May 17, 2006 - Everyday in Oro Valley, a bulldozer is tearing across the desert landscape to make room for a strip mall, housing development, office complex or golf course. As this suburban community makes room for more people, the town moves further away from its dusty and remote past.
Driving down Oracle Road, past the enormous Albertson's and the gigantic Home Depot, you might not notice the humble Steam Pump Ranch marking the town's birthplace if it weren't for the sprawling shopping plaza under construction next door. Similarly, the meticulous landscaping of Rancho Vistoso Boulevard might distract you from the neighboring Honeybee Village site where Hohokam Indians lived hundreds of years ago, although it is sure to become more noticeable once the site is surrounded by high-rise condominiums.
Oro Valley is stepping into its future deftly and without remorse. As one of the most desirable places to live in Arizona, this reality is so inevitable that it can only be encouraged. Yet like a child that grows up much too quickly, some residents of Oro Valley worry that the town's past will soon be forgotten. For others, as Oro Valley quickly homogenizes into every-town USA, there is a desire to emphasize and celebrate all that is unique about Oro Valley's history.
Whatever the reason, in the past year, historic preservation in Oro Valley has evolved from the hobby of a few individuals to something nearing a political movement. The Oro Valley Historical Society, a non-profit organization devoted to researching, preserving, an disseminating history about the Oro Valley-area, was founded last July and already boasts more than 90 members, according to OVHS president and Town Historian Jim Kriegh.
Indicative of its growing influence, about 80 Oro Valley residents, business and government leaders attended a society fundraising dinner held on May 6 at the White Stallion Ranch in Marana. Kriegh said the society raised $1,900, adding to a treasury of about $9,000.
Oro Valley resident Lyra Done was among those in attendance because she believes the town must act now to preserve its history.
"The further away from history we get, the harder it is to go back and put history back together," Done said.
State representative candidate Carol Somers, another attendee, hypothesized that the large migration to Oro Valley from northern states is fueling some of the interest in Oro Valley's history.
"People are coming here from places where they know the local history, and they have a desire to continue that here," Somers said. "Oro Valley is growing fast, and it's important to anchor the town in its history."
Kriegh said OVHS has been rapidly expanding in recent months.
"All of our members have been active for less than a year. We got about 20 members real quick, but then it stared growing," Kriegh said.
Kriegh himself is living history, as he was the one who spearheaded the town's incorporation, making him the de facto founding father of Oro Valley. He is also undoubtedly the leader of the movement toward historic preservation.
"We're still quite new. The town only recently appointed the Historic Preservation Commission," Kriegh said. "Before that, we didn't get much attention."
That is, until Oro Valley resident Hank Zipf, a relative of the Pusch family that founded the Steam Pump Ranch, turned over a massive collection of old family documents to the society.
"My mother had saved a lot of papers involving the Pusch family," Zipf said. "There's everything from pictures to books, homestead applications and business documents. It's over 300 papers."
This historical treasure-trove was a major acquisition for the society, Kriegh said. Now, he's simply left with the enormous task of taking inventory and categorizing all the documents. Of course, this is where the popularity of OVHS pays off.
"We've formed an archival committee, and we're going to get it installed on Past Perfect museum software and stored in acid-proof containers," Kriegh said. "It's going to be quite a chore."
Kriegh has also collected many historical town documents and added those he saved, including original town maps and incorporation petitions. There is even a list created when brainstorming a name for the new town: apparently, Mountain Air, Santa Catalina Village, Shadow Mountain, Casas del Oro, Pueblo del Oro, Mountain Canyon, Mesquite Valley, and Palo Verde all lost out to the current Spanglish moniker.
Kriegh's enthusiasm for Oro Valley's history is not singular. Dick Eggerding has also been at the forefront of historical preservation and serves as the vice president of OVHS. He hopes that when the town acquires the Steam Pump Ranch property, the society will be given a building in which to create a museum featuring Pusch family documents.
"Our fondest wish is to have a building on the Steam Pump Ranch site," Eggerding said. "If you leave a building alone, it will fall apart. They need to be used in some way to keep them preserved."
Although Oro Valley filed an eminent domain claim on the Steam Pump Ranch property in January, the town is seeking to purchase the site from its owners voluntarily and negotiations are currently underway to determine a price, said Melinda Garrahan, town attorney.
"There is $5 million that has been made available by Pima County," Garrahan said. "We decided we would put every effort first toward a friendly acquisition."
