Across expansive landscapes, nestled in rocky terrain, and described in novels and movies, purple sage has a special place among desert flowering plants. Pink blossomed cacti, orange globe mallow, and yellow desert marigolds splash color on arid land, but it was the writer of the purple sage, Zane Grey, whose colorful stories of human struggles in a harsh environment drew tourists to explore hidden canyons, passes, pinnacles, and buttes. Today, historic homes in Payson, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah, associated with Grey and the characters he created provide a glimpse into the past and broaden our appreciation for western heritage.
Zane Grey’s West
Grey’s western novel, Riders of the Purple Sage, published in 1912 was an immediate best-seller. Following his first trip to the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar hotel for his honeymoon, Grey spent nearly half his life capturing local stories and experiences that filled 57 novels, 10 western nonfiction books, and 130 movies. He captivated readers with his tales of gun-packing devout Mormons and the hardy frontier people of “Utah country.”
Frank Gruber, Grey’s biographer, describes Riders of the Purple Sage, as “. . . the age-old-instinct of man’s struggle against nature and the elements; self-determination of the individual from which all progress in the world has sprung. The novel was, actually, a glorification of the Mormon struggle for existence against a hostile people and country. Their comparatively recent migration, involving incredible hardships, their settlement in the conquest of a bleak and desolate land were a testimonial to their courage and faith.”
Grey pitted characters in struggles against outlaws, rustlers, and Indians in remote settings unfamiliar to inhabitants east of the Mississippi. He embellished and exaggerated events in a “land of a thousand canyons, in any one of which a man could be lost.”
A Cabin in Rim Country
Near Payson, Arizona, about 90 miles northeast of Phoenix, the Northern Gila County Historical Society, Inc. operates the Rim Country Museum and gift shop attracting on average 6,000 visitors annually. Reconstructed on this site is a replica of the cabin Grey built in 1921 under the Mogollon Rim near the Grand Canyon. The original cabin burned in 1990. The museum includes historic Forest Service buildings, a complete set of Zane Grey first editions, period furniture, and the 1904 Henry Haught log cabin linked to Grey’s book, Code of the West.
Historical Society President/Archivist Sandy Carson notes, “We are privileged to carry on the work of keeping the history alive and passing it on to visitors.”
Purple Sage Intrigue
The Purple Sage Inn in Kanab, Utah is another historic building with a Zane Grey connection. In 1884, Mormon pioneer William Derby Johnson, Jr. built the house for his four wives before he fled to Mexico when the government turned against polygamy. The property changed hands twice before Thomas Cole purchased it in 1901 and turned it into the Cole Hotel. While visiting Arizona and doing research for his Purple Sage novel, Zane Grey stayed there in 1907 or 1908.
Current owners Kathy and Tory Brock bought the property in 2006 from an owner who acquired it from the Hicks Estate following the 1988 death of resident-owner Silas Hicks. Today, the Brocks operate the home as a Bed-and-Breakfast from March 15 through November 15, and hosted approximately 500 guests in 2017.
Kathy recounts that she grew up down the block from the home and, “All of the children in Kanab thought the house was haunted because it was in such disrepair.” She loves the history of the place and wishes it could talk describing Silas as “. . . an interesting fellow and we thought he had a wife in a trunk and all sorts of silly stories that kids come up with.” At the Purple Sage Inn, contemporary guests can browse the full collection of Grey’s westerns and enjoy the ambiance of a turn-of-the-century property with its own secrets.
Kathy describes a curious renovation discovery, “We found a love letter to Silas in the wall of the chicken coop in the back yard.” The letter, which was written by a Fredonia woman who had gone to Flagstaff to escape her marriage, is displayed in the Rachel Room. Like a Zane Grey novel, the walls of this historic house attest to intimate personal struggles.
Historic homes, some surrounded by expansive natural beauty, help us imagine daily life in former times. The desert sage, capable of withstanding drought and temperature fluctuations from zero to over 100 degrees, is fittingly featured alongside Grey’s persevering characters. Surviving through time like the purple sage blooming in a desolate land, Zane Grey’s western tales offer readers adventurous escapism mixed with historical lore.