Monday, February 10, 2014

The Apache Land I Remember

February 3, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

During the last months I worked on the Quarter Circle U Ranch in May of 1959, I heard lots of rumors about the Barkley Ranch being sold and a movie studio being built on the old Quarter Circle W Ranch (or Three R’s) property. The story was that Gertrude (Gertie) Barkley had sold two sections of land to a developer and there were plans to build a large planned community around Dinosaur Mountain. Another developer had tried to develop a small planned community called Crystal Springs just off of the King’s Ranch Road about a half of a mile south of Julian and Lucille King’s place known as "King’s Ranch Resort." These rumors and stories didn’t concern me that much. I had left the ranch in May of 1959 just before roundup due to a serious injury.

In early August of 1959, I heard rumors that Hollywood production companies were building another "Old Tucson" type movie set near Superstition Mountain. News circulated that major movie companies and movie stars from Hollywood would be working on the set of this new movie ranch in Arizona. It was said stars like Glenn Ford, Burt Lancaster, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and many more big names in the movie industry. The new movie set was going to be called Apache Land. The holding company for the movie set was Superstition Mountain Enterprises. The first thing the company did was build a large resort type hotel in the center of Apache Junction and named it the Superstition Ho. It was some time before construction started on the hotel in Apache Junction that promoters were already calling the "Hotel of the Stars."

I met my future wife in November of 1959. We spent almost every weekend together until we were married on June 23, 1962. It was on these weekends we would go out to the Quarter U Ranch and eventually down to Apache Land. We watched the movie set being born. We attended the first opening day and as we walked down main street, we could feel the old West. We watched the gunfights and other acts that were put on for an excited and gloating public. During one of our many visits I ran into my old friend Julian King. He was involved with Apache Land and selling stock for the company. Sharon and I decided purchasing stock in this company would be a good future investment for us. Sharon purchased 100 shares. We were both excited about the affair even though her name was the only name on the stock certificate. After all she was the one that had the money. This was her introduction to Apache Junction in 1960.

Flames leaped three hundred feet into the night sky near King’s Ranch about 6:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, 2004. Some twenty-five patrons in the Apache Land restaurant escaped the fire unharmed. Once again a devastating fire had become a part of this movie set’s history.

Apache Land burned to the ground for the second time in its forty-four year history on Saturday, Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2004. The fire only left a few buildings standing. Ironically, the little white chapel used in Elvis Presley’s film Charro survived for the second time. Other buildings survived the fire at the west end of the movie set. The fire reportedly began somewhere near the restaurant in an electrical box. The Apache Junction Fire District was still putting out hot spots on Sunday morning when I arrived. I secured permission from Ed and Sue Birmingham to photograph the devastation at Apache Land Movie Set.

The fire was devastating to the Birminghams and their employees. They always prided themselves so much in preserving the movie history of the area. Apache Land was a special place to many people. It was a place were memories of our silver screen cowboy heroes came alive and reminded us of how important their impact was on our lives. Television series such as Wyatt Earp with Hugh O’Brien, Wanted: Dead or Alive with Steve McQueen, Have Gun, Will Travel with Richard Boone, The Virginian, Rawhide, and several episodes of Little House on the Prairie produced television heroes for many us. Audey Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Kenny Rogers, Elvis Presley and Jason Robards were just some of the silver screen feature length stars who performed for the cameras at Apache Land.

Apache Land was first planned to be an amusement park and film studio late in 1959. Original construction on the set began on February 12, 1960, and the ground- breaking ceremony was held on March 19, 1960, with Will Rogers Jr. on hand. William W. Creighton was the man behind the dream when he came to Apache Junction in the late 1950’s. Spencer D. Stewart helped make this dream come true by providing some of the financial backing for Apache Land. The movie set was originally constructed for Dick Powell’s Death Valley Days and originally starred Robert Taylor, rather than Ronald Reagan. A large sound studio was constructed on the western end of the lot. The walls of this studio were about forty feet high. Winds have since toppled this massive sound stage.

Early construction at Apache Land circa 1960. 
My first involvement with Apache Land was when my wife, Sharon and her friend purchased a hundred shares each of the first stock options offered for sale to the public by Superstition Mountain Enterprises Inc. in July of 1960. We all sat in the Cowboy Steak House at Apache Land and signed the papers for the Superstition Mountain Enterprises Inc. stock. We walked the streets of Apache land and admired our investment in the future. Superstition Mountain Enterprises Inc. once more offered stock for sale on August 4, 1961. The Federal Securities Exchange Commission authorized the sale of two million shares at two dollars and fifty cents a share. I have found no figures on how much of this stock actually sold in the early 1960’s. William W. Creighton had dreams of a large hotel for the stars in Apache Junction. This idea became a reality when the Superstition Ho Hotel was completed in 1960. Creighton also brought the Houston Colt 45’s (now the Astros) baseball team to Apache Junction for spring training at Geronimo Park in 1961 and 1962. An economic slump in 1964 brought the development of Apache Junction and Apache Land to a halt.

