Many people had never heard of Forest Lakes, Arizona, before the Rodeo-Chediski Fire hit the national news.
It was a summer of terror for many, as two man-made forest fires joined along the Mogollon Rim to destroy some communities and cause evacuation for thousands of homeowners.
By June 28, 2002 the threat to the people of Forest Lakes had become so imminent the whole community was evacuated. The destructive blaze came within a half mile, but the supreme efforts of firefighters prevailed, and no homes were damaged.
This large, primarily summer community along State Route 260, 37 miles east of Payson, is nestled majestically among ponderosa pines. Thus the “forest” part of its name. The rest of the name comes from its proximity to several recreational lakes in the vicinity.
While it is an unincorporated community, it does have a post office, though only a few homeowners are full time. This seasonal gathering with its small town atmosphere had an interesting beginning.
In 1939 a fellow named Reed Denison filed a mining claim in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest for the purpose of mining manganese, a “free element” found in nature. It is important as an alloy used in the production of steel, iron and aluminum. It is also used in the manufacture of battery cells, though lithium battery technology is replacing this use.
The significant thing is that these claims were filed just as the world was being plunged into World War II. The demand for the metal soared, and Dennison found himself with a valuable holding.
Reed Dennison had a brother named Alvis who was a partner with him in the venture, and Alvis’ wife Marie had two brothers named Bill and Ted Wheeler. The mines, scattered over hundreds of acres, were very successful as the United States government purchased the manganese.
Alvis designed an ore separation plant, placed where the local dump would be located later. Water for the plant came from a well drilled by the Denisons, and two large diesel generators furnished power.
Bill Wheeler and Alvis Denison hired two miners from Heber and five families from the Zia pueblo in New Mexico to work the mines. After the ore was “washed out” it was hauled to the railroad at Show Low and taken to the smelter in El Paso.
In 1949, Reed Denison was killed in an auto accident, and Alvis and Marie adopted his son Bill. In 1955 the family built a cabin and became full-time residents.
Marie’s nickname was Merz, usually pronounced “Mertz,” and the little settlement came to be called Merzville. The road on which the Denisons lived became Merzville Road.
The water spigot in front of their house was the only source of drinking water and everyone in the vicinity would come there to fill their jugs.
Alvis died in the summer of 1964, and about that same time, the government stopped buying manganese.
The Denison and Wheeler families turned to logging, and the idea of a community of summer homes materialized. Another partner, Bob Williams, was brought in, and the corporation was successful in gaining ownership of the large track of land from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
A subdivision was platted, although the county had no requirements for developers to provide utilities. The first lots were sold without benefit of either water or electricity.
The lovely setting, high above the summer heat of Arizona’s desert, was immediately popular and by 1967, 150 lots were occupied by either a house or a trailer. A homeowners association was formed, and confronted their first challenge — bringing electricity into the area.
At that time the power lines from Arizona Public Service ended at Christopher Creek. The power company required a guarantee from the homeowners that they would use $35,000 worth of electricity each year before power lines would be strung up over the Rim and into the subdivision. That happened within the first year.
However, obtaining water for the community was more of a problem. The single faucet in front of the Denison’s old cabin was hardly adequate, the well there supplying only 15 gallons per minute. The company donated one-quarter acre along Merzville Road for a new well and a 5,000-gallon storage tank. Members of the homeowners association were issued keys to the well house. There, a 25-foot hose tapped the storage tank and folks came to fill everything from 5-gallon cans to 500-gallon tanks mounted on trailers.
In 1968 Bob and Juanita Callahan became landowners in the community, and developed a business of delivering water to property owners at 1 cent per gallon. They did this with a 1947 1-1/2-ton truck mounted with a 1,000 gallon water tank.
When Bob retired from the state Department of Public Safety in 1972, he led the move for a community water department. A water improvement district was formed and lines were installed that brought water directly to every lot.
The Callahans were also instrumental in obtaining a school bus to service the children of full-time resident families, and Bob served on the Chevelon District School Board. This family also built a steak house on Highway 260, and operated it for about four years.
The rapidly growing community still had matters of trash disposal and fire protection to deal with. The original dump, a hole on lot 38N, was soon filled, and Ted Wheeler donated the site of the mine’s old mill, which he owned, for a landfill.
After several years, the county determined it was too close to the water wells, and worked an agreement with the HOA for a compactor. The compacted trash and garbage was then hauled to a landfill near Show Low.
As the summer population continued to increase, the need for fire and ambulance service was critical. An old military truck was obtained for $13,000 from the county Civil Defense unit, and converted into a fire truck with a 1,000-gallon water tank and a 500-gallon a minute pump. Also, an old ambulance was bought and refurbished, and a dozen people were trained as EMTs. This was all done from tax money and donations. The community continued to develop with effective leadership rising up from among the property owners. A church congregation met from spring until autumn, served by visiting pastors. A school library, community potlucks and socials all added to make Forest Lakes a delightful community with a small-town atmosphere.
It was obvious that this would become a center for winter sports. The heavy winter snow accumulation in Forest Lakes is almost legendary. In the 1970s an energetic entrepreneur named Tim Grier made himself most welcome as a forest ranger, skiing instructor, English teacher, writer, and at one time a Payson town attorney. He developed facilities in Forest Lakes for winter sports and year-round retreats. Snowmobiles and cross-country skiing became a big winter activity. The Callahans’ daughter Carol even won a state championship in snowmobiling.
Merz Dennison died in 1981, but she had lived to see the fruit of the family’s dreams and devoted service in Forest Lakes.