By J. J. Lamb
In December 1919, demand for mohair was insatiable. Perry Hilton ran a herd of 2,000 – 3,000 mohair goats on his ranch in the Empire Mountains. For nearly 40 years goats had provided a good life for the Hilton family and now times were especially good. One fateful day Perry Hilton knelt to tend to a task in the corral full of the goats – they would be sheared in the spring. Without warning a large goat charged him from behind butting him. It took two months, but the blow proved fatal.
Perry left instructions for his 26-year-old son Edgar to construct a coffin and prepare his final resting place. The grave was made ready on a bluff overlooking the spring-fed drainage that had made it possible for not only their family, but their ranch hands, miners, and their families to build a life in the Sonoran Desert. A wrought iron fence shields his overgrown grave — there are no descendants left to maintain the final resting place of Perry Hilton.
An early homesteader in the Empire Mountains, Perry was born in Maine in 1827. Perry made the 15,000-mile voyage around Cape Horn to San Francisco – a journey that could take up to eight months before heading to Arizona Territory. He found his footing by supplying wood and hay to the U.S. military at Ft. Huachuca. Louisa, 20 years his junior, taught school at the fort. The two were married in 1881 in the rough-and-tumble mining town of Charleston on the banks of the San Pedro River. Along the way, Perry formed a business partnership with another homesteader Don Sanford. In January 1879, the two opened a butcher shop on the corner of Congress Street and Church Plaza in downtown Tucson. Anticipating the imminent arrival of the railroad, they called it the “Miners and Railroad Market.”
In the wide expanses of the Arizona Territory, pioneers defined their place of residence by where they received their mail. Perry and Louisa picked theirs up in Greaterville, later in Pantano, and later still, in Vail. When they were ready to “prove up” on their homestead the following notice appeared in the Arizona Weekly News. It was January 1880 and the culmination of their planning and hard work was about to pay off.
“Land office at Florence, Arizona December 20, 1879─Notice is herby given that the following named settler has filed notice of his intention to make final proof in the support of his claim, and secure final entry thereof at the expiration of thirty days from the date of this notice, Perry M. Hilton of Greaterville P.O. Pima Co., A.T., who made preemption Declaratory Statement No. 402 for the E ½ sec…, …and claims as his witnesses Robert V. Bloxton, of Tucson P.O., Pima County, A.T., Denton Sanford, of Crittenden P.O., Pima Co., A.T. C.M.K. Paulison, Register. Arizona Weekly News, January 15, 1880.
Louisa and Edgar remained on the homestead after Perry was killed. Their original home burned in the 1930s. The adobe home that still stands replaced the original. Louisa passed away in 1950. Even after hemlines edged upward, the modest Louisa wore long skirts almost to the ground, button-up boots, and a wide brimmed sunbonnet. The Hilton goat ranch began to break up in the early 1970s. Edgar passed away in 1974. In 2013, fire blazed through the tin of the goat barn that in earlier days echoed with a cacophony of bleats, orders and conversations mixed with the buzz of shears as mohair was cut and prepared for shipment. Only rainwater fills the goat dip and the spring has dried up. There are several roads in the Vail area named for the Hiltons.