Northern Mexico is big ranch country. Ranch families from southern Texas, New Mexico and Arizona have known and married into ranch families from Chihuahua and Sonora for generations. They buy each other’s cattle and horses. They help each other with branding and roundup. They have a culture and history of their own. Although the United States surveyed and set boundaries after the Mexican-American War of 1846, there are no boundaries on personal friendships between people who raise cattle and ride horses.
The mortar that held many of these ties together was the 1870s and ‘80s migration of Latter-day Saints, who were sent by their leader, Brigham Young, from Utah to colonize the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico. Thousands more came from the Mountain West states of Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. Some colonists returned to the States during the violent days of the Mexican Revolution, but many stayed. They built brick houses on wide streets, farmed, ranched, worked together, and built schools and places of worship.
David Wood’s family lived in Colonia Juarez in the northern state of Chihuahua, but retained their connections to Arizona. The way Dave put it, “I was born in Mesa and dried off in Chihuahua.” Born April 16, 1942, he was raised with Mexican kids and learned both languages at the same time. His dad, Lee Wood, owned Los Lobos Ranch which he sold to American rancher Martin Jeffers. Dave was raised by his grandfather in Colonia Juarez. He said, “My grandad raised me and a lot of other kids. He made ham and bacon for the town.”
Martin Jeffers gave him his first horse, and he remembers every marking on him. As a kid, he spent his summers in cow camp where he learned to cook. “As a little kid I loved to cook. I grew up watching and learning from the cowboys. When we were young kids we’d go off riding and cook something for lunch. Sometimes it was pretty awful. We’d go out on the Piedras Verdes River and have a chicken fry.” He learned to cook both Mexican and North American food.
Dave walked or rode his horse a mile and a half to a school where the teacher taught two classes in one room. Colonia Juarez was a small town, but the LDS community built a brick Stake Academy for grades 7-12. He finished high school and said, “I dinked around for a few years. Then I went to work for an uncle who was a masonry contractor. He had contracted to build the Navajo dormitories in Snowflake.”
While he was working with his uncle in Snowflake Dave met Bonnie Kay, the daughter of Ren and Julia Kay. The Kays owned Kay’s Confectionary, the only café in Snowflake at the time. Bonnie said, “It was hard work. We got up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning to make pies every day.” Following high school graduation, she attended cosmetology school in Mesa, but didn’t forget about Dave.
Dave and Bonnie were married Dec. 28, 1962. They have been partners in all their endeavors ever since. Bonnie worked as a cosmetologist for more than 20 years while raising their children. Dave said, “We had four boys and a girl, and raised two other kids.” As a married man and father, Dave had to have steady employment, so he worked at the Snowflake paper mill for 30 years in the power house. In addition he wore the badge of constable for the town. He said, “I had shift work so it gave me a lot of time off to do cooking.” It wasn’t long before their reputation spread. Dave and Bonnie were always in demand. They cooked for weddings, fund raisers, family reunions and individuals, including U.S. Sen, Jeff Flake. Dave cooked to raise money for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little League and other youth organizations. He said, “I never turned any of them away, and I never charged for kids’ organizations.”
Cooking became the center of their lives. Dave and Bonnie did all the cooking themselves. There was usually somebody to help load and unload their gear, and set up what was needed, but Dave cooked the meat. They cooked to order – whatever the customers wanted, whether it was pit barbecued beef or pork or grilled steaks and baked potatoes. Bonnie said, “I usually cooked the pinto beans and corn, and made coleslaw or green salad. I had big cake pans that could bake for 300.” They have served anywhere from 30 to 3,000 people, and cooked to most requests, including a genuine Hawaiian luau.
In their rare free time they built the house they had always wanted. They bought property in the farmland on the eastern edge of Snowflake with a view of the White Mountains to the south. Little by little they designed and planned a Mexican style adobe house. After some experimentation, Dave learned the right formula for making his own sun-dried adobe bricks from local dirt.
“I mixed one- part clay with three-parts sand. I’ve had dozens of people come to look at the house, but I don’t know of any that built a house like this. It’s too much work for most people.”
Before it was finished, Dave claims they made 8,363 adobes. Varnished log beams support the ceilings with small boards fitted diagonally between the beams. The walls are plastered and covered with family pictures. The floors are Mexican tile. The furniture is Spanish Colonial. The roomy custom-built and designed home is a constant reminder of the Mexico of Dave’s youth. He said, “When I grew up, everybody was “Aunt” and “Uncle.” People were closer, depended on each other more. They kind of raised each other’s kids back then. As kids, we all had chores to do. We had wood to split and get in. The work we did for the older widows was free. You know, the older they get the further from the woodpile they get.”
Today “woodpile” has taken on new meaning. Dave and Bonnie are surrounded by their kids and grandkids. A sign on the road to their houses reads “The Woodpile.” They have raised their own kids with discipline and taught them respect for others. “I’ve got a good bunch of kids,” he said. “I taught my kids how to work. That’s the best thing I could do for them.” The boys are Clay, Casey, Tyler and Dusty. Their only daughter, Julie, is a nurse in Mesa.
It bothers him that kids today spend so much time on gaming and social networking and not enough on human contact. He agrees that a few things are better than when he grew up. He said, “Medicine has advanced a lot. Equipment is better. Roads are better.” He hesitated, then said, “Damn drugs are ruining our kids. Marijuana was all over Mexico when I grew up there, but I never tried it.”
Dave is still dealing with the after-effects of open heart surgery, and rheumatoid arthritis has left his hands virtually useless. Their most recent cookout was in August for the Bill Elkins ranch reunion. He’s getting “farther from the woodpile”, but Bonnie keeps up his spirits and he is at home in the house he built, surrounded by his little dog, his friends and family. God willing, he’ll be cooking again.