Hohokam Hat Trick: Discovering the Mesa Grande Ruins

Dear Students,

This morning I was going to work in the libray, but the school was locked up so I did the next best thing and drove to Bookman’s Entertainment Exchange in Mesa. Driving out to Bookman’s took me to a new place in the valley. I took a minute with the GPS to see what was nearby. I looked at Leisure: Museums — Mesa Grande Ruins. Off we went. I passed the highly praised El Charro’s, the laudable Child Crisis Center,

Wikipedia says the City of Mesa bought the land parcel containing the Mesa Grande Ruins from B-Movie Actress Acquanetta, after they promised to preserve it. Can this be true?

I found the Ruins at the NW Corner of 10th Street on the corner of Brown/Date St. I encountered a fenced block and two locked gates. One sign identified the area as the Mesa Grande Ruins on the National Register of Historic Places. When I peered through the fence, I saw the caliche mounds and some black tarp. It looked like a big pile of dirt.

Mesa Grande Ruins, Mesa, Arizona

Photo by thornydalemapco on Flickr

Disappointed, I drove around the block looking for an opening. I stopped a pedestrian who said it was always closed and that way it had been as long as he knew. So I came home and jumped online. What I discovered is a long journey to preserve the ruins and bring them to the public. The story of the modern Mesa Grande Ruins is tied to volunteers that work to preserve the story of the past. I am so grateful to the collection of individuals who have protected the ruins from encroachment.

The ruins are an archeological work in progress. Through the fence, I could see black tarp covering dig sites. (Wikipedia photo)

My fascination with the Hohokam grew with all the irrigation channels in Gilbert, Queen Creek and Mesa. I only see pieces of the puzzle. I don’t understand it. I wish I did. Part of my stumbling around Phoenix is a desire to understand the layers of how people made their life here, because here I am, raising my family here.

Hohokam Territory…note dots for Pueblo Grande and Casa Grande, Mesa Grande completes the troika

The Hohokam people had many settlements in the Gila and Salt River valleys of southern Arizona. Mesa Grande is one of the last places to show how the Hohokam created an irrigation network that pioneers began to reuse in the late 1800s. Mesa’s first inhabitants realized the partially filled canals for what they were and began excavating them to start the Valley’s modern agricultural industry.

Mesa Grande by air, from the north west…somewhere in here is a ball court, you can see some walking paths as well when you are close by. If your child plays soccer make sure to point out the ball court, a prehistoric precursor to our soccer and indication of the stability of the community that they could and did play games.

They built rectangular pit houses from earth, rather than stone, and lived in small villages.  They were a peaceful people who cooperated to build large canal networks. Some of their canals were over ten miles long and used gravity to control water flow and to flush out the silt! The Hohokam were the only cultural group in prehistoric North America to rely on massive canal systems, irrigating up to 110,000 acres of corn, beans and squash. Archaeologists from the Arizona Museum of Natural History excavated one prehistoric canal that measured 15 feet deep and 45 feet wide. These irrigation systems represented monumental efforts of labor and engineering. In the late 1800s farmers rebuilt and opened the brilliantly engineered Hohokam irrigation systems – some remain in use today.


Ernie Rawlston using home-made and commercial surveying equipment to map the excavations at Mesa Grande. (Photo by the SWAT: Southwest Archaeological Team)

Between the 7th and 14th centuries they built and maintained these extensive irrigation networks along the lower Salt and middle Gila rivers that rivaled the complexity of those used in the ancient Near East, Egypt, and China. These were constructed using relatively simple excavation tools, without the benefit of advanced engineering technologies.

Frank Midvale and Anna Madora Baker were pioneers in preserving the ruins for the public

These highly successful agricultural techniques produced a surplus of food. Villages and populations grew. Over the next 1500 years the Hohokam expanded their settlements into the Tucson Basin, then to the Phoenix area, and as far north as present-day Flagstaff.  It is incredible to me when I see the channels of water flowing along the roads that these channels are living connections to the Hohokam.

Mesa Grande Cultural Park coming Fall 2012! When the $250,000 center opens in 2012, Mesa expects to operate it from Oct. 1 to May 15. The expected hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.

If you plan to visit: Contact Arizona Museum of Natural History Curator of Education Kathy Eastman at (480) 644-5662 to find out more about the ruins or plan a visit inside the fence. The City of Mesa purchased the Mesa Grande ruins to preserve this cultural treasure with the goal of opening it to the public as an educational and recreational facility.  The City is building a new welcome center at Mesa Grande and the goal is to open it in the fall. Fingers crossed that this works out.

Mesa Grande Woodcut, the Salt River is the middle line below the mountains

Next stop for us: Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park.

Warm Regards,
Mrs. Kenney

Citation Note: This post is a collection of quotes I lifted from Mesa newspaper articles and Arizona Museum of Natural history. If you follow the links you will see the original articles in context.


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