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The Story of Sedona - Oak Creek

In 1862, Congress, concerned about the sparse settlement of the nations western lands, passed the Homestead Act, which gave 160-acre tracts of public land to citizens who would settle on the soil and use it productively.

This inducement sent hordes of settlers westward, but few were willing to try their luck in the western half of New Mexico. (New Mexico Territory included the area that was to become Arizona). Then gold was discovered in 1863 and the town of Prescott sprang into being around the mineral field. People poured into the region, and when Arizona was split off from New Mexico in 1863 to become a separate territory, Prescott was its capital. This gave central Arizona more stature and encouraged homesteaders, using Prescott as a base, to look for good land along the river valleys.

Settlers began pushing into the Verde Valley in 1865, and they loved what they saw, but there was a rub: it was Apache country. They appealed for military protection and got it.

The government created Camp Lincoln (later Fort Verde), and troops began a long campaign to quell the Apaches. The effort, led by General Crook, came to a head in 1876, when the Apaches living in Oak Creek Canyon were rounded up and sent to the San Carlos reservation. This opened the area to settlement.

Shortly after the departure of the Apaches, James J. Thompson ventured into Oak Creek Canyon and became its first white settler, staking out a homestead on a plot of land where Munds Canyon meets Oak Creek. Because he found crops planted by the recently-expelled Apaches still growing there, he called the place Indian Gardens.

A couple of years later he persuaded his friend Abraham James to move his family into the area. James located several miles downstream and became the first settler of the lower canyon. Thompson married Jamess daughter Margaret and had nine children.

Within the next few years, most of the arable land along Oak Creek had been homesteaded. Some of the best-known locations and the families associated with them were (starting north): Troutdale (the Chipmunk), Col. O. P. Harding; Cave Springs, Purtymun; West Fork, Bear Howard and Dad Thomas; Bootlegger, Purtymun; Junipine, Purtymun; Garlands, Jesse Howard; Slide Rock, Pendley; Manzanita, Purtymun; and Mission Rancho, Purtymun. Where the canyon opened, the Owenby, Schnebly and Smith families were early settlers in addition to James.

What these settlers found for themselves was a land of beauty, where the soil and climate were good and the waters of Oak Creek reliable. They planted orchards and vegetable gardens and grew subsistence crops and livestock to feed their families. In the open ranges south of Sedona they engaged in cattle ranching. It was a tight little world, and very isolated. Many of the families bartered back and forth and were able to provide themselves with the necessities of life, but cash was very scarce.

Fort Verde was manned until 1890, and the homesteaders were able to raise cash by selling produce to the army men, giving the area around lower Oak Creek Canyon its first name, Camp Garden.

After 1882, when the railroad reached Flagstaff and it began to grow, the mountain town became the best customer for this produce. Flagstaff was only 30 miles away, but blocked by a mighty obstacle, the Mogollon Rim. In order to get to Flagstaff, the homesteaders in the upper canyon hacked out horse trails to the top of the east rim. When they had a crop ready for sale, they would load their apples or peaches into saddlebags and struggle by foot to the rim, where they kept a wagon. They scaled the canyon wall as often as necessary to make a load, then hitched a horse to the wagon, and drove to Flagstaff, which took two or three days.

They didnt make this trip any more often than they had to. The settlers in the lower canyon took the Fort Verde wagon road to Beaverhead. Then they climbed the bone-jarring Beaverhead route to Rattlesnake Tanks where they joined the Flagstaff-Fort Verde wagon road. The trip to Flagstaff took six or seven days, and was so rough that by the end of the trip they were more likely to be selling applesauce than apples.

The need for better roads was crucial, but there was little money to build them. In 1902, Coconino County joined with some of the land owners to build the Schnebly Hill Road, a big improvement, allowing farmers to travel from Camp Garden to Flagstaff in two days over much smoother surfaces. Settlers in the upper canyon still needed a wagon road directly to Flagstaff, and they worked on it for years, building short stretches up the canyon at a time, as money and conditions permitted. Not until 1914 was there a continuous wagon road from all the way through the canyon to Flagstaff.

With decent roads in place, life became a bit easier. The settlers could get their goods to a broader market and outside people began coming into the canyon to fish and camp. Carl Schnebly, located at the foot of the Schnebly Hill Road, built a spacious home in 1902 and rented out extra rooms to travelers, creating the first hotel.

There were enough residents in the area to qualify for a post office, so Schnebly petitioned for the establishment of one, using his hotel as its location and himself as postmaster. He submitted the names Schnebly Station or Oak Creek Crossing for the post office but the postal service had a policy of accepting only a single name. Carl Schneblys brother, Ellsworth, suggested that Sedona, the name of Carls wife, be used in order to satisfy this regulation. It was accepted on June 26, 1902, and that is how Sedona got its name, and why 2002 is regarded as Sedonas centennial year.

By the time Sedona got its name, the character of the community had been established. The economy was based on farming - mostly fruit growing - with cattle ranching to the south where the canyon opened up, and recreation in the upper canyon, where vacationers loved to fish and camp.

Nobody got rich, and for some it was hard even to put food on the table. There was an old Sedona saying, You cant eat the red rocks, meaning that as beautiful as it was, it was a tough place to make a living.

There was a minor exception to this hardscrabble existence, beginning in 1923, when Hollywood discovered the area as a Western movie location. Zane Grey sold the movie rights to his best-selling novel The Call of the Canyon, situated in West Fork, and insisted that it be shot on site. A number of other movies followed until interrupted by World War II, and when the film crews were in town, money flowed freely.

Sedonas character did not change until after WWII. As late as 1945, the town consisted of a service station, a store, and a tavern. The first motel was built in 1946. At the end of the war, many western movies were filmed in Sedona, using an old CCC camp as a base, bringing in welcome cash and advertising Sedonas beauties to the world. Most of the post-war movies were shot in color, and audiences could scarcely believe their eyes, looking more at the background than the action. This awareness brought in a new generation of settlers, people who had made their money elsewhere and were looking for a beautiful place to live. Still, growth was slow. Electric service was not available until 1947. The population of Sedona in 1950 was 350.

It was only a matter of time before artists discovered Sedona, drawn here by its natural beauty. The art scene began to blossom in the 1950s, and the Art Center was established in 1958. The Cowboy Artists of America was organized in the Oak Creek Tavern in 1965. The area soon attracted other artists as well: actors, writers and musicians.

In the 1960s, Sedona became a retirement magnet, drawing people lured by its scenery and out-of-the-rat-race atmosphere. Fruit orchards and ranches were sold to subdividers, and farming disappeared. The first golf course was built.

In the 70s, Sedona began to attract New Agers, who learned of its reputation as a vortex site. Construction of the famous Tlaquepaque shopping area began in 1971, adding a new element to Sedonas list of attractions. A flood of newcomers began moving in. Growth in the area reached critical mass in the 80s, exploding into a profusion of construction everywhere, leading to sprawl and the inevitable incorporation of Sedona as a town in 1988.

Today Sedona is a resort town and a playground, the number two must-see attraction in Arizona, after the Grand Canyon, drawing three-and-a-half million visitors a year. It serves its visitors well, with a surprisingly large number of amenities for its size, including upscale restaurants and coffee houses, a beautiful public library, art galleries, theaters and boutiques.

Although much of Sedonas landscape is covered by development, residents who love the outdoors for hiking, biking and other pursuits, take comfort in the knowledge that huge tracts of the most scenic land are in protected wilderness areas.

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