Saginaw, an industrial city in central Michigan, was in decline during America’s Great Depression when jobs and money were hard to come by. Nerita Hock was born Nov. 11, 1937, the eldest of four children. Her father had a couple of small restaurants. Her mother was a seamstress who worked for the Singer Sewing Machine Co.
Nerita grew up in Saginaw but never liked city life. She wasn’t content to play with dolls, play “house,” or “dress up” like other little girls. She liked to draw and write stories. She was an avid reader and a good student.
The first major change in her life came when she was 16 and her family moved to a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called Tawas City. The population was less than 2,000, but it had a Singer Sewing Center where both her mother and father could work.
“Small town life was so delightful to me. Tawas City was on the Tawas River that flowed into Lake Huron. We were next to the Huron National Forest, surrounded by woods and wildlife. My parents rented an old house next to a creek. I used to paddle our canoe up the creek until I was deep in the forest. I could sit quietly and watch all kinds of wildlife. It opened my heart to the outdoors,” she said.
As much as she loved the outdoors, she didn’t forget her studies and graduated at the age of 17. She had a small scholarship to a college in eastern Michigan.
“I thought I would probably teach English,” she said.
She was working two jobs to save money for college when a Dickensian incident changed her life again. In August the family’s bishop from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Saginaw showed up at the restaurant where she was working. He asked her, “How would you like to go to BYU? (Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.)” She was speechless. She said, “It was the dream of all the kids I knew to go there, but nobody could afford it.”
The bishop told her, “Somebody in your ward wants to help you.” An anonymous benefactor had offered to pay her tuition to BYU. They talked it over with her parents who agreed to let her go. The bishop left an application but did not reveal the name of the donor. Many years later she learned his identity. It was someone she hardly knew.
Her grandparents, who lived in Ogden, drove her to Provo and left her to her own devices. All the dormitories were full, so she walked up and down, suitcase in hand, looking for living quarters. She finally found a room in a house rented by five other girls.
“One of the girls was dating a boy who lived in a house with six boys,” she said. “We invited them to a Halloween Party at our house. We were sitting around waiting for them when Dean walked in ...” She sighed.
It was the night that changed her life forever.
“I still remember what he wore. I was almost 18. He was 24 and had been in the Army, stationed in Germany. His parents were cattle ranchers near Snowflake, Ariz. He wanted to get his degree and teach vocational agriculture. We fell in love.”
By Christmas they were engaged. Dean invited her to spend the holidays with his family in Snowflake. When he showed the ring he had picked out to his mother, Gerda Flake, she didn’t object but said she thought Nerita was very young to be taking on the responsibility of marriage. When Nerita told Gerda they had a “family connection,” it brought them together. Nerita’s great-grandmother was Dean’s grandmother’s best friend in a small New Mexico town.
“Gerda was an angel. She was good to everyone and never had a bad word to say about anybody,” Nerita said.
Dean and Nerita were married Jan. 18, 1956, in the Mesa LDS Temple. Their marriage and their love has lasted 60 years. When Dean graduated from BYU he was hired to teach vocational agriculture at Snowflake High School. He also helped his father, Virgil, on the ranch.
When Dean and Nerita’s first child was born, Nerita was ecstatic.
“It was a revelation! I can’t think of anything more interesting than raising a child. I couldn’t wait to see what individuals would come into our family and watch them develop. I began to understand what a privilege it was to bring God’s children to earth,” she said.
Nerita was in a totally new environment, surrounded by Flakes, all related to the pioneer “Founding Fathers.” William J. Flake was the leader of a group of LDS families sent by Brigham Young to colonize the Little Colorado River Valley in the late 1870s. They sold off all their land in Utah, sacrificing all they had to establish new colonies in Arizona.
William J. Flake, a tough but shrewd frontiersman, negotiated most of the land purchases in Navajo and Apache counties for the church. The pioneers bought James Stinson’s ranch for $11,000 to be paid in Utah grade cattle, a higher grade of cattle than the common Mexican cattle most Arizona ranchers raised.
On July 21, 1878, six LDS families settled in the Silver Creek Valley, among them the family of William J. Flake. Other settlers arrived. Erastus Snow was the Mormon apostle in charge of colonization, so many people wanted to name the town after him. Others wanted to name it after Flake, their leader. Snow visited the Silver Creek colony and decided the name would be Snow Flake, so they could share the honor.
James Madison Flake (named after his grandfather) was the eldest son of William J. Flake and Lucy Hannah White. Virgil was the fourth child of James Madison and Martha Amelia Smith. Virgil and Gerda were the parents of Nerita’s husband, Dean.
All those illustrious ancestors could have been intimidating, but Nerita said, “Luckily, I liked the family. And I loved the ranch.”
Eventually, Dean and three of his brothers, Jake, Jed and Steve bought out their father and ran the F Bar Ranch as a partnership. Dean quit teaching to be a full-time rancher.
