anna Mae Ogilvie Deming told her they often invited Pranty for the holidays, either at their ranch or with their relatives the Goodfellows at the Natural Bridge.

The second week of May 1924, was the last time anyone remembered seeing Fred Pranty. He had taken his burros down to Wilbanks’ pasture to fatten up before going on another prospecting trip. He said he would be gone a week to 10 days, and then he disappeared. It was several weeks later, in June, when his burros wandered into the Ogilvie ranch with broken tie ropes and reins. Pranty’s saddle was still on the larger animal he rode, the chuck box and bedroll secured to the other burro.

A posse of local ranchers was assembled and went to Pranty’s cabin. A lock still secured the door, and when they broke in they found everything in place. His big silver railroad watch was on the table, along with two dollars in change, and his rifle hung on the wall. The men went immediately to Payson to report their discovery, and the JP suggested they retrieve his belongings for safekeeping. However, by the time Wilbanks, Ogilvie and the others returned to the cabin, they found it had been burglarized. Except for a few tools, few of Pranty’s belongings were left. The men replaced the lock they had broken earlier, and went in search of Pranty’s body. However, the 62-year-old miner had completely disappeared, and the mystery became the talk of the Rim Country.

It was 10 years later, in the early 1930s, that “Dude” Greer was following a show of gold above the old Crook Military Trail, when he came upon part of a human skeleton. There was a skull and a leg bone and some other bones. A .38 pistol, with one shot fired, and a miner’s pick lay close by. The skull had a single bullet hole in it.

Greer took the bones and artifacts to Payson, where the JP called a coroner’s jury. Carrell Wilbanks was on the jury, and identified the pick as Pranty’s. He had a hammer of Pranty’s marked with three dots, and this pick was marked the same way. He also identified the familiar .38 automatic pistol as Pranty’s.

A final identification was made from the gold fillings and gold crowns in the teeth. Local residents had often called the prospector “Gold Tooth Pranty.” Carrell Wilbanks said, “We decided it was Fred Pranty all right. Some thought he might have broken a leg or was snake bit, but he’d been around snakes all his life. If he’d been bit he’d have slashed the spot with his knife, sucked out the poison and gone on up the mountain. No, I always did think he had a stroke and just shot himself.”

The bones were placed in a gunnysack and tossed up on a shelf in the old Payson jail, where they were forgotten until newly elected JP Cal Greer found the bones and retraced the story. Everyone agreed it was time to lay Pranty’s remains to rest. They placed the bones in a coal oil can and buried them in Payson’s Pioneer Cemetery, just inside the gate.

The years that had passed gave rise to tales of possible murder. However, all the evidence pointed to a lone man who had inherited his father’s tendency for depression and the memory of his father’s suicide. Or maybe it was as simple as Wilbanks suggested. The aging miner had a stroke or some paralyzing injury, and being far from help he decided to end the suffering. In any case, the long trail had found its end for Fred Pranty.[2]

SOURCES: Oral histories by Carrell Wilbanks (the younger) and Anna Mae Deming; the Rim Country History (page 12); Gila County Recorder, records of the coroner’s jury; “The Mystery of Pranty Wash”, article by Lois Prante Stevens in True West Magazine, April 1975.

[1] In order to vote men (women had no vote) had to sign the Great Register. It indicated where they were living, where they were born, if they were naturalized, and their age.

[2] It is questionable if Pranty’s immediate family ever knew what happened to him. However, a later generation, a niece of Fred Pranty, sought out her uncle’s story and wrote about it in the magazine True West, See list of sources.

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