The Mail Trail

In 1884, the small frontier community once known as Union Park received its first post office accompanied by a new name, Payson.

The postmaster named the community after Senator Payson, who was congressional chairman of the post offices and who appointed the postmaster to his office.

With the establishment of the new post office, it was necessary to extend the mail service from Camp Verde 50 miles east to Payson. This service could also meet the needs of other postal drops such as Rutherford, Strawberry, and Pine, as well as delivery to ranches along the route.

This delivery frequently included more than just mail. Items such as drugs, whiskey, dry goods and sundries were also delivered.

The first contractor and mail rider was Ashton (Ash) Nebeker. Ash put the route together, and it remained in use for the next 30 years. It was discontinued the first winter after statehood.

Most of the information about the trail available today comes from the last mail rider, Clinton "Tuffy" Peach. Tuffy carried the mail on horseback the last four years of Bud Miller's contract, from 1910 to 1914.

The route started at Camp Verde Sutler's Store. The rider then headed southwest a few miles past the confluence of the Verde River and west Clear Creek to Rutherford. At some point near Rutherford, the rider would cross the Verde River heading east through Clear Creek, past Wingfield Mesa, over to Thirteen Mile Rock and onto Mud Tank Mesa.

At this point, rider Tuffy Peach said he turned south. He rode down Mud Tank Canyon on into Mud Tank Draw. The first two miles were very steep. At the bottom of the canyon, at a place their riders called "The Corral," the mail rider would meet up with someone from Childs to pick up their mail. A few old posts from the Corral were still standing in 1990.

From the Corral, the mail rider followed Fossil Creek west over and around nash Point, over a shallow saddle between two hills before dropping down into Strawberry Valley.

From there, the trail went east along Strawberry Valley, south down Strawberry Hollow and under Milk Ranch Point into the community of Pine. The trail then followed Sycamore Creek, which is repeatedly crossed into Payson.

On occasion, the mail rider was required to continue from Payson on south to Rye, which added another 10 to 12 miles to an already long ride.

The mail run was 104 miles round trip. A rider was in the saddle anywhere from 11 to 18 hours at a time. How long a man was in the saddle depended on the amount of mail, whether or not the rider had to go on to Rye, or the weather. The rider would change horses twice in each direction.

Up at 2 am, the rider had his horse saddled and mail loaded shortly after. Breakfast would not be for another couple of hours. At the Diamond S Ranch, in the vicinity of Clear Creek today, the rider would change horses.

Changing horses included wiping down the tired horse and saddling the fresh horse. The ranch would provide a meal for him and away he would go. The the Corral, the rider would find himself and his horse a breather.

While at the community of Pine, horses were exchanged for the final trip to Payson and Rye, if need be. Tuffy, or his brother Hank, who was also a mail rider, would unload the Payson mail and pick up incoming mail for Camp Verde. After a bit to eat, the rider headed back to Pine, where he would lay over for the night, up early the second morning and back to Camp verde, where the routine would start all over again.

Sunday was not a day of rest. The rest day was Monday, and it was spent repairing tack. For all this, the pay was a dollar a day.

From 1884 to 1914, there were a total of 60 riders and six contract holders, with five of the contract holders being mail riders as well.

The first contractor and mail rider was Ash Nebeker. Ash hired his brother, Wiley Nebeker, to follow his footsteps, In 1888, the mail contract went to W.D. "Wid" Fuller, who had it for two years. Five other members of the Fuller family would go on to become mail riders.

In 1890, W.G. Wingfield took over as contractor for four years. Alfred Fuller acquired the contract from 1894 to 1896. Alf was also a mail rider as well as his brother Frank.

In 1896, Hyrum Williams, a former mail rider, took the contract until 1900. Sometime in the 1900s, P.I. "Bud" Miller became the longest and last contractor since the mail run's existence.

Out of the 60 riders, 28 were related to the contractors or had a family member as former riders. There were 11 sets of brothers that became riders. The Heath family had five brothers who became riders, starting with Art, Ab, John, Frank, and Will.

Pret Gillespie was one of the first riders ever hired. Twenty-some years later, his two brothers-in-law, Hank and Tuffy Peach, would become the last two riders hired.

From "A Historic Perspective - Contracted Riders from First Mail Trail" by Terri Leverton.

Terri Leverton was a ranger at Fort Verde State Park. This article appeared in The Journal and Cottonwood Journal Extra, February, 1998.