The Aztec Land and Cattle Company, Limited
Following its formation in 1884 and incorporation in early 1885, The Aztec Land and Cattle Company, Limited purchased a 1,000,000-acre tract of land in northern Arizona from the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad, imported approximately 32,000 head of cattle branded with the Hashknife brand from Texas, and commenced ranching operations in Arizona. Aztec registered the Hashknife brand in Arizona several years later.
Several of Aztec’s early employees were Texas cowboys whose abilities made them legends among their fellow ranchers during their years in Arizona. Some were involved in Arizona’s Pleasant Valley War in the late 1880s and early 1890s, a decade-long feud between cattlemen and sheep herders over rangeland and resources that took place, in part, on Aztec land. A few were killed in that war; but a number went on to become local, state, and national leaders of some repute. Among these, the son of Aztec’s earliest ranch superintendent, William Hood Simpson, became become the commander of the 9th Army in Europe during the worst fighting of World War II. Another former employee, and son of an Aztec stockholder, later founded Georgia Power in Atlanta in 1902, which is now a subsidiary of the Southern Company, an electrical utility in the southeast U.S.
Aztec continued ranching until about 1905, when the company sold its cattle and embarked on a program of leasing its grazing land to local cattle ranchers. Aztec’s business of leasing land for grazing continues to this day, and many of the company’s current grazing lessees are direct descendants of its original lessees. Among these are the Flake family, after whom Snowflake, Arizona is named. Arizona’s Senator Jeff Flake is a descendant.
Around 1905, the company also began a program of selling land to its neighbors, as well as for development in nearby communities such as Holbrook, Heber, and Snowflake. In the early 1960s, Aztec made its last large-scale land sale, when it sold a significant parcel of property to Southwest Forest Industries for a paper mill near Snowflake (much of which Aztec re-purchased in 2017). Following that sale, in recognition of the long-term investment potential of land retention, Aztec altered its business strategy and embarked on a program of acquiring land in Aztec’s proximity to consolidate and increase its holdings. Because Aztec’s original 1,000,000-acre land purchase was interspersed in a checkerboard-like fashion with property that it did not own, consolidation of holdings was essential in obtaining economically usable property.
As of 2017, Aztec and its affiliates own approximately 240,000 acres in Navajo County, Arizona and 320,000 acres of minerals rights (some without surface ownership) in Navajo and Coconino Counties. Aztec is the second largest private landowner in Arizona and holds one of the few remaining large-scale tracts of rural private land available for development in the state.
Aztec, with a partner, also owns the Apache Railway, a Class III short-line railroad running for 55 miles off the BNSF Railroad’s transcontinental mainline near Holbrook, Arizona. The Apache Railway serves much of Aztec’s land, providing access to both national and international markets, and has operated continuously since its incorporation in 1917.