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Faraway Ranch Tour at Chiricahua National Monument Gets Five Stars
Here's one recipe for an outstanding tour of a historic ranch: take a century's worth of Old West history, add generous measures of compelling personal stories and classic southern Arizona scenery, and stir well by a talented interpreter. The result, at Chiricahua National Monument's Faraway Ranch, earned five stars during my recent visit to the park.
As is usually the case for any historic site, there are many interesting stories associated with the buildings and property, but thanks to an unusually complete collection of family documents and possessions passed on to the National Park Service, the Faraway Ranch offers a treasure trove of fascinating details.
Those details provide an opportunity for an interpreter to develop an outstanding tour, and that's what I experienced during a visit to the park earlier this month. Bill Dean is a VIP (Volunteer in Parks), and he returned this winter for a second two-month tour at Chiricahua. It's clear he has both a love for history—and a keen ear for good stories—and he shares both during the twice-daily tours of Faraway Ranch.
So, what's there to see and experience if you visit the area?
Faraway Ranch was the home of Swedish immigrants, Neil and Emma Erickson, who settled near the mouth of Bonita Canyon in the late 1880s, not long after the surrender of the Apache leader Geronimo. There they raised three children, Lillian, Ben, and Hildegard, and their home gradually evolved over the span of two generations from a simple homestead to a thriving guest ranch, one of the first of its kind in Arizona.
The early years on the property were anything but easy, and for much of the first 15 years on the ranch, Neil Erickson was gone from home for months at a time, working in area towns to earn much-needed cash. Emma remained on their small ranch in Bonita Canyon, raising the three children and taking care of the property and livestock.
In 1903 Neil Erickson obtained a job with the U.S. Forest Service, which allowed him to work from home, but in 1917 a job transfer moved Neil and Emma away from the area. The three younger Ericksons, all in their 20s, took over the running of the family ranch.
That same year marked an important turning point for the operation—the youngest daughter, Hildegarde, began offering meals and lodging for weekend guests. That new enterprise became the foundation for the guest ranch which would introduce many visitors to this scenic corner of Arizona.
In 1920 Hildegarde married and moved away, and in 1923 Lillian married Ed Riggs, a local rancher she had known since childhood. The couple had begun exploring the area while dating, and according to Lysa Wegman-French, author of the NPS' Faraway Ranch Special History Study, on one trip "they pushed into …a tangled, boulder-strewn area impossible for horses to walk through. There they were amazed to find remarkable rock formations only a short distance from Faraway Ranch. Lillian dubbed this area the Wonderland of Rocks …."
Both Lillian and her new husband were college-educated and recognized both the unique qualities of the area and its potential for tourism. They became leaders in a grassroots movement for what became Chiricahua National Monument in 1924, and the term "Wonderland of Rocks" is still in use today.
Development of both the park and the ranch continued through the CCC era and beyond World War II. The couple operated the Faraway Ranch until Ed Riggs' death in 1950, and Lillian Riggs then continued to run the operation until the early 1970s.
Tucked away behind those basic facts is a story of remarkable determination, because Lilian Riggs had begun to lose both her hearing and her sight while still a young woman. By 1942 she was blind, a challenge which did not diminish her attention to both the business and her family. Although she gradually closed the guest ranch operations beginning in 1970, one report says that at the age of 81 she still owned over 70 head of cattle.
Among the items visitors see on a tour of the house are an old manual typewriter which Lilian used, even after losing her sight, to continue her long-standing habit of keeping a diary.
In her history of the Ranch, Lysa Wegman-French notes, "… while reading Lillian's diary, when I wondered why a blind woman would so faithfully type entries in her diary—a record that she would never be able to read—she answered that her companion Pat Grigg 'used to say that the entries were for posterity. . . . Perhaps [the next generation] may find something here of interest some thirty or forty years hence.' And on another day, she observed, 'Just now it seems of small note to record the happenings of the last few days. Fifty years hence, it may be significant. If any of the doings of us common folks are ever significant.' I wonder if she ever envisioned the stream of documents that have been produced as a result of the Faraway Ranch papers."
"Significant" indeed, and visitors to the Ranch today are the beneficiaries of those diaries through the stories they tell.
The three children of Neil and Emma Erickson—Lillian, Ben and Hildegarde, all died within an 18-month span in 1977 and 1978, and the National Park Service acquired the Faraway Ranch in June 1979.
The ranch house, which has been restored, is furnished as it appeared in the early 1930s, the period considered to be the "heyday" of the guest ranch operation. Thanks to the generosity of the family, it contains a fascinating array of personal items, and visitors today have the impression that the occupants have just stepped out the door.
A "stage setting" meal on two tables in the dining room appears ready to receive guests, utensils in the kitchen are ready for use, and a deck of playing cards on a table provide an example of the personal insights offered by tour leader Bill Dean.
With a twinkle in his eye, Bill notes that anyone playing cards with Lillian was at a serious disadvantage if she was dealing. The cards appear to be a normal deck, but because she was blind, a closer look reveals they're also in Braille!
The exterior of the attractive ranch house masks other stories: incorporated with the walls of the two-story structure are the original one-room cabin from the 1800s and a small stone "fort" Neil Erickson built nearby during concerns about a possible Apache uprising.
The house and ranch property have still other stories to share. Not far from the house is the site of an 1885-1886 encampment of the Buffalo Soldiers, a troop of black soldiers of the 10th Cavalry sent to Bonita Canyon to prevent the Chiricahua Apaches from using local water sources, to guard the mail, and to protect settlers and their livestock.
While in Bonita Canyon, the troopers built a stone monument to the late President James Garfield, and many of the stones include inscriptions by the soldiers.
The troops departed after the surrender of the Apache leader Geronimo in 1886, and the stones gradually began to disappear, carried away by area residents. Ed Riggs removed many of the remaining stones to preserve them and used them to build the fireplace in the ranch house in the 1920s. The inscriptions by the Buffalo Soldiers are still visible during a tour.
Tours of the Faraway Ranch are normally given twice a day, but a sign notes they may be occasionally cancelled due to staffing shortages. There are plenty of other things to enjoy in the park, but since it's a bit of a drive to get to there, it would be wise to call ahead and confirm the schedule if you're coming specifically for the Ranch tour. You'll find contact information and details to help plan a visit to Chiricahua National Monument on the park website.
If you'd like to see some historic photos of the ranch, you'll find them on a Library of Congress website at this link.
One last heads-up for visitors: If you visit the Ranch, you'll have a short walk from a parking area not far inside the park entrance. Don't be deterred by your first impressions. A section of the park's General Management Plan about the site notes, "The visual impression received by the visitor approaching the ranch buildings on the trail from the parking lot is mixed, because the first things encountered are fences and corrals in a state of disrepair. Further on, the other buildings are in better repair and provide a better visual impression."
That's simply one more indication of the challenges posed by limited park budgets, as is the need to rely on volunteers to supplement paid staff for the ranch tours. If you have the good fortune to encounter a volunteer of the caliber of Bill Dean for your tour, you'll be glad he answered the call.