Garrahan anticipates that the negotiation process is nearing a deal, although she said the many different factions that must agree to the deal adds a level of complexity. The Oro Valley Town Council and Pima County must both agree to any amount offered the two owners of the historic Steam Pump Ranch, John Lieber and OVB Partners L.L.C.
"It's slow as molasses," Garrahan said. "Whether the town will be able to acquire the land is not the issue, just how much money we'll pay for it. John Lieber is ready to change his life and move somewhere else, but there's some frustration on both sides that the process is taking so long."
Nevertheless, Zipf remains hopeful that the ranch will finally be placed into the public's trust to ensure the site is preserved for future generations.
"Someone has to go in and save what's left," Zipf said. "The old ranch house is still there, but the building housing the steam pump is falling down."
OVHS member Terry Dudas is among those frustrated that the acquisition of Steam Pump Ranch has taken so long.
"It's way overdue. The relics of the ranch are almost gone," Dudas said. "Preservation of the ranch should have been done years ago."
From the perspective of Oro Valley's government, historic preservation is neither altruistic nor trivial. The town fully expects preserved historic sites to contribute to its tourism industry.
"Most people are surprised that we have a history, since we're so new. Once it's made known that we have these sites, it'll be a draw for the entire region," said Brent Sinclair, Oro Valley community development director.
Although the town plans to open both Honey Bee Village and Steam Pump Ranch to the public, the two sites will be planned differently, Sinclair said.
"Honey Bee Village is a very passive type of preserve. Steam Pump Ranch is in the midst of a commercial area, so the possibilities for it are greater, once we acquire the site," Sinclair said.
The funding for historic preservation comes from a 2004 Pima County Bond that provided funds to acquire and preserve Steam Pump Ranch, Honey Bee Village, and Kelly Ranch.
Honey Bee Archeological Preserve was created by a 13-acre land donation by Steve Solomon, president of Canada Vista Homes. Although the county bond funds eventually became insufficient to purchase such a valuable piece of real estate located at Rancho Vistoso Boulevard and Moore Road, the bond funds will instead be used to excavate ruins on the the surrounding property to make room for Vistoso Town Center, a development project featuring stores, offices, homes, and high-rise condominiums.
However, after the purchase of Steam Pump Ranch, Eggerding said there won't be much left to put toward acquiring Kelly Ranch, a privately owned, 108-acre site adjacent to Catalina State Park, east of Oracle and Tangerine Roads. The site includes a 1940 ranch house designed by noted Tucson architect Josias Joesler.
Although $2.5 million was allocated for the acquision of Kelly Ranch in the 2004 county bond, the state must also match that funding amount to provide the $5 million needed to buy the ranch. So far, the state parks board has not included that funding in its budget requests.
"We got it on the bond issue, but I don't think it was nearly enough money. Now we're having to prioritize, and Honey Bee Village ended up being the top priority," Eggerding said.
Rather than worrying about what might not get done, Eggerding said OVHS is focused on doing all it can do to promote Oro Valley's history. This includes initiating a project that will record oral histories of long time residents in the Oro Valley area.
"There are many people living in Oro Valley that predate the founding of the town. We have to get their stories," Eggerding said.
Kriegh said he plans to spend some the society's funds on sound and video recording equipment, and has even met several people who have expertise in interviewing people to collect oral history.
"We have a committee meeting next week to start work on the oral history project. We have a lot of people we've got to start interviewing," Kriegh said.
Eggerding has no shortage of sites he'd like Oro Valley to consider for preservation. This includes the dome building at Oracle and Magee that Eggerding says is one of Oro Valley's first commercial buildings. Others include an old ranch house along the Romero Canyon Trail in Catalina State Park and petroglyph sites in Honey Bee Canyon.
"I think there are hidden treasures left to be discovered," Eggerding said. "It all boils down to leadership and passion to make these things happen."
Additionally, Eggerding said the town doesn't need to depend on county bond funding to acquire, preserve, and maintain such sites.
"There's many different ways to fund these things. There's grants all over the place that we could apply for," Eggerding said.
Although there is now more awareness about historic preservation, Eggerding said it will always be difficult to convince people to respect the past in as rapidly-growing a town as Oro Valley.
"It's tough to get full support, because not everyone gets it. People have to be taught it's important," Eggerding said. "If people don't care, then they should move to some cookie-cutter community. This town has some personality to it."