Piecemeal Renovation

The solitude of beautiful Canoa Ranch belies its contentious past

Rambling alongside the Santa Rita Mountains and bisected by the Santa Cruz River, Canoa Ranch is a place of stories.

In 1821, it was part of a vast Mexican land grant, and a century later, it was home to the wealthy Manning family. In 1948, Howell Manning Jr. expanded Canoa's main house for his glamorous new bride, Deezie. The Mannings were local royalty, and their lush outpost became a hub for the landed gentry. It was also a childhood home for U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, whose father worked there as a ranch hand.

Three years after finishing his house, Manning was killed in a two-car collision on Old Nogales Highway. By the late 1960s, Canoa was owned by the Pennzoil Co., which sold off its water rights to the Phelps Dodge mining company. The property was later bought by Fairfield Homes. Today, the core of the ranch is owned by Pima County, which is slowly transforming it into a cultural and history draw for visitors to Southern Arizona.

Which brings us to this particular afternoon in early April, as county officials showcase their latest Canoa accomplishments with several tours. Folks are strolling through the old Manning house, mingling in a beautifully restored blacksmith's shop, and murmuring among the dusty corrals. The old ranch, it seems, is inching back to life. And even those elements yet to taste renovation offer a certain bucolic charm.

But the day's tranquility also belies a raucous saga behind Canoa's current circumstances. In the 1990s, the ranch's prime location made it the prize in an ugly, six-year rezoning brawl that ended when Fairfield won permission to build a 2,200-home senior community and a complex of shopping centers. In turn, Pima County bought the remaining 4,800 acres to set aside as open space.

Scottsdale-based Monterey Homes has since purchased the rezoned land from Fairfield, and Pima County has sunk $2.7 million from a 2004 bond package into stabilizing and renovating several ranch buildings.

Another $5 million is slated for a future bond election. But economic conditions have caused that election to be postponed at least once.

In the meantime, renovation trudges on. Beyond the blacksmith shop and tack room, preservation specialists have restored the ranch foreman's 1,565-square-foot Sonoran-style adobe row house, and a ranch hand's Spanish Colonial-style residence. Even the Manning home is being revived as a 1940s period piece.

Eventually, this ambitious project will transform Canoa into a "heritage area" for visitors, complete with living-history and working-ranch demonstrations, picnic areas, interpretive exhibits and bird-watching spots. It is to include a restaurant, a campground, an orientation center and facilities that can be rented for weddings and conferences.

That's one big plan, with a beefy price tag of some $20 million. Since reaching such a sum in sporadic, $5 million bond increments seems a tad unrealistic, the county has begun courting outside partnerships. Those potential partners include the UA, which is pondering an agricultural extension on the ranch. These fundraising forays have been initiated by the De La Canoa Foundation, a private group headed by Bob Childs, president of the Green Valley-Sahuarita Chamber of Commerce.

County officials are hopeful that businesses will step up. "I think what you have there is the potential for some corporate sponsorship," says Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll, whose District 4 includes the Canoa Ranch. He ticks off a list of companies that might be approached for help; they range from mining titan ASARCO to construction-equipment-maker Caterpillar.

"I don't mind having corporate logos on some of this stuff," Carroll says. "Otherwise, you'll never see some of (these projects) completed."

Kerry Baldwin is the Natural Resources Division manager for Pima County's Department of Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation. He sees fundraising as a tool for speeding public access to Canoa. "It would help us get things to completion before the county would be able to do it on its own," he says. "What may happen is we bring money to the table from outside sources to get us to an initial phase—to do some minimal development, get some minimal infrastructure in place—and then have at least a starting point where people could come visit. It won't be half done; it may be 25 percent done. But I think we can get that accomplished with this public-partnership strategy."

Proceeds are eventually expected to come from visitor fees and for using Canoa to host special events.

Yet there's also a subtle melancholy to Canoa that all the money in the world won't fix—unless, of course, money can crank back the clock and reverse the urban growth lapping at Canoa's fringes.

"I have a hard time looking at the historic aerial photos ... compared to what it is today," Baldwin says. "It was so much greener and more lush. Water just made a tremendous difference."

The disappearance of Canoa's water is yet another story, one retold by Michael Logan in his book, The Lessening Stream: An Environmental History of the Santa Cruz River. Logan, a native of Nogales, Ariz., teaches history at Oklahoma State University.

In the days when the ranch enjoyed flowing waters from the Santa Cruz, "very shallow wells could irrigate and create that lush environment," he says. But this luxury ebbed as drought, mining, agriculture and suburban growth depleted the aquifer.

At one point, Logan says, "the Santa Cruz basically went underground," in a pattern all too common to the Southwest. "Canoa Ranch was sort of an island in between these areas of development. But it felt the effects, with the water table dropping."

By late afternoon on this April day, the county's tour groups have splintered into gentle disarray, and several dozen folks meander among various ranch buildings. Among them is Bill Baker, a retired feedlot operator who now lives nearby. While studying agriculture at the UA in the 1950s, Baker and his buddies would spend plenty of time at Canoa. "It was beautiful then," he says. "It was a great ranch."

But as much as he relishes seeing the ranch in fresh repair, he's not so enthusiastic about Pima County leading the charge. For Baker, the story of bureaucrats always making a mess of things is an old one indeed.

"You really don't want to ask me about the government," he says, with a look that invites just the opposite.