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Buckeye Farming History Is As Rich As The Soil

From Hohokam Indians to a Hollywood producer Buckeye farming has grown, exploded, and almost disappeared.


Farming has been vital to its success and failures.

The first known permanent inhabitants of Maricopa County, Arizona were the Hohokam Indians, ancestors of the present—day Papago-Pima Indians. Various nomadic Indian tribes inhabited the area As early as 9,000 B.C.

The Hohokam Indians were farmers. Around 600 CE the Hohokam people began to dig irrigation canals. They excavated trenches up to 12 feet deep by hand. Between 1100 CE and 1450 CE, 500 miles of canals watered 110,000 acres. Food produced from this irrigation system may have supported up to 80,000 people—the highest population density in the prehistoric Southwest. The Gila River Valley was not regularly farmed again until the late 1600’s.Native indians dig canals

Around 1860, a gold rush in central Arizona drew prospectors to the area. Approximately 400,000 mining claims have been filed in Arizona, and about 4,000 companies formed for mining. Minerals attracted settlers and explorers, built towns, created railroads, and astonished the world with semi-precious stones.

buckeye farming

Jack Swilling, an ex-Confederate cavalryman, was a prospector with an entrepreneurial eye. Swilling noticed the abandoned Hohokam canals and started the Swilling Irrigating and Canal Company in 1867. He intended to use the channels to harvest water from the Salt River to water crops he would sell to miners at the Vulture Mine in Wickenburg and the U.S. Cavalry stationed at Fort McDowell.

Dense settlement of the Buckeye Valley area occurred after the formation of the Territory of Arizona in 1863 and the end of the Civil War in 1866.

The Homestead Act of 1862, The Timber Culture Act of 1873, and The Desert Land Act of 1877 gave settlers the ability to own and increase the size of their farms.

A noticeable asset of the land was the absence of “Adobe” clay deposits and its sandy nature, with underground water near the surface, which required less irrigation water.

One of the first crops grown was alfalfa, and Buckeye later was known as the “Alfalfa Capital of the World.” Wheat, barley, maize, and other sorghum grains became cash crops. (Sorghum is a cereal grain that grows tall like corn, and is used as livestock feed and a sweetener. It’s popular because it is drought resistant.)

The McWilliams’ and Irwin’s ranches were located about 33 miles west of Phoenix. They planted large alfalfa pastures along with several acres of corn and sorghum. Two miles west of their farms was the ranch of Newt Clanton, one of the principal stockholders of the Buckeye Irrigation Company, who had built a house on 2500 acres for his family.

Sorghum and corn were what farmers had time to plant that year, and they flourished abundantly. Many acres of each were growing on every ranch in the Valley. Two advantages the farmer of Buckeye Valley enjoyed was the never ending supply of water and the year-round growing season.

By 1892, Buckeye had become a charming little farming town.

Surrounding the downtown area were 50,000 acres of fertile, level land awaiting the thrifty farmer to turn it into a prosperous paradise. The ground had a light alluvial soil which was also good for raising oranges, raisins, and other fruit. (Alluvial soil consists of clay, silt, sand, gravel, metals typically found near a water source.) Approximately 10,000 acres were already being cultivated, mostly with grain and alfalfa.

In 1902, Mr. Lyall, a prominent citizen of Buckeye, was quoted in the Phoenix Enterprise newspaper, “… there is not a farmer of our section who is not prosperous and happy, and we all think that we have the garden of Arizona.”

For many years, the distance from the marketplaces made deliveries difficult and could not be accomplished without great labor and expense. Ranchers were hopeful that the Southern Pacific Railroad would be coming through the Buckeye area soon.

Transportation conditions and the high market value of seed led farmers to the growing of alfalfa seed. Alfalfa seed was the cheapest and easiest crop that could be grown and its high quality, and yield per acre exceeded that of many other areas of the United States.

A load of seed weighing two to three tons could be hauled to Phoenix by one man and a small team of horses and was worth fourteen to sixteen cents per pound.

The coming of the railroad to Buckeye in 1910 vastly improved the shipping of crops out of the Buckeye Valley.

Former Southern Pacific Railroad 0-6-0 locomot...

Former Southern Pacific Railroad 0-6-0 locomotives #841 at the historic train depot in Terry, Mississippi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another important industry was the production of honey and Alfalfa is known to be one of the greatest honey plants in existence.

The 1905-1906 City Directories list three apiarists (beekeepers) in Buckeye. In 1911 there were about 4,000 hives of bees, owned by six people.

The Buckeye Valley was mostly known for its farming of alfalfa and grains, but cotton was to become a booming crop. Extra-long staple cotton was first grown commercially in 1912.

In 1916, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, through Southwest Cotton Company their subsidiary, bought thousands of acres of land around Litchfield Park to plant cotton for their tires. Litchfield Park became the headquarters of all the Goodyear Farms operations in Arizona.

