by Peg Matteson, Maverick Arizona Historian
I assume our readers are quite aware of where and what defines northern Arizona, but in case you need a refresher to your memory banks… the communities we touch on in this history review are located in northern Arizona and include Flagstaff, Winslow, Holbrook, and everything in between.
We start this story on a chilly March morning in 1886 when Flagstaff was still rough around the edges for on this particular day Dave and Billy Babbitt arrived. A fire had destroyed the town’s small business district a short time earlier and the familiar sound of sawing lumber and hammering nails heralded the building of a new town over the smoldering ruins of the old.
On this day the wind was sweeping down the towering San Francisco Mountains and was bone-chilling cold. The nearest source of supplies and merchandise was in Albuquerque, more than 300 miles away and most of the Flagstaff residents were aptly described as “unchurched, unmarried and unwashed.” To the average observer, the raw, untamed town of Flagstaff didn’t seem like a likely place to invest one’s life savings, but then these two men weren’t average. They were visionaries inspiring to fulfill that dream held by so many 19th century adventurers—to “Come West, young man!” and become a cattleman.
This story actually starts in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the four Babbitt brothers ran a grocery store, which was a favorite hangout for travelers. Listening to the many story versions of the West, Dave and Billy couldn’t control their urge to go out and see for themselves. Dave came to take a look in 1884, returned to Ohio and convinced Billy to combine their monies coming up with $20,000 (hardly enough to buy a big cattle outfit), but they still hoped to find something in the new area of cattle country which had been opened in 1883 by the Atlantic and Pacific Railroads. So, they got aboard one of the trains in 1886 and went to Flagstaff.
A bit apprehensive, Dave and Billy reached where the Rio Puerto meets the Little Colorado River and found a bustling community folks referred to as Horsehead Crossing, but was now being called Holbrook, a town tamed by the railroad company and the Hashknife who ran some 60,000 cows over two million acres of grassland.
By the time the trains pulled the long grade into Flagstaff, the brothers were convinced they had found there a perfect place to start a cattle ranch. So they sent for brothers Charles J. and George and they named their new ranch and cow business CO Bar Ranch. Realizing it would take awhile to get their cattle business going, Dave opened a mercantile store while George got involved in real estate and Billy and CJ ran the cattle operation. In 1889, they formed the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company, which carried them through the hard times. During 1909 to 1919, the Babbitt brothers ran thousands of sheep and cattle on ranges that extended from Ashfork on the west to the New Mexico line on the east, from the Grand Canyon on the north to the Mogollon Rim on the south.
During these years, Flagstaff became the cultural and mercantile center for northern Arizona and the industrious brothers from Ohio were involved in most of the enterprises. A powerful influence in northern Arizona, they could have wielded a heavy hand in controlling politics and business in the region… but they didn’t. However, they did operation a vast network of trading posts on the Hopi and Navajo reservations and owned Flagstaff’s first automotive garage, a bank, an ice plant, livery stable, beef slaughter house, an opera house, and a mortuary. Today, the Babbitt brothers’ trading posts and mercantile store still extends into the far reaches of northern Arizona and one of the Babbitt’s names who might be familiar to you readers is Bruce Babbitt, one of C.J.’s grandsons and governor of our state of Arizona from 1978 to 1988, our beautiful state with a heart… and next month… February is our state’s valentine birthday.
See you all then!