Bray Creek is a little mountain brook nestled in the arms of Arizona’s great escarpment, the Mogollon Rim. It breaks its way through the forested foothills and flows into Webber Creek, and thence eventually into the East Verde River. Close to its headwaters, near the Highline Trail, there is a lovely meadow of private land that attracted pioneers with squatter’s claims as soon as the threat of Apache attacks had ceased. In the latter decades of the 19th century, Rim Country settlers traded the hard work of living off the land for the joys of the area’s intense beauty and solitude.
The first man to settle on this creek was named Bray, and while he left his name on the stream he left no paper or genetic trail for us to trace. He was followed by the families Hilligas and Boardman, who grew vegetables and potatoes in the fertile soil along Bray Creek and packed them out on mules to sell in their Payson stores.
The next family to live there was that of George F. Stewart, who patented the land in 1924 and built a little log cabin. In the 1930s a man named Minear bought the property, replacing the cabin with a house.
The rays of the September sun were gentle due to a breeze off the Rim, and the spirited brook flowed a few feet away from where we sat. The year 1976, and I was conversing with retired Forest Ranger Harold Hulbert, who had owned the Bray Creek Ranch since 1955. His wife Addie Lee Hulbert and my wife Ruth were picking blackberries from the thick bushes that lined the creek.
Hulbert was telling me how the former owner, Minear, built the house in 1944 out of lumber from an old hotel at Roosevelt that had been owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad. They used to bring tourists up the Apache Trail to see the dam when it was new. Minear bought the hotel, tore it down and sold part of the lumber, using the rest of it to build his house on Bray Creek. The Hulberts bought the homestead when Harold, or Hal as he was called, retired from the Forest Service. During some of the time in retirement he had managed the Boy Scout Camp on Webber Creek.
The old ranger spoke slowly, with the wispy whistle of one whose teeth may not fit properly. The stone patio on which we rested was shaded by the house and was lined with metates and manos found in the area. Ruth and Addie came up from berry picking and she was making us all lemonade while she inserted clarifications to her husband’s narration. It was a delightful few hours, with a sense of being in touch with genuine history.
The aging process caught up with the couple, and no longer able to maintain the place they sold it to Mike Johns, the son of local doctor Richard Johns. The Hulberts moved into town.
As campers increased their presence along the Highline Trail, the threat of fires grew. On June 4, 1990 the fire watch ranger at the Baker Butte tower, Barbara Dalton, spotted smoke rising in the canyon. The weather was hot and dry, breaking all records. An abandoned campfire near the Highline Trail had spread and raced up the side of the Rim and over the top to threaten the Coconino Forest. Three days later 696 firefighters from 10 agencies brought it under control at a cost of $1,500,000. It had destroyed 633 acres. As you stand on the Rim at the head of the Bray Creek Canyon, amid the desolation fire causes, you read the sign that says, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” From the Payson area, you can see the barren vicinity marking the fire, half way between the East Verde River canyon and Milk Ranch Point.
Two weeks later the infamous Dude Fire began just 10 miles to the east.
Fortunately for the Bray Creek Ranch, the Forest Service created fire breaks around the property, because a series of nearby fires erupted in the following years. The Kehl (Springs) fire in December 2001, Packrat Fire in 2002, the Webber Fire in 2004 all threatened the ranch. Then on Feb. 6, 2006, another abandoned camp fire on the edge of the Rim raced down Bray Creek but stopped at the fuel break, burning 4,000 acres all around the ranch buildings.
After Harold Hulbert died, his widow Addie Lee made out a will in which she bequeathed to the Northern Gila County Historical Society their collection of Indian baskets, beadwork, prehistoric stone axes and arrow straighteners, fetishes, effigies, jewelry and bone tools, as well as a precious music box from her girlhood. In addition she willed 21 percent of her estate to the society, and after she died June 12, 1993, that income became a mainstay in the budget of the Rim Country Museum until the gift ran out.
NEXT: Butterfly Springs