The third of a series on Marana's past, present and future along the Santa Cruz River
As the thin ribbon of effluent that now constitutes the Santa Cruz River curves gently to the west and passes Avra Valley Road in Marana, it's hard to imagine a time when the river ran free.
It's here that the lower Santa Cruz River levee begins, a 7.4 mile long, 15-foot high span of buff-colored concrete that stretches to Sanders Road. The levee is a life saver for folks living along the banks who have endured the river's history of rampaging floods. But it also signifies the beginning of the end for a way of life that has defined Marana since its beginning as a dusty crossroads and a handful of farms eked from the desert almost a hundred years ago.
Completed in 2000, the levee brought 4,000 acres of land out of the federally designated floodplain and made it available for development. Combined with sagging cotton prices, a bustling housing market and the federally protected pygmy owl inhabiting the lush desert areas east of Interstate 10, the levee is the man-made mechanism that will help pave over Northwest Marana's rural way of life.
Plans are already on the drawing board for sprawling subdivisions with names like Rancho Santa Cruz and Gladden Farms that hearken back to the town's ranching and farming past.
Further upstream, some folks still remember when the river ran free of the cement channel that now lines most of its course through Marana.
Dave Anway remembers the river. The 59-year-old retired farmer was born, raised and still lives on the farmland located on Marana Road that his family settled in 1919.
Anway can remember a time when the river was a central facet of life, influencing something as important as the water table that irrigated the crops a family depended on for their very existence, to how one got to work in the morning.
"Back when I was a boy there was no people out here and the river ran natural, and often ran bank to bank," Anway said. "My father had to swim the Santa Cruz every day to get to work. He'd keep a set of clothes on the opposite bank. He'd strip down naked, swim across, get dressed, and head on to work at the cotton gin."
The Anways were some of the first farmers to plant cotton in Marana, one of the first to have a tractor, the first to sink a well in Avra Valley, and the first farmers to bring in dairy cows, Anway said.
Dave's great uncle Samuel arrived first, drawn to the dry Tucson area climate as a cure for the tuberculosis he suffered. Commonly referred to as "lungers" by the townspeople who were frightened of the virulent and deadly disease, thousands flocked to the desert for their health in the opening decades of the 20th century.
Dave's grandfather Louis soon followed, drawn by his brother's letters that described a place of fertile land that could be easily and affordably purchased.
Making that land available, and laying the groundwork for the cotton economy that would dominate the lives of Maranans for the better part of a century, was the Post Project.
The nation's entry into the Great War brought a demand for cotton at a time when overseas imports were being sharply curtailed. During the war, Edwin R. Post, a Michigan land speculator, began snapping up land along the Santa Cruz and laid an irrigation network to promote farming in what is now Marana.
The Post Project was promoted to points West and East through newspaper ads and fliers, bringing in tenant farmers from Texas, Arkansas and other regions of the South with dreams of being landowners.
A history of Marana commissioned by the town and recently completed by the Old Pueblo Archaeology Center notes that most of the new arrivals to Postvale, as the area around Grier and Marana roads was once known, lived in tents in the sweltering desert heat until more permanent structures could be built. A post office was established at Postvale on March 5, 1920.
Small farming operations that relied on the Santa Cruz and ground water pumping had existed in the region since the mid to late 1800s. By the dawn of the 20th century, over pumping and a population boom had created a serious drain on the water table and a leveling of growth in Marana, according to the town's history.
Post's irrigation plan and land speculation scheme reversed the trend, bringing dozens of new farm families to the area. The Cortaro Water Users Association was formed in 1919 to oversee the network of canals and pumping stations. The 68 miles of cement-lined canals of the Cortaro-Marana Irrigation District that crisscross rural north Marana today are the product of the early dreams of Postvale.
By 1920, cotton prices bottomed out with the end of the war and drove Post to bankruptcy. Between 1920 and 1922, the Pacific State Savings and Loan had acquired title to Post's land. The heart of the operation, Postvale Farms, would continue until 1932, but much of the land was parceled and exchanged with small farmers until Pacific State had consolidated a vast holding near present day Cortaro Road and Interstate 10.
