'We are curators of history': Meet the new owners preserving Tortilla Flat's heritage

Shanti Lerner
Arizona Republic

When Katie Ellering and her three business partners decided to buy the historic town of Tortilla Flat in September 2019, the two-block-long hamlet in the Superstition Mountains at first seemed like any promising financial opportunity. 

Despite a brief four-month tourist season in winter and spring in which its operators earn most of their income, Tortilla Flat, population 6, long ago established itself as a must-visit attraction for tourists and local residents. The town, 53 miles east of central Phoenixand billed as the last surviving stagecoach stop in America, attracts tourists from all over the world craving a taste of the Old West. 

But as Ellering and her partners learned more about the property, it became more than a source of income to them. They became keenly aware of Tortilla Flat’s historical significance, nestled at the center of a broad sweep of Arizona and American history. They felt a calling to become good custodians of the town's past. 

“You can’t run this place without a certain love for what it is, and you can’t run the space without a love of history and what this place means to Arizona history, American history  and Phoenix history,” said Chris Field, director of operations at Tortilla Flat and   Ellering's fiance.

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A fire, a flood and a pandemic 

But, as the pair would soon learn, that history comes at a price.

Just before Ellering's group signed their 20-year lease with Tonto National Forest in June 2019, all six buildings that make up Tortilla Flat nearly burned down as the Woodbury Fire ravaged over 120,000 acres. The fire burned right up to the edge of the town but did not touch any of the buildings. 

Then, on Sept. 21, 2019, — three weeks after they took the keys — Tortilla Flat was deluged by a flash flood. Parts of the mountain above the property came down and some of the buildings were inundated with mud. The flood washed out parts of the Apache Trail (State Route 88) leading to the town and beyond it. 

Despite those setbacks, the group opened for business on Dec. 1.

Three months later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down.

The saloon, restaurant and gift shop had to close for six weeks, but the general store and its ice cream shop stayed open. It was deemed an essential business for being the only store offering basic goods within 20 miles. 

It was an inauspicious start for the new owners of one of Arizona’s most cherished landmarks.

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How the Apache Trail came to be

Fires, floods, intrigue, mystery and even murder make up the story of the Superstition Mountains and Tortilla Flat. There’s also plenty of splendor and grandeur. Driving along the Apache Trail, it's easy to lose yourself in the sheer beauty of the area.

The two-lane road meanders past Goldfield Ghost Town and Lost Dutchman State Park. The Flatiron peak towers over the Superstitions' craggy landscape of saguaro cactus and other desert flora.

The route grows steeper and more dramatic as you drive on curving roads with sheer drops to Canyon Lake. Surrounded by rugged mountains, with people fishing, boating and picnicking under vast powdery blue skies, it’s little wonder many people consider this to be one of the most beautiful parts of Arizona. 

History is never far away in these parts. At a vista overlooking Canyon Lake, Arizona State Parks and Trails has installed an exhibit telling the story of how the Apache Trail came to be. 

For centuries, Apache and Yavapai people used this vital mountain passage and migration route to crisscross the Superstitions. The Apache Trail came into being with the construction of Roosevelt Dam beginning in 1903 and the need for a proper road to bring supplies to the dam site.

Supervised by head engineer Louis C. Hill and built by over 400 Pima and Apache laborers in remote and rugged conditions, the 64-mile road from Mesa to the dam was completed in 1911. It was an engineering marvel, described in the Arizona Good Roads Association tour book as "one of the best and most delightfully scenic routes in the whole of the mountain regions of the United States."

It also was a source of immense pride for Phoenix residents. Travelers who tried the road would regale acquaintances with tales of traversing what was then known as the “Roosevelt to Mesa Road.” According to a clipping on display in the Tortilla Flat Museum, one awed traveler gushed that his traveling party only had to change horses four times, and that the trip from Mesa to the dam took just 11½ hours.

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Preparing to welcome the day's visitors 

Today it takes about 90 minutes to drive from Phoenix to Tortilla Flat.

Early on a cold February morning in the empty town, it's easy to envision a bygone era:  distressed-looking one-story buildings, a creaky wooden boardwalk, rusted metal wagon wheels scattered about. A low hum of rock and roll, country and blues music fills the air  as employees, including Katie Ellering, greet each other as they get set for the Friday rush. 

