If you happen to be driving down Highway 188 in Tonto Basin, Arizona, you might think you’d been taken back in time–back to a time when things were done at a slower pace; back to a time when things were simpler. Through the saguaro cactus on the rugged hillsides, the snow-capped mountains in the distance and on the banks of Tonto Creek lies the H-4 Ranch. On this particular day you would see five teams of draft horses mowing hay the “old-fashioned” way. You would see teams of Belgians and Percherons pulling sickle bar mowers through acres of alfalfa hay. A sight like this is virtually unseen in modern Arizona. People who aren’t even horse lovers are inspired to pull off the road and drive down into the ranch for a better look. Bill and Lori Brown don’t mind–in fact, they enjoy it when people stop by. Chances are there is a big group of family and friends already gathered for the day. You see, the Browns live today just like their family has for six generations in Tonto Basin. Bill Brown is fulfilling a lifelong dream of bringing back draft horses to their family ranch, but more importantly, he wants to make sure this way of life never goes away.
HOW IT ALL GOT STARTEDBill has been ranching and farming in the same location his whole life. They have always used saddle horses to work the cattle, and tractors to work the fields for as long as he can remember. Bill wanted to try farming with draft horses since he was in his twenties, but there was never time back then. He even managed to accumlate harness and some "yard art" farm implements, but it wasn’t until Lori bought him a chuck wagon at Grumpy Dave’s auction in June of 2005, that things really started to roll into action. Later, when the horses came up for auction, Bill was secretly bidding on a team of Haflinger mares to pull it. Lori was thinking along the lines of more yard art, not actually pulling the thing with horses! Not knowing everything about hooking them up and driving didn’t stop them. They knew the basics and with the help of neighbor and long-time friend, Brian Jennings, they started driving the Haflingers on the chuckwagon. (As a side note ... Arizona is not blessed with a draft horse enthusiast on every corner like many places. We are far and few between and, in a lot of ways, we’re on our own out here.) The Browns met Dan Hannah in Springerville, Arizona, who shows, breeds and trains Haflingers and also owns draft horses. They took their mares to Dan for breeding to his stallion. It was at Hannah’s ranch that Bill bought his second team of mares–Percherons this time. See where this is going?
With new mares, Bess and Beauty, back at the ranch in Tonto Basin, Bill was feeling the need to do more than just drive the chuckwagon. He needed more stuff. This may be why Bill’s truck has a bumper sticker that reads, “He who has the most toys wins.” Bill and Lori went to the Colorado Draft Horse and Equipment Sale in Brighton, Colorado, just to look around. Outside the sale Bill noticed someone plowing with a four abreast. The man at the lines was Daniel Stutzman from Milroy, Indiana. Bill just got out in the middle of them and says Daniel just wasn’t able to shake him off. A great friendship was made at the sale that day. Daniel has since sold Bill five teams of Belgians and a team of dapple grey Percherons. Daniel has been an invaluable resource for equipment and training for Bill and Lori.
BROWN FAMILY HISTORY
Bill was born and raised in Tonto Basin. In fact, he has never lived more than 15 miles away from where he lives now. His father, Jim Brown, handed the ranch down to him. The Brown family roots go deep in this part of Arizona. Jim Brown’s grandmother ran a boarding house in Livingston, Arizona, during the early 1900s. Livingston is now covered by water behind the Theodore Roosevelt Dam, which was completed in 1911. The dam was one of five federal projects authorized under the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. It was built to aid in the settlement of the arid West. At the time of its completion it was the largest masonry dam in the world. Jim Brown’s grandfather was a freighter driving four and six-horse hitches, bringing supplies over the Apache Trail to the construction site at the dam. It was at the boarding house that he met and later married Jim’s grandmother. After the completion of the dam the couple opened a boarding house and bar in Payson, Arizona. They homesteaded 80-acre cattle ranches near Rye, Arizona, proving them up and selling them, just to do it over and over again. When Jim’s grandfather was a young man he served as a page in the Arizona State Senate when the Capital was in Prescott and Arizona was still just a territory. When Jim was a young man he worked for his father on their own ranch but also hired himself out to cut hay with horses for a dollar a day. The farming was mostly accomplished using the light horses that they used to work cattle. The primary crop was hay that ultimately became feed for those same horses. There were no heavy draft horses used in this rugged Arizona landscape, just light horses and mules … lots of mules. The last horses used in farming in this area disappeared around 1937 when tractors became the main mode of getting your fields planted. Light horses continued to be used to work the cattle in the allotments.
