Driving west around Payson’s Green Valley lakes and past the golf course on Country Club Drive, the pavement ends and the name of the road becomes the Doll Baby Ranch Road. Continuing about nine miles westward beyond the pavement on the graded road, one comes to the Doll Baby Ranch. Just beyond that, the land runs down to the lazy flowing East Verde River, where a hiking trail leads into the Mazatzal Wilderness.
The Doll Baby Ranch has been intricately woven into the history of Payson.
The story begins in 1884, when 15-year-old Marshall “Mart” McDonald came with his family to settle in Pine. He found a bride in Payson 10 years later named O’Beria Gladden. She was named for a character in a novel her mother was reading during her pregnancy.
Shortly after Mart and O’Beria had their first child, Elizabeth, the little family moved out to the East Verde River. They claimed squatter’s rights near the site of the old Mazatzal City, where Mormon settlers first set up camp. Two other daughters were born on this ranch, Sarah in 1898 and Caroline in 1902. They called the baby “Carrie Bee” — she lived only two days was buried about 200 yards west of the ranch house. A mound of earth, some rock and a small wooden cross marked the place.
The year Caroline died Elizabeth turned 7 and needed to attend school in town, so Mart moved his family into Payson. The decision to move was made easier because of the sorrow that accompanied the sight of the little grave day after day.
O’Beria and the two girls lived in town with her mother Susan Gladden, while Mart worked the ranch and commuted to Payson whenever he could. He put up with this arrangement for a year, but in 1903 sold his squatter’s rights to George T. Smith of California. In Payson, McDonald established a mercantile store.
The late Sarah McDonald, in an interview with the author that can be viewed in the Rim Country Museum archives, said that her dad always called it the Baby Doll Ranch because of baby Caroline buried there. It is noted that the memories of old-timers grow dim and other versions of favorite traditions take root. An alternative story grew among subsequent owners that a little girl, watching the cowboys branding cattle with the hook and cross-triangle brand, exclaimed, “Oh, look at the Baby Doll.” In later years Margaret Taylor Murphy, who was raised on the ranch, said that she was that little girl. As the years passed the phrase was transposed to the more easily spoken Doll Baby Ranch.
The ranch owner George T. Smith was more of an investor than a cowboy, and he hired neighboring rancher Richard Teal Taylor to operate the place for him. Taylor had been a foot-loose cowboy until the age of 34, when he settled down and married Angela Belluzzi. She was the eldest child of an early pioneer family who had established the Rim Trail Ranch on the upper waters of the East Verde. The marriage took place in 1906 and the Taylors filed squatter’s rights adjacent to the Doll Baby Ranch, downstream along the river. The Taylor place took the brand name Diamond H.
In 1912, George Smith’s wife Emma died and she was buried in the Payson cemetery. He moved to California, leaving the ranch in the hands of the Taylors. Two years later, in 1914, they moved from the Diamond H to the Doll Baby with their four children, Richard, Margaret (Murphy), Bill and Fritz. A fifth child, Ed, was born soon after.
The senior Taylor had offered to buy the Doll Baby Ranch from Smith, so in 1917, Smith filed homestead papers while at the same time Taylor filed on the Diamond H. Soon after that, Smith sold to the Taylors.
As is true of most ranch homesteads, the actual acreage was relatively small, usually around 160 acres, but the grazing permits included thousands of acres of surrounding range. This was government land leased to the cattle owners. When the McDonalds ranched there, his grazing permits went to Payson on the east, to Rye on the south, and the East Verde River on the west. When Dick Taylor retired, at the age of 67, he sold the ranch to his son Richard, who in turn sold the Doll Baby to A. B. Cobb in 1945. Each time the government permits became smaller.
Cobb cleared the area around the ranch house to make room for more buildings and to get rid of accumulated scrub growth. He was concerned to mark the spot for the baby who was buried somewhere west of the house. The gravestone had long since been lost among the overgrowth, but the story had been passed down from owner to owner. Cobb wanted to keep the location sacred and undisturbed, so he inquired for one of the McDonald girls to come out and identify the site. Sarah McDonald Lockwood, nicknamed Babe, was away with her husband at the time, and her older sister Elizabeth, for some reason, refused to go out to the ranch and accommodate the owner. Mr. Cobb then laid the stone against the fence and proceeded to clear the land. With that, the location of the baby’s grave was lost for all time.
Some years later, according to Babe Lockwood, the people who bought the Doll Baby from Cobb came upon the gravestone and threw it into a trash pile. Hearing of it, Dick Taylor and his brother-in-law, Ira Murphy, went out and retrieved it. They brought the monument to Payson and set it in the Pioneer Cemetery between the graves of her parents, Mart and O’Beria McDonald. It simply reads, “Carrie Bee McDonald b. Sept. 23, 1902 d. Sept. 25, 1902.”
Even though the grazing permits were reduced to a few dozen cattle, the name “Doll Baby Ranch” remains filled with memories and Rim Country lore. Some years ago this author and his wife enjoyed an afternoon and evening with Mary Armstrong, then current owner, with her three siblings from California, her family, and several town folk. During the course of fireside story telling they related how ghosts kept vigil at the Doll Baby. “It’s always in that original house, the middle one,” said Mary. “Two of my nieces have been awakened there and claimed to have been awakened and seen a ghost outside the house.”
Ranch manager David David (sic) said it was a woman with a baby in her arms, and the baby’s eyes were glowing red. Mary added, “Then my brother said that as he slept one night he woke up to feel this tremendous pressure on his chest. The room was swirling, but he could not get up. Something was holding him down.”
Mary’s husband Ed Shuck suggested it was a heart attack, but others said no. “He then heard somebody at the back door, but when he tried to open it someone was punching it from the other side. Finally the force was so great it blew him way back into the kitchen.”
Other mysteries happened. The firewood by the back door simply disappeared; one night when no breeze was stirring the front door began slamming back and forth; a wastebasket from the bathroom was lying upside down in the bedroom.
It is not unusual that a ranch building with that much history would garner some ghost stories over the years. While these stories were told to us, a heron made a weird screaming noise in the nearby trees. It seemed appropriate. I asked if they knew if anyone had died in that old ranch house, other than the McDonald baby. David said, “Well, somebody told us there was a murder here. But I don’t know how reliable that is.”
As real estate divisions continue to creep west from Payson, threatening to gobble up the old homesteads, we hang on to the grand history of places like the Doll Baby Ranch.