For the moment at least, long-neglected Steam Pump Ranch, a legendary 1870s watering hole and stagecoach stop below Pusch Ridge, has escaped the old blade and scrape.
"I'd like to see this preserved for future generations," said Michael Naifeh, a real estate appraiser whose MJN Enterprises occasionally handles investment opportunities like the 15-acre site on Oracle Road just south of Catalina State Park.
Steam Pump Ranch is often referred to as the "historic heart of Oro Valley" and its last remaining historic site. The Hohokam village in Honeybee Canyon is considered a prehistoric or archeological site.
Working for a year with the town of Oro Valley, state and local preservation experts and an ad hoc conservation group, Naifeh changed his original concept from a featureless strip mall to something more closely resembling an historic village square.
Current plans for the site, although still fluid, preserve a vital piece of area history while providing needed amenities like restaurants with al fresco dining, galleries and shops, a pavilion for a farmers market, a community gathering space and walkways linking to the Canada del Oro trail system, he said.
Architect Michael Franks designed around the site's historic ranch house and steam pump, preserving them along with the property's large palms and dense stands of mesquite.
Naifeh and others would like to see a civic use for the ranch house - perhaps as a home for the area chamber of commerce, a visitor's center and perhaps the Greater Oro Valley Arts Council.
"We are already benefiting from substantial interest in a property like this," he said. "People are recognizing that we're trying to do this right, even if it takes a little longer."
It wasn't always thus. Last October, Naifeh, whose financial partners are Eric and Shalom Laytin of Brake Masters fame, presented a traditional development plan to the town based on environmental consultant SWCA Inc.'s recommendation to preserve the pump but scrap the ranch house, which because of alterations and additions, the report said, "lacks sufficient integrity recommendation."
The town decided to get a second opinion.
R. Brooks Jeffery, an historic preservation consultant and coordinator of preservation studies with the University of Arizona College of Architecture, thought that the 1870s ranch house should be preserved along with the pump house, the large trees and "shaded yards of grass that provided respite from the open range."
"The ranch is essential to the environment out there," he said. "The historic structures and native vegetation are part of the site's natural and cultural resources."
"This is the first time I've seen a development plan inclusive of saving this part," said Dick Eggerding, spokesman for The Land Conservation Committee, a grass roots committee created earlier this year to address conservation of the town's open space and historic sites. "The historical aspects are phenomenal."
Eggerding and fellow TLCC members named Steam Pump Ranch as their top priority in a Sept. 8 study session with the Oro Valley mayor and town council. Other committee members are Al Kunisch, Marilyn Cook, Richard Feinberg, Jim Kriegh, Karen Rogers and Pat Spoerl.
Who pays for what will undoubtedly be part of future negotiations.
Pima County recently proposed Steam Pump Ranch as one of 15 projects to be included in a May 18, 2004 Special Bond Election.
"This was the principal ranch along Oracle Road in frontier days," said Linda Mayro, cultural resources manager for the county. The county has proposed dedicating $600,000 to reconstruct the original pump house, preserve the old rock reservoir and rehabilitate the ranch house for modern use.
"The concept would be that the owner would convey the historic properties to the town," she said. "The only way we could make the funds available is if the buildings were in some kind of public ownership."
Naifeh said he would consider such a move if the town wanted to go that route, but it would be inappropriate to discuss it at this point. "Bond elections have been passed and bond elections have gone down in flames," he said. "We'll do whatever it is we need to do."
The developer must obtain town rezoning and approval for its development plan before it can move forward.
On Dec. 2, the Pima County Bond Advisory Committee will present its report to the county Board of Supervisors, who on Jan. 20 will call the special bond election, said Jim Barry, executive assistant to the county administrator. No later than April 5, the board will adopt a plan in which it will list every project to be included in the bond package if the voters approve it.
History of Steam Pump Ranch
In 1865, 18-year-old George Pusch came to the United States from Germany with his close friend, the Swiss-born John Zellweger, 15. The two meat cutters soon worked their way west from New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles. In 1874, Pusch bought a team of mules and headed for Tucson, then a town of 3,000. He convinced Zellweger to join him as a partner in the Cañada del Oro Ranch just north of town.
"They registered the PZ brand (for Pusch Zellweger) and put in the steam pump which gave the ranch the name it has gone by ever since," wrote Tucson attorney Henry Zipf, George Pusch's grandson, in an article for Oro Valley Magazine.
"The ranch is near the Canada del Oro Wash, and the water on the ranch is within 50 to 100 feet of the surface," Zipf told Connie Allen-Bacon in a 1996 interview for the Arizona Historical Society. "In those days the only way they could dig a well was by hand. So they couldn't go very deep. He found plentiful water there so he installed a steam pump to bring the water to the surface. I have been told he used mesquite logs to fire up and run the pump."
In a short documentary about the ranch, narrator Allen-Bacon said the pump could handle 50 gallons an hour or 300 to 400 gallons per day in the 1880s. The water was stored in a rock reservoir that remains on the property.
Steam Pump Ranch was the only watering hole between Tucson and Oracle or Florence, and Pusch earned 15 cents a head to water cattle brought there before shipping them by rail from Red Rock or Tucson. The ranch also served as a stop for stages from Tucson to Florence and Oracle and as a camp for military patrols from Fort Lowell in Tucson.
Starting in 1875, the business partners owned an ice plant and a slaughterhouse and meat market in Tucson.
Pusch and Zellweger also established Feldman Ranch, between Mammoth and Winkelman. At one time, said Zipf, they ran 15,000 head of cattle between the two ranches, often traveling across Antelope Plains, northeast of the current Oracle Junction, were Pusch would have to "hold up his wagon to permit herds of antelope to cross."
In 1880, the 33-year-old Pusch married 15-year-old Mathilda Feldman, also from Germany, who came to Tucson the year before to visit her friend Sophia Spieling, who later married Zellweger. The Zellwegers eventually sold out their interests to Pusch and relocated to Florence.
Pusch served as a Pima County representative in the 16th and 20th Territorial Legislatures, and as a Republican member of the state constitutional convention. Pusch Ridge and Pusch Peak, the mountains that overlook the ranch, were named in his honor.
Zipf, the son of Pusch's eldest child, Gertrude, said the Apaches never bothered his grandfather, who always provided them with sugar, flour and other goods. Pusch died in 1921. His wife lived another 17 years.
Jack Proctor, who owned the Pioneer Hotel, bought the ranch in 1933 for $10,000 and used it to provide meat and produce for the hotel. He left the property to his grandsons, Henry and John Leiber, the current owners, who have a horse boarding facility on site.
In 1988 Oro Valley annexed the site and approved a 56-acre development plan for commercial use. It was never developed. Diamond Ventures later purchased 40 acres of the original site, which do not include the historic structures.