Jim married Connie in 1950 and they bought the 160-acre H-4 ranch in 1969. Twin boys were born in 1954, James and Dennis, and then five years later, a second set of twin boys, Bill and Joe, arrived. Jim was proud of Connie but told her, “We’ve just got to find out what’s causing this! This can’t go on … this two at a time, we’re really going to get loaded with kids.” Jim had been an only child and Connie only had a brother so with four boys, they felt they really had a large family. At 84 years old Jim says, “It’s just a wonderful thing to have a BIG family … which I didn’t know until Connie started having twins. All my family is with me … that’s how I keep them.” When Bill brought draft horses back to the family farm, his dad admits he was “real proud of him for getting them because he (Bill) was real interested in them. I wasn’t real interested, but I farmed with horses years ago.”
WHY DOES BILL DO IT?
Growing up on the H-4 Ranch, Bill has always been around horses. He says, growing up they had too many horses. The H-4 Ranch has always been in his family and, for as long as he can remember, has been worked with tractors. He remembers his dad threshing barley while he and his brothers sewed the tops of the burlap bags and stacked them in the old truck. When his dad gave him the ranch, he told Lori he wanted to work it with horses. He wants to keep the horse heritage going. All of the family participates and he is sure they will keep it going, too. Bill hasn’t had a lot of training on multiple horse hitches but it seems to come naturally to him. Maybe it’s just in his blood. He’s never really had anyone to help him–he just figures it out. Daniel Stutzman just scratches his head and says, “I don’t know how you figured all that out by yourself.” Bill says it's because he wants to do it so bad that he just does it–it’s second nature to him. Entirely sold on heavy horses, he now insists that, “A horse isn’t a horse unless it weighs 2,000 pounds.” Bill especially enjoys working the horses surrounded by his family. “It’s just a good feeling," he explains. "This is the only way to farm. We’ve got to keep this type of life going because it’s disappearing. I’m sure with what we are doing now, it will stay in our family.” When he started using draft horses to farm, everybody thought he was crazy, even his son, Willie, but today, everyone thinks it is the neatest thing that he is doing. They all seem to have a story about how their grandpa or somebody “used to” do it. “That seems like how it is anymore," reflects Bill. "People talk about what they used to do instead of just doing it!” He’s confident that this is the way to go … when diesel fuel gets up to $7 or $8 a gallon, he’ll still be cutting hay with his horses, and adds, “I might be cutting other people’s hay, too.”
In the relatively short amount of time Bill has been horse farming, he has been able to collect and restore quite a few horse-drawn farm implements. He has a Big 6 mower, a #7 McCormick-Deering mower, two #9 McCormick-Deering mowers, and a New Idea mower. Most were in bad shape when he bought them but he has been able to restore them to their current usable condition. He also has a side-delivery rake, single bottom sulky plow, a two-bottom sulky plow and a two-bottom plow he pulls behind the forecart. He has a cultivator and a John Deere 999 corn planter. He has a power cart that has all the bells and whistles of a tractor without the steering wheel that he uses to pull the mower-conditioner with a four abreast hitch. Most of the equipment he bought at the Colorado Draft Horse & Equipment Auction because over time, the ranch's original equipment had been scrapped out. He was admiring a two-bottom plow in the yard of a friend and asked if he could buy it. The friend replied, “Heck, you can have it. Your dad is the one who gave it to my dad!” Bill got it back and refurbished it and is using it today. He is currently farming 20 acres on his ranch and another ten at his parent’s place right down the road. He also uses the horses to put in the family garden, cultivate the beans and disk between the rows of vegetables.
IT TAKES THE WHOLE FAMILY
Ranching and farming in Arizona today isn’t like it used to be. It’s very hard to make a living at it exclusively. In addition to the cattle and farming operations, Bill owns Black Mountain Excavating, Inc. It requires him to be out of town much of the time, so it takes the whole family pulling together to make everything work. Bill’s daughter Jessie, a helicopter flight nurse, lives nearby and pitches in whenever and however she can. She enjoys driving the Belgian team, Dic and Doc. She likes doing everything as a family, and says, “It’s a good thing what Dad does. It brings back the old way of doing things.” She likes the fact that this is something her grandpa and grandma did and her dad just continued to do. Bill’s son, Willie, and his wife, Megan, live across the highway. Willie works for his dad's construction company and also works all the ranch horses, gathers cattle during roundup and helps cut and bale hay. Willie and Megan plan to carry on with the tradition when his dad can’t do it anymore. Willie says, “It’s a lot of work. It’s a full-time job for the whole family.” He is currently restoring a 1931 Model A car/truck that has been in his family since it was new. Years ago, Jim Brown turned it into a truck to haul diesel fuel from one ranch to another. The fuel cans wouldn’t fit in the car so he cut the back off and welded on a truck bed. When Bill was in elementary school, he drove the old rig to the bus stop to catch the bus to go to school
Bill and Lori’s son, Daylen, is seven years old and already has his own team of minis, Badger and Button, which he drives on a small wagon, and another named Crystal. Daylen runs the controls on the power cart pulling the big hay conditioner while his dad drives the four-abreast of Belgians. Daylen also rides round-up when the family gathers the cattle for branding or calving. He enjoys helping his dad more now than before they got the draft horses. He likes the big horses because “they pull good.” Brian Jennings, whose family also farms and ranches in Tonto Basin, provides regular assistance as well. Bill says that Brian will drop whatever he is doing and come help when he needs an extra hand. Brian now owns Bess and Beauty (Bill's first team) and uses them on his own ranch to plant pasture grass and brings them over to help mow hay at the H-4 Ranch.
Bill couldn’t do any of this without the help and support of his wife. Lori was raised on a ranch in Pine, Arizona. Her family was among the first settlers to the area in the late 1800s. She has ridden horses her whole life. When she was growing up, her mom had a horse and carriage so when Bill came home with the first draft horses, she had some idea of how it all worked. Lori takes care of most of the cattle operation side of their ranch. They have a permit for 200 head of cattle on the H-4 allotment that covers 19,000 acres of public land. They currently have 125 cows and ten bulls. She takes care of riding fence, checking the water lines and moving the cattle between pastures. When Bill is out of town working, she takes care of all the irrigation as well. Somehow, she even has time to run her own beauty salon. Lori was appointed by the Gila County Supervisor to the Tonto National Resource Conservation District and is in charge of the funds available for education. She currently has five classroom sessions and one field-trip to the H-4 Ranch for all the fourth graders at Payson Elementary School. The field trip to the ranch includes a demonstration of an actual roundup of the cows, roping and branding of the calves and how to harness the draft horses. All the kids will be able to take a ride on a wagon. Bill will also demonstrate how to cut hay using horses. Lori feels this is important to teach the next generation about how ranching impacts everyone in a positive way. The improvements they do on the public land has far reaching benefits to hunters and outdoor enthusiasts and in the reduction of forest fires. The cows are only in the pastures for three months but the benefits are year round. She says before the draft horses came to the ranch, Bill was a workaholic and now she can’t seem to get him to do any work, except that which involves the horses–It's all he wants to do.
THE ANNUAL CLINIC
Every January the Browns offer a two-day clinic led by Daniel Stutzman. So many people were interested in what Bill was doing at his farm that the idea for the annual event came about quite naturally. Daniel, who was raised using draft horses for farming, as he does today, says the more he comes out west, the more he can see how Midwesterners take so much for granted, referring to the ready availability of harness makers and horse-drawn equipment back east. During the clinic they use Bill’s horses on his implements and everyone is able to drive all the hitches. Most of the horses came from Daniel originally and Bill has found them to be good safe horses. The clinic provides a unique opportunity to drive multiple horse hitches on various farm implements. Daniel demonstrates a three abreast on a John Deere Soilmaster, a team on a cultivator, a four-up on a plow using the rope and pulley system using only one set of lines, a four-abreast on a spring tooth harrow and a team on the John Deere corn planter. Based on comments from the 25 attendees (from Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado), there appears to be a growing enthusiasm for farming and locally-grown vegetables using draft horses and mules. Daniel encouragingly says, “If you have a willingness to learn, and good common sense, it doesn’t take long to learn.” Both he and Bill hope the clinics will encourage young people to get involved in farming with horses so this way of life will not die out.
As for future plans Bill says, “I’m hitting on what I want to do. I want to be able to continue doing it. I’m not going to let it die out.” As far as Bill knows he may be the only person farming with draft horses in Arizona right now. He has not heard of anyone else doing it. Brian Jennings and his wife, Deb, have recently partnered with Bill and Lori in a business venture called Old West Ranch Adventures. They currently do weddings, funerals, cookouts and take people out on roundup. They plan to expand the business over time to include more clinics and educational opportunities with draft horses. Bill and Lori don’t see all the hard work they do to keep the ranch in the family as a sacrifice. “Some would call it a sacrifice because they have weekends or time-off saved up and money so they can go on vacation, but this is our recreation,” he explains. Everyday he is home, it’s like a vacation to him. This is all he wants to do. He has no desire to do anything else or to travel. Bill has worked highway construction for many years where he was home very little and he has reached a point in his life where he doesn’t want to leave home. He has made it his mission to try and keep the long and rich heritage of ranching and farming with horses, as it was in this area of Arizona and in his family, alive. You can’t make a lot of money in ranching anymore but the Browns are proof that the same spirit that brought people out west is still alive today and will continue into the future.
For more information on the Browns' ranch and related enterprises, visit www.h-4ranch.com