There is no news to report about Mansel Carter. He has been dead now for nigh unto 17 years.
But they’re keeping his story alive in Queen Creek because it puts us in touch with our East Valley roots and makes us think hard about this thing called modern life. The way Carter saw it, modern life ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Carter was a mountain man, a prospector, a hermit who paradoxically loved people as much as he loved the little critters that ate out of his hand for almost 40 years in the San Tan wilderness. A writer once said he existed in the 20th century, but lived in the 19th.
Now that we’re in the 21st, Queen Creek is about to get steamrollered by growth, swept up by newcomers who know little about the farmers and miners who first broke soil here. It’s about to become the kind of place Carter would run from, not to.
But his gravesite, a halfmile walk into the San Tans, never will be touched by that steamroller.
One of its chief protectors is Ron Hunkler, who lives in a frontier-themed house just down the road from Carter’s old campsite. Hunkler is a past president of the San Tan Historical Society, which displays artifacts from Carter’s life at its museum in the old Rittenhouse schoolhouse on Ellsworth Road.
"He was up in his 70s when we came out here," Hunkler said of his friend. By then, Carter was already a legend, welcoming tourists to his camp in the shadow of Gold Mountain, selling simple carvings for 10 bucks apiece and listening to Dodgers games on a battery radio that was one of his few concessions to modernity.
And by then, his story already was a long one.
He was born in 1902 near Quaker City, Ohio. By coincidence, this was just a stone’s throw from where Hunkler grew up.
"He had actually eaten in my granddad’s restaurant," Hunkler said. "So that made him like family."
Early in life, Hunkler said, it appears Carter had a girlfriend, "but his mother was so domineering she just put an end to it."
Carter worked as a mechanic in Ohio, a pilot in Indiana and a logger in New Mexico and Idaho before setting his sights on Arizona. The Army drafted him early in World War II, Hunkler said, then decided he was too old and let him go. He settled in Gilbert in 1941.
There, he befriended an ice man named Marion Kennedy. In 1948, Gilbert got too big for them and they decided to go prospecting in the San Tans.
Kennedy, born in 1874, was by then almost blind, but he showed Carter the ropes of digging. "Mr. Kennedy would hold the drill and Mr. Carter would swing the sledge," Hunkler said. "Mr. Kennedy was pretty trusting." For all their toil, they never found much, if any, gold on Gold Mountain.
Kennedy died in 1960. Carter dug a grave for his friend a few paces up the hillside and then launched a new career as the No. 1 tourist attraction in the far south East Valley.
They came by the thousands from every state in the Union and from dozens of countries abroad; Carter made sure everyone signed one of the spiral-bound guest books. He sold as many handcarved "cactus curios" as he could make and posed for innumerable pictures. With his flowing white beard and pipe, he was the archetypical Old West coot, and he lived like one.
He had at his disposal a Model T pickup for picking up supplies, Hunkler said, and would aim the old truck downhill, coasting to the bottom to save gas. Water came from a general store in Chandler Heights that let him fill two garbage cans with a hose. Money came from a $66-amonth military pension; Carter could have collected Social Security, Hunkler said, but "he didn’t think that was right."
Carter’s digs, which eventually consisted of a shanty and a couple of decrepit travel trailers, never were wired for electricity.
A few newspaper clips survive from Carter’s days on the mountainside, but they’re curiously short of quotes from Carter himself. When he did speak, it was usually about his animal friends. One latewinter day, a coyote howled nearby and Carter told his audience, "The coyote is telling us it’s going to be storming." A half-hour later, irongray clouds cut loose with heavy rain.
Carter grew feeble as he aged, and once spent a halfyear in Hunkler’s house recovering from surgery. In the spring of 1987, suffering from cancer, he saw his rugged home for the last time as he was taken to a hospital in Phoenix, where he died on June 5.
As TV cameras rolled a few days later, Carter was lowered to rest beside his old friend, and there they stay, just inside the boundary of the San Tan Mountains Regional Park.
A wrought-iron fence now surrounds their grave, keeping vandals out. Further, access is by foot only; the road has been fenced to keep out the parties Hunkler said had been defiling the place with cigarette butts and beer bottles.
The hills are green now and our urban roar is lost in the breeze that perpetually ventilates the hillside. Kennedy and Carter picked their place well. You can see forever from there. No wonder they wanted to stay that long.