Dry Noon

It's high noon in Bumble Bee, or at least it would have been a century ago. In the sleepy ghost town between the encroaching suburbs of Phoenix and Prescott, a couple of Wild West-style enterprises have found themselves in an old-fashioned showdown over water.

The skirmish is between two neighboring businesses -- Bumble Bee Ranch, a City Slickers-style dude ranch that caters to the fantasies of corporate executives, and the Bumble Bee Trading Post, a mom-and-pop tourist stop that sells hamburgers, beer and souvenirs. Both outfits had depended on water from Bumble Bee's old town well, located on the dude ranch's property. But the ranch isn't sharing anymore.

Last June, Ken Kendricks, who owns the ranch and almost all of the property in the historic town, shut down the old town well, drilled a new one, and ran new lines to every property in town except the one he does not own, the Bumble Bee Trading Post.

Now, the post's owner finds herself high and dry. Elissa Fulton, who has made her home and livelihood in the trading post for 21 years, today has to serve her customers bottled water, use paper plates instead of dishes and haul water in from the nearby Sunset Point Rest Area each week to keep her toilets flushing and faucets running.

The move was not only nasty, says Fulton, but possibly illegal, considering the documents she has -- property deeds, signed affidavits and other records from Yavapai County -- showing that her property has been hooked up to the old town well for more than 60 years.

"I should have access to the well," says Fulton, who rushes in and out of the kitchen gripping paper plates that sag under the weight of thick hamburgers. "I've never been through so much in my life."

For his part, Kendricks says this isn't a matter of access but of corporate liability.

Tests of the water from the old well show it contains elevated levels of arsenic. Allowing that water to flow from his property to customers at a neighboring business puts him at risk for a lawsuit, says Kendricks, a partial owner in the Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns who made his fortune from software and technology enterprises. "I'm, frankly, a deep-pocketed person," he says. "People like to go after people like me."

But the main reason for shutting down the historic well was to give his ranch and nearby homes, where ranch workers live, better water. Kendricks had a new well dug last March, only to find that its water tested just as poorly. Even so, when he had new lines connected to every building in town so the water could still be used for toilets, laundry and the like, he bypassed the trading post.

"I have no intention of doing them any harm," says Kendricks. "The water doesn't belong to them in the first place."

Kim Smith, Fulton's daughter, strongly disagrees. Having grown up at the post, she says the well water has been her family's lifeblood since Fulton and her late husband bought the property in 1979. Records show that two years after the post was first built -- as the town schoolhouse in 1936 -- it had water lines hooked up to the old town well.

Over the years, the property surrounding Fulton's acre and a half changed hands at least four times. But, despite disputes, the water always continued to flow. Now, Noel Hebets, an attorney who has looked into the trading post's cause, says the Fultons have been using the well for long enough that, by law, they have the right to continue drawing from it.

Fulton agrees, as she takes a short break between waves of cooking for the tourists, rough-skinned miners and old cowboys that start wandering into the trading post one Saturday morning.

"I'm 55 years old -- where else am I going to go?" she says, recalling the years she and her late husband, a crane operator, used scrap wood and nails from his job sites to expand the schoolhouse into a home. In 1996, the couple got a restaurant and liquor license and opened the trading post. Today, the $4.50 hamburgers, $2.50 beer and plentiful souvenirs, including jewelry Fulton makes from rattlesnake bones, help her get by, as long as her old $200 tanker truck keeps hauling in the water.

Meanwhile, buses rumble up the dirt road to Bumble Bee Ranch, dropping off groups from corporations that pay up to $400 per employee for a Wild West getaway. Small groups can stay overnight in a tepee, or in one of the renovated ranch houses. Employees are rewarded with cookouts, shoot-outs, cattle drives and helicopter tours. One company even loaded a bus with its employees, then arranged a phony ambush by helicopter, "seizing" three executives and flying them to the ranch for a grand entrance.

But while executives live out their fantasies, next door, Fulton and her family still look for ways to keep the water flowing. Fulton charged $6,025 on her credit card to have a well drilled on her property, but it came up dry. Her lawyer says the trading post has a good case, but she and her boyfriend, Virgil George, say they don't have the money for a court fight. "These people have very deep pockets," says George. "We're just a little spot on the dirt."

A well-sharing agreement is an obvious and common compromise for rural landowners squabbling over water rights, says Hebets, but the ranch refuses to sign one.

"This originally started as a municipal water source. It's not that way anymore," says Kenton Jones, Kendricks' attorney. "We don't want to become a water provider to a restaurant or any other business."

Meanwhile, Fulton and her family hope their neighbors will change their minds about shutting off the water, and they cling to the hope that their property's connection to the old town well, and to Bumble Bee's history, doesn't end when a corporate venture rides into town.

"She's just trying to hang on as long as she can," says Smith. "This definitely reminds me of the Wild West days."

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley