We are clustered around a campfire at Kohl’s Ranch and, as the only uninformed Canadian in the group, I’m eyeing Heather, our tour guide, warily. "But you have to try it," she urges, holding out a Popsicle-like stick. So I do, and promptly drip melted chocolate down my front. But that’s okay. It’s yummy enough to be worth it. Which is why these campfire concoctions of toasted marshmallows covered in chocolate are called a "smores". "Meaning you’ll want s’more," says Heather. Right on!
We have just finished a dinner of gargantuan proportions (five courses, topped by a dessert puff pastry as flaky as a politician’s promise) turned out by the Ranch’s unbelievably young and gifted chef, Matthew Hubbard but, gastronomic delights aside, there are other reasons for being at Kohl’s Ranch.
Our group is on a trek, following in the footsteps of pioneers and settlers in Northern Arizona. The trail veers off along errant paths—but then this journey isn’t about dates and events along the broad highway of history. It’s about people and their lives along those small byways. It’s about places like Kohl’s Ranch.
Lou and Necia Kohl, cattle ranchers and pioneers, arrived in Arizona around 1917, bought the ranch property in 1926, and opened it up to guests from across the world in the early ‘30s. We are each presented with a copy of "Kohl’s Ranch Story" compiled by the Kohl granddaughters, and it is a lovingly compiled treasury of family lore, bringing to life in old sepia photos and memoir, a gracious lifestyle and generous standards of hospitality. Three generations of family spent holidays at the ranch, and as in any family saga, the years brought happiness and tragedy, moments of high drama, and moments of tranquility. The summer months were filled with friends, laughter, lavish picnics and hectic activity: horseback riding, fishing, hunting, swimming and hiking through the rugged landscape bordering the Tonto River. Lou and Necia retired in 1943, and the ranch has changed hands several times since then. IXL Incorporated, the current owners, continue to offer guests their own brand of homespun hospitality.
The next item on our trail through Arizona’s past, takes me back to my own past – back to my teenage years in India, and my grandfather’s library of well-thumbed paperback Westerns. I’d read them cover to cover, never for a moment dreaming that one day I’d be in Zane Grey country, surrounded by the forested ravines, the gold and gray crags and purple mountain ranges, which formed the backdrop to his tales of heroism, of romantic love and homespun justice.
Payson’s Rim County Museum has copies of familiar titles such as Riders of the Purple Sage and Thunder Mountain as well as photographs and memorabilia of a man whose books sold a staggering 17 million copies in his lifetime. Hollywood, too, loved them. They churned out over 100 low budget, but immensely popular, Zane Gray films, and even today, I remember the thrill of watching Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott riding tall in the saddle at a movie theatre in small-town India.
Zane Grey’s cabin, built in the 1920s, was deep in the woods on the outskirts of Payson, and this was where he wrote many of his stories of cowboys, desperadoes, Indians, rustlers and cattlemen. Unfortunately, it burned to the ground in 1990. Dick Wolfe, President of the Zane Grey Cabin Foundation, shows us around a timber replica of the cabin, now taking shape on a grassy knoll adjacent to the Museum. It is slated to open this summer, and will be an exciting addition to Payson’s tourist attractions.
As is true in several small communities in northern Arizona, the past straddles the threshold of the present in the towns of Strawberry and Snowflake and we get to meet and chat with the descendants of families who homesteaded the area in the late 1800s.
At the one-room schoolhouse in Strawberry (the oldest standing schoolhouse in Arizona, i.e., it has never been moved an inch from its original foundations), Mary Hunt, takes us around the little classroom. She pauses in front of a blurred sepia group photograph of children displayed on a wall and points out a little girl. "That’s my mother-in-law," she says, "We’ve lived here for many generations now," she adds, "not just in the area— but also in the same house. In fact my husband, still wakes up in the same bed where he was born…and he’s now in his eighties!"
Snowflake (where it doesn’t snow all that much) owes its origins to two Mormon elders, Erastus Snow and William Flake who founded the town in 1878. The town is as symmetrical, neat and trim as the quilts on display at the local museum. Several lovely old heritage homes are open to public tours and the Victorian-style residence, once owned by James Madison Flake, (William Flake’s eldest son), is choc-a-bloc with family memorabilia, including photographs of his two wives and twenty-four children! One of them, his daughter Augusta, was responsible for preserving much of the Flake collection. In addition to being a cranky spinster schoolmarm, she is described variously as a brilliant scientist, a photographer, an accountant, and last but far from least, as a "pack-rat with a mission," having accumulated a staggering amount of family photographs, documents, heirlooms and other artifacts, which are now part of Snowflake’s Stinson Pioneer Museum.
Although Snowflake’s heritage walk takes us through several beautifully preserved homes, a small rustic dwelling with an unusual story, hooks our attention. The Locy Rogers log cabin, built in 1878, came to light (literally!) as the result of a fire in 1988, having been found within the smoldering ruins of a much larger house. The small cabin had been thriftily incorporated as a little dining room, within the walls of a residence built later in the mid 1880s.
Do roadhouses and dance halls qualify as historical sites? Apparently in Arizona they do. The Museum Club in Flagstaff, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It started life as a log cabin on Route 66 and was built by a taxidermist with a penchant for the grotesque. The showcases in the entrance hallway display photos of a few of his freak specimens (six-legged sheep, two-headed calves etc.) while the walls of the dance floor sport a large assortment of stuffed trophies.
We spend our last evening in Flagstaff at the Museum Club, where the music is hot, the drinks are cold, the dance floor (built around Ponderosa pine trees) is packed and the bar is buzzing.
To my delight, I find out that the place is haunted. Two violent deaths—one an accident, the other a suicide—took place here in the 1970’s. Staff and guests have since encountered in shadowy corners, either Thorna Scott, who broke her neck as she fell down the steps leading to the upstairs apartment, or her broken-hearted husband, Don, who put a gun to his temple in front of the fireplace, shortly after his wife’s death. As former owners, they appear to be unable to leave the premises, creaking along the upstairs floor where they once lived, turning lights on and off and, if feeling too chilly, lighting the fire in the hearth.
I sit alone in one of the "haunted" booths hoping to run into either Thorna, or Don—but neither of them shows up. Thorna has been known to prefer guys, and Don probably wouldn’t be interested in anyone other than Thorna.
Oh well…perhaps it’s time to go home to Canada, carrying with me images of Arizona’s past, and its people who have lived here for generations. And yes, a yen for "smore" trips before too long.
Story and pictures by Margaret Deefholts
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