Louise Speaks: Heading SE and not too far from McFarland State Historic Park are the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. The national monument consists of the ruins of multiple structures surrounded by a compound wall constructed by the ancient people of the Hohokam period, who farmed the Gila Valley in the early 13th century. Archeologists have discovered evidence that the ancient Sonoran Desert people who built the Casa Grande also developed wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which lasted over a thousand years. The ruins are situated in the flat plain of central Arizona in between the Gila and Santa Cruz rivers, just north of Coolidge and about 15 miles from the larger town of Casa Grande.
Casa Grande is Italian and Spanish for “big house” . These names refer to the largest structure on the site, which is what remains of a four story structure that may have been abandoned by 1450. The structure is made of calich, and has managed to survive the extreme weather conditions for about seven centuries. The large house consists of outer rooms surrounding an inner structure. The outer rooms are all three stories high, while the inner structure is four stories high. The structures were constructed using traditional adobe processes. The wet adobe is thicker at the base and adds significant strength. Horizontal cracks can be noticed and this defines the breaks between courses on the thick outer walls. The process consisted of using damp adobe to form the walls and then waiting for it to dry, and then building it up with more adobe. Father Kino was the first European to view the Hohokam complex in November 1694 and named it Casa Grande. Graffiti from 19th-century passers-by is scratched into its walls; though this is now illegal.
Casa Grande Ruins became the first prehistoric and cultural reserve in the US. It was then re-designated a national monument by President Woodrow Wilson on August 3, 1918. As with all historical areas administered by the National Park Service, Casa Grande was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. The area has a low elevation and hence is very hot – often over 110°F for several months in the summer. During spring, this part of Arizona is sometimes the hottest place in the whole USA, and even in winter, daytime temperatures can reach 80°F. We are lucky, there is a slight breeze out and the weather is quite nice.
However, due to the extreme heat, in 1932, a Ramada was built to shelter the ruins from weathering. It was made of wood and tin and other than protection from the wind, didn’t really help to protect. In the early 21st century, a pair of Great horned owls took up residence in the rafters of that shelter. Over the years the shelter had to be replaced. The current protective structure covering the “Great House” replaced the previous ramada and was built of steel with steel pillars able to stand 100 mph gusts of wind, which is common in this area. Due to the fragile nature of the “Great House”, visitors to the site are not permitted inside. Observation is permitted outside the structure only for visitors to protect its integrity.
Touring the ruins is done by self guided tours or if fortunate like we were, you arrive at a time when a schedule tour is taking place. These volunteer tour guides can give you more information than you can read in the pamphlets handed out. The scale of the ruin is best appreciated from close up – it is 60 feet by 40 feet wide at the base and the walls are over a meter thick. Although visitors are not allowed into the building owing to its delicate state, much can be seen from outside including details of the construction with wooden beams supporting the clay walls, and various internal features such as stairways and windows. However, besides the protective canopy, the interior contains other modern items such as re-enforcing beams, metal ladders and measuring devices on the walls, all contributing to the slightly unnatural scene. I know this building has been up for years, but it is deteriorating. They are trying to keep the walls standing, but it appears it is just a matter of time before the ruins will crumble.
If you have followed along with our blog over the years, you know we have seen many, many adobe structures throughout Arizona and New Mexico. This was an interesting stop if you are visiting Arizona, but I would not make a point of stopping here again. I know I live here and it is a piece of history, but it is an old adobe structure that is falling apart. I guess that alone is interesting, but I’m not much into history. We stopped, because it is on our list of National Monuments so we can cross it off, but I’m only giving it a rating of a C, because it just didn’t impress me.