The fifty-four acre western town Apache Land was sold at a sheriff’s auction on January 29, 1965, to satisfy a loan held against the movie set by Home Savings and Loan. The Superstition Mountain Enterprise had finally failed. Apache Land had gone into receivership. John Porter Manufacturing Co. took over Apache Land after purchasing it at the sheriff’s auction. Spencer D. Stewart owned the John Porter Manufacturing Company.

On July 13, 1977, Vernon Piehl purchased the studio according to local newspapers. Piehl supposedly purchased the movie set from Spencer D. Stewart. At this time Apache Land was renamed Superstition Studios. Ted DeGrazia was involved with the studio for a short time, but later opted to do his own gallery near the base of Superstition Mountain east of Apache Junction. On Labor Day 1977, Vernon Piehl planned a big new grand opening for the Superstition Studios. Piehl could never make Apache Land go as Superstition Studio so the property remained in the hands of Spencer’s daughter, Sue Schilleman. In January of 1981 the old movie set was put up for auction. Four hundred thousand dollars was turned down for the movie set. During the spring of 1981, Larry Hedrick and his 7th Confederate States Cavalry did a reenactment of the "Battle of Gettysburg" at Apache Land. A large area was needed for this reenactment.
Ed and Sue Birmingham (Schilleman) closed Apache Land in 1984. There was another attempt to open Apache Land on January 3, 1990 by a group called Apache Land Tours and Chuck Wagon Dinners. Charlie Graves came down from Colorado looking for a new place for his chuck wagon dinners and theater. This venture failed after a season or so.

Sadly enough, a lot of historical artifacts and materials were lost in these two fires. The first fire, in 1969, claimed Levis Brown’s collection of early medical instruments that belonged to Dr. L. M. Tompkins of Gilbert. Many of the instruments dated back to 1910. Many photographs autographed by Hollywood stars were lost in both fires. Ben Cole, Apache Land’s official Dutchman for several years, possessed one of the finest collections of photographs autographed by Hollywood stars.

The film Charro starring Elvis Presley was made at Apache Land when he was at the peak of his career in 1968. The small white church that still stood after the two fires was actually blown up by canon fire in the film Charro. Actually it was only the steeple that was destroyed in the movie.

The following spring after the filming of Charro the first fire occurred. Jack McGill and Don Hunt discovered the first fire at Apache Land about 11 p.m. on May 25, 1969. This fire burned into the morning of May 26, 1969. Howard Jones, the Apache Junction Volunteer Fire Department’s chief at the time took the call at 12 p.m. Cliff Russell, chief engineer, helped fight the fire. Cliff said he had a truck on the scene within twenty minutes of the call.

The "Elvis" Chapel in the background is a survivor among the ashes of the Valentine’s Day fire at Apache Land in February, 2004.
After this devastating fire, Apache Land was rebuilt in time to start shooting Death Valley Days on July 25, 1969. Also, Dallas Adair had moved his riding stable down to Apache Land from Lake City, Colorado to help out during the filming of Death Valley Days. Dallas told me one day he had moved down just in time for the fire.

Early in 1993, Ed Birmingham and Sue Schilleman began to restore Apache Land to its original movie set condition. Hard work, sweat and tears helped to build the movie set again. They opened a restaurant and saloon on April 16, 1994 that became very popular in the Apache Junction-Gold Canyon area. Ed Birmingham revitalized an old movie set and found filming companies interested in it. HBO filmed Blind Justice starring Armand Assante.

The Birminghams worked closely with the Arizona Film Commission and the Apache Junction Film Commission to promote the film industry in Arizona. It was at this time I chaired the Apache Junction Film Commission and Ed and Sue helped sponsor the "Elvis Lives" festival with the Apache Junction Chamber of Commerce for two years in row. The restaurant and streets of Apache Land once again attracted people from around the country and the world. Ed and Sue Birmingham were involved in many charitable community events at Apache Land, and did everything with class. Apache Land had found new stars.

Those who have enjoyed working and visiting at Apache Land know how important the values of our silver screen cowboy heroes have always been to us. Apache Land films reminded us that the good guys always won and the bad guys always lost. This was part of the moral value of this wonderful place called Apache Land.

A view of Main Street of Apache Land, circa 2002.
As a footnote, the Superstition Mountain Inn (Grand Hotel) was razed in 2007 ending the physical legacy of motion picture industry in the Apache Junction area. Apache Land created a lot of dreams in the minds of men. Today, both museums along the Apache Trail are making an effort to preserve this film history in our community. Visit them and enjoy the film history of the Superstition Mountain region and old Apache Land.

The Superstition Mountain Museum celebrated Heritage Days and Apache Land January 18-19, 2014, with one of the largest crowds on record. The Heritage Days at the museum were outstanding. Visit the Apache Land church and barn at the Superstition Mountain Museum and learn about the filming history in the Apache Junction area.