Dean and Nerita are the parents of 11 children. Growing up in a small town, her kids had the kind of childhood Nerita never knew. They had a lot of cousins to play with. They had horses to ride and the whole outdoors to discover. They learned responsibility from working on the ranch and raising 4-H animals. More important, they had parents who encouraged them to make the most of their talents and opportunities.
“We have such a small window of opportunity to watch our children grow up and become individuals,” Nerita said.
Life in rural Arizona was never easy, but it was fun.
“There were a lot of hard times, as there always are on a ranch. We had years of drought, blizzards, poor market prices, rising costs.”
Because the kids were in school, the family lived in Snowflake but worked on the ranch.
“We lived in a small house and added on to it twice as the kids came along. Dean got his real estate license to supplement the ranch income. We bought another house and renovated it. The whole family worked on it. When it was remodeled, we sold it and had enough money to add on to our other house. All six boys were in one bedroom. They had three sets of bunk beds. We finally added on another bathroom,” Nerita said.
When they weren’t working on their house, they worked at the ranch.
Her mother-in-law, Gerda, taught her how to make yeast bread. “I used to bake 10 loaves of bread two times a week,” Nerita said.
“We had a milk cow, chickens, and a big garden. We ate a lot of beans. This was all foreign to me. What helped me most was I sat down one day and made a 30-day meal plan.” It kept her family fed.
When they were working cattle, Dean’s brothers and their kids came to help. Nerita was too busy cooking to ride with the cowboys very often, but her father-in-law, Virgil, sometimes told her he would tend the babies so she could ride.
“I did ride a little,” she recalled.
Breakfast was always hot — bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy. “Our big meal was at noon. I’d take beans and bread out to the gather.”
In those days before horse trailers or ATVs, cowboys rode seven or eight miles out to where the cattle were, rounded them up, worked the herd and drove them back to the ranch. It made for long days and short nights.
“The kids were put on a horse when they were babies. By the time they were 4 or 5 they could ride and make a hand,” she said. “All their fathers taught them to mind their uncles. The ranch gave us a common purpose. It was our life’s blood. They had to learn to cooperate with their cousins and take orders.”
Life wasn’t all work and no play. They observed their church’s tradition of Family Home Evening every week. “The kids could put any fun ideas in a jar we had. We’d take turns trying them out.”
Dean did his part by making sure the kids kept up with current events and world affairs.
They often discussed news and politics at the dinner table. Dean is such a hard worker but full of fun. He served his community in so many ways. He was mayor of Snowflake, served on the state board of parks, also served as [an LDS] bishop.”
In 1996 Dean sold his interest in the F Bar Ranch to his brothers.
There were times when life became not quite but almost unbearable. At least very noisy. Nerita dealt with these hectic times the way she did as a girl, paddling up the creek in a canoe to be alone in the forest. Her special place was a rocky ridge above the house among the petroglyphs of ancient people. As dinner time neared, one of the kids would say, “We’d better go get Mom off the rocks. Dad will be home soon.”
When all 11 children had left home, Dean and Nerita went on a mission for their church in Hawaii for 18 months.
“We lived in a small town and helped people do their family histories. Here we were, together again, alone, getting reacquainted. It was almost like having a second honeymoon.”
Somehow Nerita has made time to write poetry and skits for church events, even a full-length drama about the life of Lucy Hannah White Flake, the first wife of William J. Flake. “Portrait of a Pioneer Woman” was produced during one of Snowflake’s Pioneer Days celebrations. She has written columns for the Silver Creek Herald and a book of poetry with the intriguing title “Small Town Secrets.”
Her latest project is working on a benefit concert for the Snowflake Academy History Project. “From Main Street to Broadway” is scheduled for production July 21, 22 and 23. Most of the performers have Snowflake connections.
All the Flake children had to work to put themselves through college and made their own way in the world. Dean and Nerita have both accomplished many things in their lifetime together, but none as important as raising a family. In order of their birth they are:
— Matt, who manages a computer program for Best Western that has taken him all over the world.
— Larraine Eddington, a mother of five who writes and recently hiked Camino de Santiago in Spain.
— Scott, a school psychologist whom, Nerita says, “has a gift of reading people.”
— Larry, a manager for Spencer’s Appliances in the Valley.
— Jeff, U.S. senator from Arizona. “Jeff’s a good man who does what’s right no matter what the cost. His life on the ranch has grounded him,” Nerita said.
— Mike is a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, working as a rescue program analyst at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
— Joseph owns a business selling tools for heavy industrial equipment.
— Heidi Anderson is a busy mom with three kids, including a daughter in the Air Force who speaks Farsi.
— Susanne Gibbons works for Southwest Airline in Mesa, flies around the globe and has six kids.
— Jonathan designs trusses for Ballard Trusses in Snowflake and lives next door to his parents. “He’s an outdoor man,” Nerita said.
— Kaija Thompson is a registered nurse who loves running. Her husband will soon be a certified registered nurse anesthesiologist.
“I am so thankful that I have been able to live here, in this small town. I watched my kids do things I always wanted to do as a child. People here are so wonderful. I’m thankful we’ve all been allowed to live here and work together,” Nerita said.