Early Life and OverviewBorn on February 9, 1888, to Swedish homesteaders, Neil and Emma Erickson, at the Fort Bowie Hospital (Arizona Territory), Lillian embraced life to the fullest. She grew up in Bonita Canyon, and developed what would become Faraway Ranch, first with her sister Hildegard, and then with her husband, Ed Riggs.
Lillian recalled her childhood as idyllic, saying those were “happy days; happy years; and a firm foundation in all the things worthwhile.”
Lillian graduated from Knox College, in Illinois. She finished her college education as a correspondence course, so she could remain at the ranch and help her family out. Despite that added difficulty, she finished both high school and college in less than five years total. Lillian worked as a schoolteacher around southern Arizona. Even at a young age, Lillian struggled with hearing issues.
Throughout her life, Lillian tried many health regimes, medicines, and even multiple surgeries to fix her hearing and eyesight, but none had a lasting (positive) impact. She never let her disabilities slow her down, and she adjusted her habits as necessary, by investing in a “talking book” player as well as a Braille Scrabble set. “I tried learning Braille, but my fingers were not sensitive enough. I had done so much rough work in my time,” Lillian recounted.
Lillian was known to even decide which cattle were ready to go to market, by having them run into the squeeze chute and feeling their ribs! She was a savvy business lady, and would test people’s honesty by overpaying them. If they kept the extra money, Lillian would know they were not honest, and would not do any more business with them; if they told Lillian she miscounted her money, and gave back the extra, then she knew she could trust them.
Changing TimesBetween 1915 and 1918, life situations were changing for everyone in the Erickson family. Neil and Emma first moved to the Dragoon Mountains, so Neil could continue his Forest Service career, and then they moved to northern Arizona, where Neil worked at Walnut Canyon National Monument. Hildegard moved back to the family ranch, where she and her mother, Emma, started a boarding business. The ranch house had quite a few spare bedrooms that Emma and Hildegard rented out to people exploring and hunting in the Chiricahua Mountains. They also cooked and offered meals to their paying guests. Lillian, at first, was completely against the idea of charging people for hospitality. In her mind, she worried people would be offended by what the Ericksons were doing. But, by 1917, Lillian was considering a second career, as it was difficult to teach children while she was struggling to hear and see accurately.
When Neil and Emma moved to Walnut Canyon, they left the ranch in the hands of their children, except Lillian was still working as a schoolteacher in Bowie, and in 1918 Ben enlisted in the Army because of World War I, which just left Hildegard, the youngest, in charge of the ranch (and boarding business). Lillian decided to give up her teaching career and move home, to help Hildegard out with running the ranch and boarding business. In 1918, the two sisters expanded the boarding business by buying the Stafford cabin and orchard from their childhood friend, Clara Stafford. Lillian and Hildegard also named the family ranch, “Faraway Ranch,” and hired people to help as needed: cleaning rooms, cooking, and working with the livestock.
After a few years of running the cattle and guest ranch together, Hildegard married Jess Hutchison in 1920, and moved to California, leaving the business in the hands of her older sister, Lillian. Lillian managed the ranch for a while, enlisting hired help, as well as her childhood friend, Ed Riggs. When Lillian took a break from the guest ranch business to pursue a writing career in 1922, Ed managed Faraway for her. Writing in Los Angeles did not turn out the way Lillian wanted, so she returned to ranching and to Ed. He wrote her many notes while she was away, saying “If I ever get you in my arms again I shall certainly never never let you go until you are my wife and methinks not then. Will you marry me dearest girl just as soon as possible? So we can begin to make our dear home and happiness in it?” On February 26, 1923, Lillian married Ed and adopted his two children, Eula Lee and Murray, from his first marriage. The whole family worked to build trails, take care of the livestock, and entertain guests.
Highs and Lows at Faraway RanchAll their hard work paid off on April 18, 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge established Chiricahua National Monument and the Riggses started advertising Faraway Ranch as the best place to stay while visiting “The Wonderland of Rocks.” The 1920s were fairly prosperous, between the cattle ranch and guest ranch operations. Unfortunately, the Great Depression followed the “Roaring Twenties” and impacted the Riggses and Faraway Ranch.