Known as Cortaro Farm, the holding prospered and about 10,000 people were reportedly living there in 1936, according to Old Pueblo's research.
By 1965, the area east of the interstate on Cortaro was home to the Shamrock Dairy. Before making way for the housing developments and fast food restaurants that exist there today, Shamrock sported a herd of milk cows that numbered about 1,500 by the late 1970s.
The cycle of boom and bust farming that began with Postvale also brought a diversity of culture to the Marana area that remains today.
Further up the river from Avra Valley Road lies Rillito, a tiny island in unincorporated Pima County that has resisted Marana's annexation attempts for two decades - including the latest attempt last month.
Located beside the towering smoke stacks of the Arizona Portland Cement Co. plant that was built in 1948 and still operates today, Rillito's approximately 400 residents include many who can trace their roots through the migrant Blacks and Hispanics pickers who provided the backbreaking stoop labor on Postvale and Marana farms.
Some of those residents came out of Crockett, Texas on buses and trucks provided by Louis Anway.
"Back in the 1940s you picked cotton by hand and there wasn't anyone around here who wanted to do that, it was real hard work," Dave Anway said. "So my dad heard there was a bunch of colored men in Crockett who were willing to work, so he took buses out there and brought them back and they worked for a whole season. My dad told them they did him a good job and he offered to take them back to get their families. So they loaded up in trucks and went back and got the wives and children."
While initially living in about 15 one-room houses amid the fields of Pima Cotton provided by the Anways, many of the pickers eventually settled in Rillito.
Originally sited in 1885 by the Southern Pacific Railroad as a watering stop for its locomotives, Rillito was initially located on the east side of what is now Interstate 10. The black 200,000 gallon water tower easily seen from I-10 today north of Avra Valley Road is what remains of the 12 structures that were built on the site in the late 1920s.
The Rillito depot lost much of its importance as a watering stop in the 1940s when Southern Pacific switched from steam to diesel locomotives, according to a report completed last year by the town of Marana.
A 1929 wooden building that once housed the Southern Pacific's section foreman was moved from the old watering stop east of I-10 to the Rillito neighborhood in the 1970s. The foreman's house sits today on a forlorn lot near the interstate frontage road with a for sale sign painted on its front.
The coming of the railroad in the 1880s also brought many Asian Americans to the Marana area. Of the 1,300 people who worked on the Southern Pacific line's construction, 1,100 of them were Chinese, the town's history notes.
According to a series of interviews with citizens who have played pivotal roles in Marana's history that were recorded by Marana town employee Lily Grijalva in 1997, many of the town's most prominent land owners and business families, including names such as Kai, Wong and Chu, came to Marana at the turn of the century and continue to prosper today.
Typical of the rags to riches success stories in the Marana Chinese-American community is that of Bing K. Wong, who was born in 1912 in Canton, China and came to the Tucson area at the turn of the 20th century.
Wong began selling groceries to the farmers and migrant workers in the Marana area in the 1930s, according to the town's oral histories. Wong would load his Dodge truck in Tucson at 3 a.m., drive the rutted and unpaved roads along the river to sell his wares in Marana, often not returning home until late in the evening.
In 1941, Wong and his brother John Kai were able to purchase a state land lease for 320 acres of "raw river bottom land" from local rancher Don Pedro Aguirre for what was at the time the absurdly high price of $500.
"I was there when my father finally broke down and sold that land to the Wongs and Kais," 90-year Yginio "Gene" Aguirre, Don Pedro's son, said in an interview last month. "He didn't want to sell that land at all so he kept upping the price. Finally after about the third time they asked for the land, he told them they were crazy and went ahead and sold."
From those hard-gained and overpriced sections of bottom land, Wong would go on to amass more than 10,000 acres of deeded land and lease more than 50,000 acres of ranch land by 1965. Large portions of that empire remain in cultivation today under the corporate name of BKW farms.
The Wongs and Kais, with the weight of their significant land holdings behind them, acquired significant protection of the areas water rights that allowed the perpetuation of agriculture in the Marana region, and set up the showdown with the city of Tucson over ground water pumping that led to Marana's incorporation in 1977.
