SUMMARY: The Armenta Family emigrated from Mexico in the late 1880s. Their first home was a brush house. The children went to school and the adults took whatever employment was available. Ramon recalls many of the characters who came to town, the incorporation of Casa Grande in 1914, and the arrival of the notorious Billy Stiles.
Date of Interview: April 18, 1968
Interviewer: Nate Coxon and Bill Bauser
Transcriber: Merrilyn S. Ridgeway, May 2, 2006
Begin Tape 1, Side 1
The Armenta Family Immigrates from Mexico in the late 1880s
Nate: This is Nate Coxon with Bill Bauser. We’re interviewing an old timer here, Ramon Armenta, for the Casa Grande Historical Society in his home. Ramon, where were you born?
Ramon: I was born in Florence, AZ, February 4, 1888. I came to Casa Grande as a baby. I don’t think I was over three months old.
Nate: What was your father’s name?
Ramon: Manuel Z. Armenta. My mother’s name was Guadalupe Aragon Armenta. Nate: Where did they come from before they moved to Florence?
Ramon: They came from Vanamichi (?) in the state of Sonora near Cananea.
Nate: It was my impression that he fought against Maximillian in Mexico. Could you elaborate on that?
Ramon: He served under General Picaya or Piscada (?) when Porfirio Diaz was president. He helped until the conflict was over.
My parents came to Nogales [Mexico] in about 1886. My father was worried about Geronimo. The Apaches were wild, you know. He was raiding down by the border. So, when he was in Nogales he heard about the troops in Calabassas, about the wages they were paying--$2.50 a day. That’s $75 a month and board. So he came over to see if he could enlist with the American troops. They told him, “Yes.” If he could get about thirty men with him, they’d be willing to hire them. So he went back to Nogales and recruited all these men. He came back and they were all enlisted. From there they went to Fort Huachuca.
They went all over; Patagonia, Bisbee, Tombstone, Douglas, all along the border. He enlisted for three months. But when the three months were up, they hadn’t caught the Indians so they asked if they’d re-enlist for another three months. My father said, “Yes, we’ll enlist for a year if you want as long as you pay these good wages.” They were only getting 35 cents a day in Mexico, you know, out there working for General Piscada. So they re-enlisted for another three months, and in that time they caught the Indians between Douglas and Bisbee. I think there’s a monument there now for the three companies that caught Geronimo.
They came back to Nogales and were discharged. That was when he decided to come to Florence.
The Family in Casa Grande 1888 – 1914
Nate: When your family moved over from Florence, Ramon, how did they come over? Did you come in an automobile?
Ramon: The same way as my folks came from Mexico, on burros. We located right here where the Catholic Church is now. That’s where my father built one of those little brush houses with a dirt roof, one door, no windows. We lived there for three or four years before we moved over to where Glenn Stiles used to own the building by the section house. My father gave a couple of horses for the house.
Nate: Have you lived in Casa Grande almost all the time since you were brought from Florence as an infant?
Ramon: Yes, with the exception for a couple or three years in Tempe, AZ.
Nate: Did you go through grammar school here, Ramon?
Ramon: No, I just went to about the fifth grade.
Nate: I remember my mother speaking about life here in Casa Grande in the early days. They were limited as to the number of grades they had in the school. I recall her saying that all the high school students had to go down to Tucson to go to school. Where was the school you attended here in Casa Grande?
Ramon: It was over on the south side, across the track, where that little park is located now. The northeast corner of Elliott Park.
Nate: Did you work at any mines out south?
Ramon: Yes. I worked at what they used to call The Virginia which is The Reward right next to the Christmas [indistinguishable word]. That was about 1902. I washed dishes for the Gordon House.
Nate: Do you remember the fire that happened on Main Street in 1914?
Ramon: Yes. Very well. I helped with the bucket brigade. We had a long line of men passing water up to the men on the roof.
Nate: About what time of the day was it?
Ramon: I don’t recall, but it was in the daytime, about in the late morning.
Nate: Where did it start?
Ramon: It started at the Berlin Bakery that was owned by Gus Kratske.
Nate: Did the fire to any damage to the adjacent buildings?
Ramon: Yes. It didn’t do much damage to the Armenta store, but it did some to the building on the west side of the Berlin Bakery.
Nate: Do you recall when the town was incorporated?
Ramon: I certainly do. I circulated the petition to see if there were the number of people required to incorporate. I think I got 350 signatures, but I had to count the dogs and cats to make it. (Laughter.) It was hard. I volunteered to do it for the city. I went to every house, although there weren’t very many including the section houses.
Nate: Do you remember statehood?
Ramon: That was 1912. We lived at the ranch then. I used to go up and stay with my dad.
Billy Stiles in Casa Grande
Nate: As you know, Billy Stiles has been very controversial in the history of Casa Grande. It’s not our intention to stir up any more controversy but we would like your remarks and thoughts on the personality of Billy Stiles during the early days.
Ramon: I knew him very well when I was a young kid around town. He carried a gun, you know, and when he broke out of the Tombstone jails he came to Casa Grande. There was a $10,000 reward on him. He never bothered anybody here. We were all friends.