Between government aid, like the “Government Drought Relief Program,” and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, Lillian and Ed managed to keep Faraway Ranch afloat during the Great Depression. Years of drought, in addition to the economic disaster, made cattle ranching very stressful. Ed was able to find a job with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and provided a steady income. In 1937, Lillian’s father, Neil Erickson, passed away. After his death, Emma (Lillian’s mother), split her time between Faraway Ranch and California, with her other daughter, Hildegard.
In 1942, Lillian lost her eyesight, and was already mostly deaf. She relied on Ed, as well as her hired help. Usually the Rigges had one ranch hand, and one or two women who cooked and cleaned for the family and guests. Lillian lamented in her diary, “O why do I have to be sightless in this lovely world? Sometimes it is almost more than I can bear.” Lillian was struck another blow in 1950, when her husband Ed passed away on June 29. Then, about six months later, on December 12, Lillian’s mother Emma also died.
Losing the two most important people in her life, within a year of each other, sent Lillian into a deep depression, that lasted about nine years, based on her journals and letters to her sister. Lillian considered giving up Faraway Ranch entirely, and moving into a home for the deaf and blind. Nonetheless, Lillian preserved, and began serving meals, having guests, and being more social in the mid-1950s. This flurry of activity seems to have helped end her struggle with depression.
The Last DecadesLillian was a difficult boss, and had a hard time keeping employees long term. She did have a few people (in addition to family members) who stayed at Faraway Ranch for years, though: her companion, Pat McDonald and later, her ranch foreman and friend, J.P. (Andy) Anderson. In 1960, Andy returned to Faraway Ranch. He had worked for Lillian and Ed in the 1940’s, so was familiar with Lillian and the operations. Lillian and Andy became very close over the years they spent together, and in fact, Hildegard once asked Lillian if she and Andy were married.
During the 1960s, Lillian and Andy ran the ranch together, and a rotating roster of hired help filled in with housework and cooking. The guest ranch business was slowing down, though, and Lillian considered who would run Faraway Ranch after her. She turned 80 in 1968, and was blind and mostly deaf. None of her family wanted to run the guest ranch, so Lillian considered selling it to a franchise, Holiday Inns of America. The big business would have enough money to make the necessary improvements to the ranch, although much of the charm and character would be lost. Nothing came of Lillian’s idea to sell to a developer, and her long-time neighbors, the National Park Service (NPS), were trying to buy up the private inholdings in the monument. In 1968 Lillian sold most of the Stafford land and cabin to the park service; she sold the rest of the homestead in 1974.
Lillian officially closed Faraway Ranch in 1970. She continued to live there a few more years, until she had a series of debilitating heart attacks, and had to move into a nursing home in Willcox. Andy stayed on as ranch foreman, and Lillian’s brother Ben was around to assist, as well. Lillian passed away on April 26, 1977. On Christmas Eve of the same year, Andy passed away at Faraway Ranch.
The extended family began deciding what to do with Faraway Ranch, but no major decisions were made until after Ben and Hildegard also died, both in 1978. Ethel, Ben’s widow, decided to sell Faraway Ranch to the NPS in 1979, after Congress passed a law authorizing the expansion of Chiricahua National Monument. After almost a decade of cataloging everything in the ranch house and outbuildings (including a piece of Neil and Emma’s wedding cake from 1887), and getting buildings up to code, the park service offered its first ranger-led tours of Faraway Ranch in 1988. Ever since, rangers have continued to share the story of Swedish immigrants Neil and Emma Erickson, their children, and the legacy they left thousands of visitors to the ranch and to Chiricahua National Monument.
Tributes:NPS Curator David Wallace: “There were at least three Lillians—the one who impressed her guests with her graciousness and poise; the one who fought almost constantly with her mother and sister and ruled her menfolk and employees with an iron hand; and the one who struggled within herself to cope with the frustrated ambition, the early death of her husband, and the devastating loss of both sight and hearing.”
Sally Klump, about Lillian (in a newspaper): “Lillian Riggs was a timeless person. She was fearless, independent, and stubborn. And what an asset that trait can be to someone with her handicaps. She may have looked small and frail, but she was steel. There were times when some might have thought her demanding, but she never expected more of others than she did of herself.”
Last updated: February 8, 2019