We made it! Here in southern Arizona, we’ve finally come through the hot summer and into the time of the year where we open all the windows and doors and breathe deep. Tucsonans leave their air-conditioned burrows, blink, and enjoy all the outdoor activities we’ve missed during the heat. I’ve been penciling in various events on my calendar for a couple of months. This past week, I started going to them.
Last Saturday, Empire Ranch held its annual Cowboy Festival. This property, just north of the town of Sonoita, isn’t too far from the Mexican border. Currently part of Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, a non-profit volunteer organization is responsible for the restoration and preservation of the buildings. Events like the Cowboy Festival help pay for that.
I first heard about the Empire Ranch on a visit to Old Tucson, formerly known as Old Tucson Studios. This re-creation of an old western town was the location for dozens of movies during the heyday of cowboy films. Movies such as “Winchester 73,” the original “3:10 to Yuma,” and “Rio Bravo” were filmed in whole or in part at Old Tucson. It also served as the set for several episodes of “Gunsmoke,” “Little House on the Prairie,” and most of “High Chaparral.” You can find the whole list here.
But when Hollywood wanted to film a working ranch or a cattle drive, they went to Empire Ranch. If you’ve ever seen “Red River” or “The Outlaw Josie Wales,” you’ve seen Empire Ranch. Unfortunately, the ranch doesn’t have an exhibit detailing all of this like Old Tucson does for its movies. I suppose that’s the difference between a location that’s been largely run as a tourist attraction not too far from Tucson and a non-profit roughly an hour to the southeast.
And the drive to get to them is quite different as well. While you can go over Gates Pass to get to Old Tucson, there’s also the flatlander’s alternative via Ajo Way to avoid the mountains. Not so with Empire Ranch.
I don’t know why I was surprised that the road to Sonoita rose upwards through the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains. It’s a two-lane highway that twists and turns as it rises in elevation. I have to admit, I was a little nervous driving this road. Sometimes more than a little. I can’t imagine what it would be like in the dark, but I suppose, like most things, you get used to it if you do it often enough. But I’ve lived in the valley for so long, it’s been many years since I’ve driven on a road like that.
As I implied, I shouldn’t have been surprised at leaving the valley, because the valley is mostly desert. Not so good for raising cattle. The area where the ranch is is rolling grasslands with much more water than the land around Tucson. Nothing like a lake, but there is Cienega Creek, which travels fifty miles and becomes the mostly dry Pantano Wash in Tucson. There’s also groundwater, and the ranchers and miners who lived and worked there dug many wells to get to it.
I was mostly interested in the history, things like how the ranch house expanded over time to accommodate the increasing number of people. It started as a two-bedroom adobe house but eventually grew to over twenty rooms, including what they call the Victorian addition, which has a gable roof in sharp contrast to the rest of the house. That section also has a beautiful half-octagon window with a gorgeous view of the surroundings.
Most interesting was a talk by Greg Dowell on the Total Wreck Mine. The reason why Empire Ranch was able to grow so much (100,000 acres with control of more land that wasn’t owned) was the discovery of silver by a cowboy riding the range. It took a long time to be developed because most of the time, the investors didn’t have enough money to run the ranch, much less add to it. But the Total Wreck changed all that.
Once they started pulling the silver out of the mine, it enabled the owners to buy up adjoining ranches. It wasn’t that they were greedy for land. Okay, it might have been some of that. But the real reason was to gain control of Arizona’s most precious resource: water. They bought the land to have and control access to Cienega Creek.
I also did some fun things. I watched a performance of the Tombstone Ghost Riders, a group that demonstrated riding and shooting skills. Apparently, this is a “thing.” The riders dash down an arena with balloons set up at intervals. The idea is to pop the balloons and complete the course in the shortest time. Every balloon missed adds some number of seconds to the total time.
And I listened to The Bill Ganz Western Band for a while. Great music.
I also missed a lot. Since this was my first time there, I spent too much time getting oriented to where things were. There was a whole section of western skills demos that wasn’t quite set up when I passed it the first time. By the time I got back to it, I was on my way to my car. I’ll have to go back another time to see it.