Further up stream the Santa Cruz veers northwest away from Avra Valley Road, passing the Marana-Northwest Regional Airport, which town officials hope will play a historic role in Marana's future.
The town, which exploded from a population of 1,647 in 1980 to around 15,000 people today has morphed from a farming town to its current incarnation as a suburban bedroom community. Faced with a staggering population increase projected to be to 88,600 by 2025, town officials are now trying to lay the groundwork for transforming Marana from a commuter suburb to a self sustaining city.
Marana officials hope the 630-acre general aviation airport it acquired from Pima County in 1999 may become an employment hub for the town's future.
"I think we're seeing more emphasis placed on job creation and providing a housing mix to meet a diversified, self sustaining community," said Marana Town Manager Mike Hein. "If there's a weakness in Marana it's not transportation, it's not retail, it won't be parks and recreation with the amenities that we're implementing - it's employment. The fact that we have to rely on Tucson and the greater Pima County area to provide employment opportunities for the citizenry.
That's why we securedthe airport. The airport is viewed as a potential employment hub and a center of the community, so that you could live in Continental Ranch, you could live in North Marana and commute to work internally within Marana."
Further downstream on the north-flowing Santa Cruz, the $13 million levee promises to reshape the original town center located between Trico-Marana and Tangerine roads in ways that none of the farming founders imagined. One forecast from the town's planning department predicts up to 33,000 people in Northwest Marana when the planned subdivisions are built out. The rural area has about 2,000 people living there now.
In preparation for the growth, the town created in 1999 a general plan amendment for the area to try and cushion the growth that is expected to begin moving into the area in the next five years.
While emphasizing the need to preserve the "unique agricultural flavor" of the area, the planners who drafted the amendment seem pessimistic about the future of farming in Marana.
"There are concerns that flood engineering improvements, lucrative options from home builders anxious to convert acreage into lots, and generally, the urbanizing nature of Marana will mean the end of meaningful agribusiness in Marana," the plan reads.
Marana itself is planning to break ground later this year on a $14 million municipal complex in a farm field near Barnett and Lon Adams roads.
As the river winds past the end of the levee at Sanders Road and heads for the town limits at the Trico-Marana bridge, the rolling ground shaped by floods and the trees left toppled from the 1983 flood are a harbinger for other Marana neighbors who may also be facing dramatic changes.
The 120 residents of the Berry Acres subdivision remain as the last folks in North Marana to be outside the protective wall of the lower Santa Cruz River levee, and Marana and Pima County officials would just as soon see them relocated.
The plan to buy out the residents is moving slowly, due to a lack of funding for the relocation. So far, only three of the residents' properties have been purchased, but a $500 impact fee levied on developers benefiting from the levee should accelerate the process once homes begin going up.
The relocation is voluntary and officials say they have no plans to condemn property located in the flood plain.
For all the changes that the taming of the Santa Cruz River has brought to Marana, and the wholesale changes projected for the future, there is little dissent from the town's rural residents.
"It's a done deal," said Joe Parsons, a North Marana farmer, rancher and co-owner of the Marana Livestock Auction. "People I know say they're just going to hold out as long as possible and then try and make a go of it in Eloy or the other agricultural areas."
Today, the Anway family farm out on Marana Road has been reduced from the 96-acres Louis Anway once owned outright, to about 30 acres that Dave Anway owns today. Dave leases those fields out to a large agricultural concern of the type that has replaced the small farm owner in Marana.
About two miles from the 83-year old Anway farm, the old Producer's Cotton Gin that Dave Anway's father swam across the Santa Cruz River to remains standing on Sandario Road. It closed in 1995, and the 64-year-old adobe cotton gin is now owned by a group of California real estate investors. As one of the last surviving historic buildings in Marana, the town is trying to have it listed on the federal register of historic places in order to save it.
Anway said he is saddened by the changes that are sure to come, but supports the town's growth.
"It's progress, the town has to grow" Anway said. "If you try and stand in its way you'll get run over."