c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article first appeared in the Frontier Gazette.
The expansive Agua Fria area encompasses a much of central Arizona, spanning from north Phoenix all the way up to Dewey some miles east of Prescott. Although much of it now lies in the Agua Fria National Monument, there was once a settlement in what is now known as the upper valley in vicinity of Dewey, Humboldt, Mayer and Cordes Junction. This was formally known as Agua Fria Valley.
Agua Fria Valley’s history begins in 1864 with King Woolsey’s Agua Fria Ranch. In March of that year, a group of fifty Pinal Indians attacked Woolsey’s cattle, and the area continued to be plagued by Indian attacks. During August of 1867, one settler was killed during another skirmish as another raid focused on Nathan and Ed Bowers’ new ranch and flour mill just south of today’s Dewey. When stage station operator Darrel Duppa was badly wounded by Apaches in 1872, the military finally stepped in. Lieutenant Max Weisendorf, twenty one enlisted men of “Troop A” and citizen John F. Townsend of Lower Agua Fria Valley had “another battle and killed seventeen Indians” according to area newspapers.
Official Anglo settlements at the community of Agua Fria Valley proper began in 1873, after a “shorter and better” wagon road was built from Prescott. First mention of a woman’s presence came in an 1874 news article when “Mr. Ed. G. Peck and wife, of Agua Fria Valley, arrived in [Prescott] yesterday and left for home today. Ed said that himself and brother farmers have a splendid prospect for crops.” The Agua Fria Valley post office opened in the spring of 1875. Dennis Marr, whose ranch was in the vicinity of today’s Kachina Place and Highway 69, was the first postmaster. Within a few months, mail was delivered weekly.
Other pioneers of the valley included Angeline Mitchell and George Edward Brown. Brown had started his ranch near Mayer in 1877. In 1881 he was elected to the Arizona Territorial Legislature, and would go on to act as deputy sheriff under sheriffs Ed Bowers and William “Bucky” O’Neill. Angeline, meanwhile, occupied her time with documenting local history and collecting mineral specimens.
In 1877, Henry Spaulding became postmaster of Agua Fria Valley. In 1884 the Spauldings also rented a room to a petite school teacher named Annie Allen, who taught the children around the community. One of her pupils was Sharlot Hall, whose family had arrived three years before. Sharlot lived at her family’s Orchard Ranch near Agua Fria Valley for much of her life. A lover of history, she was appointed as Arizona’s Territorial Historian in 1909. In 1928 she opened a museum in the territorial Governor’s mansion in Prescott, known today as Sharlot Hall Museum.
Beginning in 1889, Marr’s Ranch in Agua Fria Valley hosted the first of several rodeo roundups to appease the local cattle industry. A proposal also was made in 1890 to establish the new Mineral Belt Railroad to Phoenix, which would run through the valley. The railroad never came to fruition, perhaps because of the weather which could bring deep snows in winter, catastrophic floods in spring and fall, and very hot days in summer. On a day in July 1890 for instance, the temperature soared to 114 degrees in the shade. Rancher Martin Conrad, who was helping A.C. Burmister bale hay, dropped dead in the heat.
In spite of its expansive land area, Agua Fria Valley was a tight—knit community. In 1892, a “Grand Ball and Supper” was held for the entire community at Fred Hiltenbrant’s Station for just two dollars per person. By 1893, the McCrum Sampling & Milling Company was processing ore for area mines. By then, however, other small towns were popping up everywhere. The Agua Fria Valley post office fell out of use and subsequently closed later that year.
Slowly but surely, Agua Fria Valley’s residents began moving off. Settlers Nathan and Ed Bowers sold their ranch in 1895. Pioneers also were dying off, including Richard “Uncle Dick” Thomas, who had homesteaded in the valley back in 1876. Thomas and his wife Ellen, aka “Aunt Nell”, kept a “a well—known road station” at their home. When he died in 1902, his obituary noted that “‘Uncle Dick’ and ‘Aunt Nell’ are fresh in the memories of many a tired and hungry traveler.” Most fittingly, Sharlot Hall recited a poem entitled “The End of the Trail” at Thomas’s services. Ellen “Aunt Nell” Thomas returned to Michigan, and the ranch was sold.
Even as its residents continued moving away, farming remained a primary focus at Agua Fria Valley. “Residents of Agua Fria Valley report the most prolific corn and hay crops there in many years,” reported Arizola’s Oasis newspaper in 1909. “Thomas E. Reynolds, who purchased what is known to pioneers as the ‘Old Dick Thomas’ ranch, returned from the ranch Saturday with a sample of sorghum the stalk measuring ten feet, ten inches.” Today cattle and crops continue flourishing in Agua Fria Valley, but on a smaller scale than in the old days. As for the post office, nothing is left and the area consists of modern housing and businesses.