In 1917, Herbert Atha, a pioneer in the 1ong—staple cotton industry, incorporated under the name of the Arizona Egyptian Cotton Company. He opened buying stations with scales and warehouses around the Phoenix area. The cotton exchange established in Tempe in 1914, was the prime commercial center in the Salt River Valley for ELS cotton transactions. From 1917-1920 cotton prices rose to $1.32 per pound.

The nation’s tire companies were responsible for the rapid expansion of the cotton industry.

Cotton was a primary component of tires. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company purchased 16,000 acres of Salt River Valley land in 1917 and The Dunlop Tire Company established Buckeye’s first cotton gin.

Buckeye Arizona Farming

World War I was escalating and Goodyear’s foreign suppliers could not meet demand. Goodyear needed the cotton to make airplane tires for airships. Goodyear junior executive Paul Litchfield purchased land, and the company moved to the Arizona Territory to cultivate Pima cotton (also called extra long staple (ELS)). Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company opened a factory next to the farms.

Other manufacturers, followed suit, and by 1920 cotton was Arizona’s most popular crop. Alfalfa fields were replanted with cotton seed and rangelands (open country used for grazing) cultivated. Cotton covered about 800,000 acres.

On April 8, 1920, the newspaper reported that Mr. Henry George, representative of the Dunlop Tire Co., would give financial aid or lines of credit to encourage cotton growers. Also because of the Dunlop Tire Co., electricity was brought to the Buckeye area to provide power to the ginning plant.

Shortly after the war, demand dried up. Government contracts for cotton airplane wing cover evaporated, and tire production dropped. Cotton’s price plummeted to barely 12 cents per pound, and many independent cotton farmers were left high and dry.

The impact was made worse by the fact that Buckeye farmers now had the cost of replanting 50,000 acres back to alfalfa and replacing 30,000 dairy cows sold during the 1917-1920 boom.

In 1921, the Pima Cotton Growers’ Association was organized to revitalize the failing industry. The Pima Cotton Growers’ Association purchased one-fourth interest in the Mutual Oil and Cotton Company which in turn bought the holdings of the Firestone Rubber Co. and the Southwest Cotton Company.Buckeye Business Announcement

As much as 38,000 acres of cotton were planted in the Buckeye Valley between 1928-29. Until 1939, 97% of all American Egyptian Cotton was grown in Arizona.

In 1929, (Jack) Godey Currens who had previously managed the Phoenix Feed and Seed Co., opened the Buckeye Seed and Feed. The building was located on the west side of First (Miller) Street just north of the Southern Pacific Spur Track. Buckeye Seed and Feed sold in the 1980’s to Arizona Grain.

Just south of the spur track was J.G. Boswell Company’s Buckeye Gin.

The Western Cotton Products Company’s Buckeye Gin was located on the west side of Fourth Street and was next to another spur track of the Southern Pacific. The Western Cotton Products Company was demolished in the 1940’s.

Cotton camps were built in the thirties to house the seasonal cotton workers. There were as many as twenty camps around the Buckeye Valley. Camp 25, located south of Broadway by Airport Road had 250 people at its maximum, and Camp 29, located two miles north of Broadway had approximately 100 houses with many others living in tents.

Allenville, a one-square-mile village located off of Miller Road in Buckeye, was formed in 1944, when a Phoenix Realtor, Fred Norton bought land and sold it to black migrant farm workers, according to an Associated Press article published in 2001. Allenville was developed as a settlement area for blacks who had no place else to go once the cotton camps closed.

Near Buckeye, Maricopa County, Arizona. Sister...

Near Buckeye, Maricopa County, Arizona. Sister of a cotton picker. – NARA – 522541 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pastures were being fenced in, and windmills were going up around the Valley. Cattle and sheep were evident, and even a large pig farm developed.

In 1905, William Long, listed as a rancher in early directories, raised cotton, cattle, and sheep until 1928 when Marshall and Bob Long started their dairy business. By 1932, they had bought all the other dairies around the Buckeye area. In 1937, milking machines were used by the Long’s Farm.

The Beloat family fed and raised 2,500 head of cattle a year in pens at their ranch. John Beloat, as a boy with his father, used to drive cattle from their Buckeye Ranch (near Liberty) right into the heart of Phoenix to the sales yard near 12th Avenue and Jefferson.

Cecil B. DeMille, the Hollywood movie producer, owned several thousand acres of land in the Roosevelt Irrigation District near Buckeye and planned the greatest citrus development in the southwest. But the stock market crash of 1929 trimmed the idea down to size, and cotton and other crops later became more profitable than citrus.

By 1954, landowners of the Buckeye Irrigation Company had 5,000 acres planted in cotton, and 12,000 acres of alfalfa, barley, and other grains. Farmers and ranchers served by Roosevelt Irrigation District had 15,000 acres of cotton and 20,000 acres of grains.

Cattlemen estimated 30,000 head of cattle alone were fattened yearly at a dozen or more pen feeding operations scattered throughout the Buckeye vicinity. Pen feeding of Herefords had become an important part of the Buckeye Valley economy.

By 1955, Buckeye, which had once been known as a seasonal town, had stabilized its economy with cotton picking machines, the Buckeye farming of diversified crops, and ranching.