My series of columns on Fountain Hills’ history continues this week with a story about how a young woman’s persistence and cooperation by local contracting companies resulted in getting a major acquisition for the River of Time Museum back in 2001.
Fountain Hills’ oldest structure was preserved thanks to the efforts of members of the local historical society and the generosity of a group of local contractors.
The stone chimney structure of unknown origin was located on property just south of Eagle Ridge Drive and about a quarter mile west of Palisades Boulevard. Those driving to the new Adero (formerly CopperWynd) resort development could see it at the top of a rise in the area topography.
Bonnie Kline, vice president of the Fountain Hills & Lower Verde Valley Historical Society, initiated the drive to preserve the chimney structure after it was learned it was located in the path of a planned roadway in MCO Properties’ Eagle Ridge development. The site was within the original boundaries of Fountain Hills, before it was annexed into the City of Scottsdale in the early 1970s.
Kline had seen the chimney originally on a weekend hike shortly after moving to Fountain Hills in the late 1980s. Originally it was thought that the structure was the remains of a bunkhouse used by cowboys who worked the P-Bar cattle ranch.
An archaeological study of the site conducted by Archaeological Consulting Services, Ltd., (ACS) in 1996 concluded that the site “appears to be the ruins of a small homestead, located at the junction of two bladed dirt roads. The site consists of a small stone foundation with a standing chimney and several associated rock features.
“The foundation was constructed of flagstone set in mortar and the chimney has a similar composition.”
The report also noted the presence of at least nine other features, primarily rock outlines or foundations and the presence of three metal cans (two tobacco and one sanitary-type can). The report suggested they were manufactured between 1920 and 1950.
Kline said she also heard stories of the site being used for teen parties after people started populating Fountain Hills.
Area historian Bob Mason of Rio Verde had also researched the site after it was suggested it was the possible remains of a mountain campsite used in the 1930s by visitors to the famous Jokake Inn. Mason said it was a logical assumption since a man named Bob Evans owned the Paradise Valley resort (now the site of the Phoenician Resort) and operated the P-Bar Ranch.
However, Mason’s talks with Evans’ daughter, who visited the site, put a damper on that theory. The actual campsite was on 40 acres owned by Evans on what is now the Ancala Golf Course in Scottsdale.
Another possibility that was researched was that the stonework is reminiscent of the Taliesen-style architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. However, Taliesen historian Arnold Roy said that while some student training activities took place some distance from Taliesen West, they did not occur beyond lands owned by the institution.
An archaeological report conducted the year before by John Giacobbe of Stantec Consulting found the site was identified in a Homestead Entry Application made by William Nelson Bonton of Phoenix. Bonton filed his application to develop and eventually own the parcel on Jan. 26, 1932. The application was canceled on March 7, 1938. A note in the file suggests that all letters sent to the address of Mr. Bonton were returned as undeliverable.
“This suggests that Mr. Bonton filed the homestead application, but never sufficiently developed the property to qualify as an improvement, which would have enabled him to gain a patent and purchase the land outright,” said Giacobbe. “Part of the requirements to purchase government land through the homestead entry process requires that specific, verifiable improvements are made to the land. For a homestead entry application, this usually includes the construction and occupation of a house or residential structure.”
Giacobbe concluded that it appears likely that Bonton started construction of the structure, but never finished it.
“The structure appears to be a historic homestead remnant, likely built between 1932 and 1940,” he said. “Both the lack of trash deposits and the cancellation of the homestead entry application suggest that the structure was never completed and never occupied by an individual.”
Mason earlier that year talked with a former area rancher who remembers the chimney and offered the most probable answer to its origin.
Bob Lincoln, who now lives in Payson, told Mason that in 1939 he and then P-Bar Ranch owner Dick Robbins noticed the site. At that time, there was a two-room frame house surrounding the fireplace. Several Life or Look magazines were still there, the most recent dated 1929. They believed that the dwelling was built by a “lunger,” the term used to describe someone with tuberculosis who had moved to Arizona for their health.