Bill used to come out to the ranch where my father was. It was called the Curry Ranch at that time. We had a cattle ranch right next to the Curry Ranch. We had squatter’s rights, sort of, about a mile west of there. We used to farm that. When they came to establish the Indian reservation in 1915, we were there. We were there before the Indians. They surveyed about 350 acres or so around there and we got the whole thing. They call it the Armenta plot. It’s still there. We had priority, but we don’t have any papers. I don’t have title to that land, but it was my father’s homestead. It’s up northeast of that [indistinguishable] mine up there.
Bill would stop there for four or five days. My father was there alone most of the time, you know. At one time, Bill came down while they [the law] were after him one night when we were all sleeping out in the yard. It was a hot summer night. He asked for a gun. Well, my father couldn’t refuse him. Bill had an old 38, I think it was, not a very good gun. He opened the store at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and they had some lunch. So my father gave him a 35 Colt and he left his old gun with us. I still have it here now. He left that night. He never bothered nobody he knew, but there were certain guys in town like old Judge Bennett that he despised. Old man Bennett sure stayed home when Bill was in town. (Laughter.)
Nate: Do you know anything about this companion of Billy Stiles? This Al Bord [or Borden?] person?
Ramon: Yes. He was the one that held up the train at Ventana, I think it was. Bill was working as a guide on that train, kind of a detective like, you know? At the same time, he had his own gang. Al Borden was one of them. They held up the train. Bill always knew when there was big loot coming. Felix Major (?) was in it, too. He used to live here in Casa Grande. So, when Al and his men held up the train, they got away. A reward of $10,000 was offered for Al Borden, dead or alive. So Bill went after him and caught him.
Al was held in the Tombstone jail. The day of the trial they asked his fellow expressman whether he could recognize the man who held the gun on him. “I certainly can,” he said. Well, Bill was listening to the testimony and he was pretty wise. He was an officer of the law, you know, and he had a gun. So the judge asked Bill to come up on the stand and to hold his gun in his hand. Bill pulled out his gun and said to the expressman, “Is that the hand that held you up?” Well, that guy knew he was going to be shot right there, so he said “NO!” That was Bill’s intention.
Right after that they had a recess. It was about noontime. Bill went up to the jail. He knew there was something fishy going on. Bill told the jailer he wants the key because he wants to talk to these guys in the jail. Bravo Juan was with him in jail, too. The jailer says he can’t have them. “Why not?” says Bill, “I booked this man in here. I’ve got a right to talk to him.” But the jailer said he had no right to give him the keys to open the cell. So Bill shot him in the leg and took the keys away from him and let the whole batch out. That’s when they came up here to Casa Grande. From here they went right on to Nevada. That’s where Billy was killed from ambush.
Nate: How was he killed?
Ramon: He was opening a gate coming out from the range. He was shot from behind. The guy who shot him said it was a mistake. He thought it was somebody else. Bill’s sister-in-law who came back from Nevada had Bill’s bloody clothes with her to prove to Bill’s wife that he’d been killed.
Nate: What was he doing in Nevada?
Ramon: He was a ranger. They used to have rangers, you know. He was a law officer. He was pretty foxy.
Nate: Would you like to add anything?
Ramon: I met him back of the place where they had bacon—fatback? I had a 22 rifle, a Stevenson. Billy said to me, “You want to shoot?” “Yes,” I said, “I’ll shoot with you.” We went over and placed a can against the wall of an adobe house. “How much you want to shoot for?” he asked me. Well, I had 5 cents. I shot at the can and I beat him! I beat him six times. He was hitting the can but he was missing the bull’s eye we had made on it. He wouldn’t shoot with me no more. I beat him for 15 cents. He laughed and said, “You’re the best shooter.”
Nate: What was he shooting with? A pistol?
Ramon: No, with the 22, the same rifle. I remember Bill and a fellow named Hunsaker were here about 1904. There was a quarantine in town. Bill wanted to visit with friends but they had small pox or chicken pox. Where the telephone office is now there was a family named Varella. They had a guy guarding the place. Bill and his friends were drinking and they went to the Varella house. Bill told the guy that he wanted to go in and visit. But they guy said he couldn’t. So Bill went on to the Maldonado house, where they were in quarantine, too, but he breaks the quarantine there.
The next day old George Truman, who was sheriff, came to Casa Grande. We kids were walking around that morning and, like kids do, we wanted to see whose horses they were. We lived here by the livery stable and we saw Bill putting the saddles on when old George arrived. Bill Elliott was with him and the two came along Main Street to arrest Bill. Well, Bill Stiles pulled out his carbine from the saddle and put it on top so they could see it. Old George and Bill turned right back and went downtown to get some rifles. It was really funny to see how fast they went back.
Nate: Jesus Chacon was an alleged member of the Billy Stiles group.
Ramon: He was from around Clifton or Morenci. He was hiding and Bill was offered some money to capture Chacon. Chacon trusted Bill. But Bill caught him, turned him in, and Chacon was executed over east of Safford. I think it was Soloman. There was a scaffold there.
Nate: Well, thanks for all the information you’ve given us, Ramon. We appreciate your time.