According to a writer for the Great Depression’s Arizona Federal Writers Project, Arizona’s prospectors and miners have been famous for stretching the truth for many years. These raconteurs have spun marvelous stories about their diggings and exaggerated the value of their strikes, often for the sole purpose of entertaining friends.
On April Fool’s Day 1936, the art of tall tale telling reached its zenith with the formal establishment of the the Southwestern Society of Spizzifiers. Art for art’s sake was their slogan, and they touted their stories as rivaling those of the legendary Pecos Bill.
A spizzifier is not a liar, according to the Federal Writers Project author; rather, he “moulds his tale lovingly, garnishes it with bits of local color, and tops it with climax upon climax.” Even if the listener is skeptical about the truth of the story, “he knows if the yarn isn’t true it ought to be, for its sheer artistry.”
One tall tale from a spizzifier told how he and his partner found a promising claim in the highest peaks of the Mazatzal Mountains and decided to stay there through the winter. They had plenty of food and powder, but not enough wood. So, one day they “took an old pick handle and went hunting for a super-venomous Mazatzal rattlesnake.” They teased the nine-foot long reptile into “biting the pick handle, which right away swelled up to the size of a redwood log.” They sawed up the log and had plenty of wood for the rest of the winter.
Soon, bitter winds started whistling down from the north, and the two men moved into a cabin and quickly started a fire. Unfortunately, the chimney did not draw well and the cabin filled with smoke. The smoke was so saturated with rattler “pi-zen” that the two prospectors were “plumb overcome.” Lying on the floor, they agreed that the “little spilliken of whiskey” that remained in a bottle would save only one of them, so they “drew for the low card.” The one that drew the Joker “drank the whiskey and was enough revived to crawl outside.” He survived. No sooner did he bury his partner than a fierce snowstorm forced him back into the cabin where he nearly froze to death because he did not dare burn any of the rattler wood.
Even better was the tale of Arizona Slim, the first prospector to find gold in Yavapai County’s Granite Creek. One day, while eating his lunch, he threw a rind of yellow cheese into the water. Immediately, a school of tadpoles went for it. Slim was very caring when it came to critters, so he cut some of his cheese into little pieces and threw it to them. “He noticed one pick up a shiny yellow nugget among the crumbs of cheese and spit it out disgusted-like.” Well, he decided to train those tadpoles – it only took him a week – so that every time they brought him a nugget, he “would feed them a smidgen of cheese. He saw himself getting rich without doing hardly a stroke of work.”
Soon all his cheese was gone, so he went to Prescott to buy more, but all the stores were sold out, and no freight trains were coming in for at least a month. Being an enterprising gentleman, he substituted yellow soap for the cheese. Well, it didn’t take long for those tadpoles to figure it out, so they “called off the trade and stopped bringing him nuggets.” Poor Slim had to go back to running sand through a rocker. Those tadpoles showed him. They scraped up “every speck of gold in that part of the creek, carried it off and hid it.”
Slim meandered up and down the creek for days and finally found the spot where they “stowed the staff.” He found a big pile of nuggets and gold flakes in the bottom of a deep pool. He dived in, pulled out a handful or two and “quicker’n you could count the hairs on a Chihuahua dog” about a million tadpoles “toted the gold off to a new hid’n place.”
Slim never found the new stash. He prowled through the trees and brush, away from the creek banks, so the tadpoles couldn’t see him.
Then he’d race down to the water, hoping to grab more gold before they moved it yet again. It didn’t do him any good – “fact is his tactics proved fatal.” He got careless one day and dove into that stream with his mouth open and swallowed some water. “His insides were unused to anything but forty-rod whiskey, and the shock killed him.”
It is unknown how long the Southwestern Society of Spizzifiers spun their stories, but their tall tales have been entertaining people for years and have become part of the colorful history of prospectors and miners in the Southwest.
- Melanie Sturgeon. Photo courtesy of the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records; History and Archives Division