SmallTown USA — Booze Town

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May 24, 2013 by genelup

PINETOP, Arizona — Booze had a strong impact on the location of Pinetop, and, to a lesser degree, on its name.  Without alcoholic beverages, there probably would not be a Pinetop, which today is considered one of the top vacation spots in Arizona.

     Pinetop’s history began on April 18, 1885.  John William Phipps traveled on a rutted wagon trail that weaved through the forest of the Mogollon Rim mountain range.  Descending from a summit, he rode into a huge meadow.  A spring bubbled up, and streams cascaded from nearby foothills.  Phipps found what he was looking for — the perfect spot to build his saloon and stake out his homestead.

     The meadow was the first clearing off the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.  Since alcohol couldn’t be legally sold on the reservation, Fort Apache soldiers had to travel off Indian lands to buy booze.  Phipps’ hideaway was as close as it could be for these thirsty soldiers, Indians and anyone else who wandered into the area.

     Phipps farmed a few acres and he sold produce and general merchandise from his saloon.  When not tending bar or farming, he hitched up horses to his wagon and made extra money hauling freight from the train depot in Holbrook to Fort Apache, a distance of about 70 miles.

     As months and years went by, other adventurers settled near Phipps’ homestead.  At first, the settlement didn’t have a name. Someone came up with Mal Pai, Spanish for “bad land” and referring to the ubiquitous malapai volcano rock in the area that the farmers detested.

     A “Mal Pai” post office opened on June 7, 1890, and John W. Phipps became postmaster.  Mormons in the area objected that a saloon-keeper ran the settlement’s post office.  They applied pressure on postal authorities and the post office was dissolved less than two months later on Aug. 4.  However, on Dec. 9, 1891. Edward E. Bradshaw was named postmaster of the new “Pinetop” post office.

     There are couple theories how the settlement got its “Pinetop” name.  Since the Fort Apache soldiers had to climb a mountain to get their booze, they reportedly told each other, “Let’s go to the top of the pines” or “Let’s go get high (drunk) at the top of the pines.”  Eventually they cut the verbiage and just called the place Pinetop.

     Another story is the town was named after a man’s head. Walt Rigney, Phipps’ barkeep, had a pointed head of hair that “looked like a pine tree,” said Ralph Penrod, one of the areas’ first residents. (According to the 1910 Census, 55 of the 95 people living in Pinetop belonged to the Penrod clan)

     In 1892, Mormon officials decided to hold an Arizona all-stake convention in Pinetop.  About 1,100 Mormons from throughout the state attended.  Four LDS elders from Salt Lake City traveled to Pinetop by train and horse and buggy for the conference.

     The Mormons in the area built a 2,400-square-foot dance pavilion for the event.  The Salt Lake City delegation warned that only square dancing would be allowed, not the worldly “round” dancing.  After the Utah visitors left, the Arizona Mormons disobeyed and they round danced.

     The first school in Pinetop opened in 1894 in Ephraim Penrod’s home.  Some of these students were not exactly young.  Ralph Penrod was born in 1872, so he would have been 22 years old.  Belle Cooley also was born in 1872.  Her half-sister, Lillie, was about 18.  Their father, Corydon E. Cooley, had two Apache wives the same time.  Romance must have blossomed in the school.  Abe Amos and Belle Cooley, who both were students, married that same year — 1894. Were they first graders?

     Most of Pinetop’s history evolves around a party-like atmosphere.  It was known as the drinking capital in the White Mountains.  This is still true today.  Beverage House, a large liquor store chain, opened a branch in Pinetop in 2006.  The store is the largest liquor store in the White Mountains.

     However, during Prohibition, Jake Renfro sold moonshine whiskey from his Pinetop cafe.  Raymond Lee, a resident of nearby Lakeside, said that when he was growing up in the 1940s & 50s people called Pinetop “Winetop,” because is had just about as many liquor stores as it did families.  At one time Pinetop had its “red-light” district.  It actually was in the back room of a bar.  That bar has since been torn down and the site now is the parking lot of the First Baptist Church of Pinetop.

     Pinetop, at 7,000-foot elevation, is a haven for the desert-weary residents of Phoenix and Tucson.  They flock here during the scorching summer heat.  Thousands also have bought summer homes in the White Mountains.  There are hundreds of miles of trials, dozens of lakes for fishing, and hunters seek permits to bag elk, deer and wild turkeys.  Snow skiing is available during the winter at Sunrise Peaks some 30 miles from Pinetop.  There are three country clubs in Pinetop.

     And, there are still many watering holes in Pinetop, a legacy founder Phipps never imagined.

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