Cars and motorcycles start to fill the parking lot for the 10 a.m. opening. People take photos in front of newly painted murals while eating prickly pear ice cream from the general store.

The mercantile and gift shop, complete with a small post office, is doing a brisk business with patrons buying Tortilla Flat T-shirts, Native American jewelry and pottery and books  on local lore. The BBQ Patio quickly fills up with people drinking beer and ordering lunch while listening to the Tortilla Flat Band. 

By 11 a.m. Ellering is on the floor of the Superstition Restaurant & Saloon greeting and seating masked customers. Surrounded by walls papered with dollar bills and other currency left by travelers throughout the years, Chris Field stands at the bar working on his laptop and taking calls. With the line out the door and cars and motorcycles coming and going, it’s going to be a busy day. 

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How the pandemic affected Tortilla Flat 

Ellering and Field are hands-on for good reason. During the pandemic closure they lost $1 million in gross revenue and 95% of what would have been their annual profit. 

“COVID was super painful,” Field said. “We were in crisis and survival mode.”

The pandemic was especially rough on a seasonal business.

“We have four months to break even, four months to make money and four months to survive,” Ellering said, referring to the ebb and flow of visitation during the seasons. Tourism slows to a crawl in the blazing hot summer months. 

Their early misfortunes steeled their resolve to press on. With business tanking and natural calamities taking their toll, the group invested $250,000 in upgrades and renovations to Tortilla Flat, including new electrical wiring in the kitchen, plumbing, murals, a boardwalk and a remodeled retail store and bathrooms. 

“We had a choice to thrive through or not do anything, so we invested in our people and the property,” Field said. As business picks up, Tortilla Flat is back to employing 50 people. That number will drop to around 25 in the slower summer months. 

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'We are curators of history' 

No matter the time of year, though, the owners say they're in it for more than profit. 

“We are curators of history,” Field said. “This history is our job to pass on to the next century.”

Their goal to preserve Tortilla Flat’s heritage is evident at the far end of the property in  one of the less-visited buildings, the Tortilla Flat Museum.

The tiny red building is a replica of the original one-room schoolhouse destroyed in a 1943 flood. The room is brimming with history: how the Apaches considered this land the home of the Thunder God; the discovery of gold by Spanish and Mexican explorers; the rush of prospectors like German immigrant Jacob Waltz, the famed Lost Dutchman who is said to have taken his knowledge of the whereabouts of a gold mine to his grave; the building of Roosevelt Dam; the arrival of stagecoaches; and the nearby highways that ushered in the modern tourist era. 

The exhibit also has details about the 16 previous owners of Tortilla Flat. Like Ellering and her partners, they all embodied that very American ideal of adventure-seeking and risk-taking, of looking to start over and build something new.  

Nothing ever came easy in these parts. Despite a flood in 1943 that engulfed Tortilla Flat and ripped every building off its foundations, owners Slim and Neil Powell held on until 1948. On Labor Day weekend in 1970, owner Lucy Tuttle watched as heavy rains brought water from Tortilla Creek over the road in front of Tortilla Flat. Jerry and Mary Jo Bryant, 40-year residents of Indiana, dropped everything in 1987 to come to Arizona and take ownership of Tortilla Flat after the place had been destroyed  by a fire caused by a gas leak. 

Considering what has already befallen Ellering and her partners in their short stint as owners, there's no doubt they will go down in the history they are striving to preserve. It’s something they relish each and every day.

“Our job is to take this place from the 20th and 21st century and make sure it’s around for another 100 years. That's become our mission,” Field said.

“We are not programming a strip mall," he said. "We are programming authentic American history that was here before us. We don’t own this history, the emotions, people’s views of Tortilla Flat. All we did was get inserted to the existing beliefs and patterns of this piece of history and in a short period of time we will be removed and this will keep on moving on without us.

“This is Arizona, America. The West is full of tragedy, opportunity, pain, joy. It’s  deeply American how it was settled. Knowing that part of history and participating in it, that’s America.” 

“We are going to be a blip in history and just another name on the wall,” Ellering said. 

You can connect with Arizona Republic Culture and Outdoors Reporter Shanti Lerner through email at shanti.lerner@gannett.com or you can also follow her on Twitter

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