The structure was divided with a wall down the middle of the stone floor so that each had a view of the fireplace. Lincoln and Robbins salvaged the lumber in the old house to build a bunkhouse at the old P-Bar Ranch site, now the location of Fountain Hills High School.
“This recollection seems to offer the most likely conclusion,” Mason said. “Either Bonton or another transient with obvious masonry ability built the structure in the early 1930s. In either event, the quality of the rockwork indicates that they expected to make it a permanent dwelling.”
Fountain Hills Historical Society members formed a committee to possibly save what is indeed the oldest structure within the community’s original boundaries (The property was annexed by Scottsdale in the mid-1980s). Kline and Dr. Paul Kolwaite headed the committee to save the chimney and fellow society board member Terry Merrell accepted the challenge of exploring ways to preserve it.
Developer MCO Properties gave its permission to explore ways of saving the chimney. MCO’s land planner Bill Larson originally suggested the chimney might become part of a park in the Eagle Ridge development. However, being a private gated community, there could not be public access to view it.
Further discussions came up with the conclusion that the best place to preserve it would be to relocate it to a site adjacent to the new Historical Society River of Time Museum which opened in 2003.
But that prospect raised questions. Could the stone and masonry chimney be moved without crumbling? Could the Historical Society afford to pay for the relocation estimated to cost more than $30,000?
Those challenges got Terry Merrell to thinking. He was a Historical Society board member at the time and was chief of special operations for R.E. Monks Construction in Fountain Hills. The Monks firm was a major highway contractor based in Fountain Hills in those days.
“I figured there was a way it could be done,” said Merrell. “People have figured out ways to move all kinds of things. Besides I didn’t want to tell Bonnie and Doc (Kolwaite) it couldn’t be done.”
He talked with contractor friends to see how it could happen. Further inspection of the chimney determined that it needed a strong base beneath it before it could be lifted. Workers from LTC Construction Company and Monks donated materials and welded the steel frame for the base. LTC also donated use of several front-loaders and other equipment. Fountain Hills Concrete donated the concrete and Al Donaldson and his Double D Construction crew disassembled the stone floor. Fountain Hills contractor Jack Bercel, stored the floor stones at his construction yard until it was rebuilt with the chimney near the museum.
“I also want to thank Ray Baldwin and MCO for being patient and working with us to get this done,” Merrell said. “Ray had some good input that helped with the project.”
Merrell and Bercel decided to shrink wrap the chimney and reinforce it with 2x4s strapped together.
The entire effort came together. Merrell was the man in charge. He lined up a crane donated by Fort McDowell Sand and Gravel to lift the chimney.
The crew gathered at 6 a.m. on a Saturday in early August 2001 to complete the move. The temperature was quite comfortable for that time of year. The sky was blue with colorful clouds left over from area monsoon storms the night before.
Merrell, Bercel and crane guide Ralph Romo hooked the large straps to the steel frame around the base of the chimney. Then Merrell motioned crane operator Gary Smith to start lifting – very slowly.
At one point the chimney began to tip, and Kline’s eyes grew large in anticipation of the worst.
But Smith set it back down in time and Romo shortened two of the straps. The next attempt worked.
The chimney was moved over and lowered onto a flatbed trailer donated by Monks. Driver Lewis Murphy secured the chimney frame to the flatbed with heavy chains.
Marshal’s deputy Adrian Davis escorted the caravan of vehicles including the truck and flatbed trailer with the chimney and the crane along a route down Eagle Ridge Drive, north on Palisades to El Lago, then east to the Town Center site.
There, the chimney was lifted from the trailer to a spot just east of the new Community Center building. It sat there until a final location was determined when the museum opened in 2003.
Kline and Merrell were all smiles when the move was done.
“You did a great job, Terry,” she said.
Merrell grinned back at her and replied, “We did it.”