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The Empire Ranch, Preserving a Southern Arizona Way of Life

By Korene Charnofsky Cohen
The Empire Ranch embodies the spirit of the vaquero and the cowboy and the spirit of community in Southern Arizona. It is set amidst the rolling hills, grasslands and panoramic vistas of the modern-day 42,000-acre, Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. The tale of the Empire is one of several families struggling with the hardships and celebrating the triumphs of the cattle ranching life.

The Empire Ranch, near Sonoita, started out in the 1860s as a homestead of 160 acres. Through several changes in ownership, the homestead grew to include land holdings of about 100,000 acres.

Walter L. Vail and Herbert S. Hislop, created a partnership in cattle ranching when they bought the Empire in 1876. John H. Harvey joined the partnership, bringing capital for livestock and land. The rigors of ranching life eventually drove Hislop to sell his shares to Vail and return to England. Harvey worked with Vail to expand the ranch. Vail’s brother Edward also joined the partnership. Silver was discovered on the ranch in 1879, and revenues from the Total Wreck mine helped support expansion of the ranch.

In 1881 Vail returned to New Jersey to marry his sweetheart, Margaret Newhall. He brought her to the Empire, where they worked and brought six of their seven children into the ranching life. Also in 1881, Harvey married and sold his house and its contents to Margaret for $1,000.

The original house had four rooms with dirt floors and openings for windows and doors. Vail and Hislop installed windows, doors and wooden flooring. Additional rooms were built with the aid of two Native American adobe masons. The ranch house eventually grew to 22 rooms to accommodate the Vail family’s children and staff members. The Vails lived at the Empire until 1896, and then moved to Los Angeles, where they established their corporate headquarters. Walter Vail died in a streetcar accident in 1906, but the Empire became home to one of the Vail’s sons and also grandchildren until the family sold the ranch in 1928.

Ranchers faced many hardships including cattle rustlers, harsh weather, drought, wild animals, ornery cattle, spooked horses, cactus thorns and long days and nights of plain old hard work. But they also formed a community with other ranchers. During roundups neighboring ranchers would share cowhands and hire extra workers, and worked together to drive the cattle to the railroad for shipping.

The Boice family bought the ranch in 1928, and during their ownership westerns were filmed at or near the ranch. The Boices sold the ranch to Gulf American Corporation in 1969, but continued ranching through a lease agreement until 1975. Anamax Mining Company bought the property, but leased the Empire to rancher John Donaldson. This vast area was saved from development when it was designated as Las Cienegas National Conservation Area in 2000. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the conservation area, and the Tomlinson family continues ranching under a lease agreement with the BLM.

Empire Ranch, by Gail Waechter Corkill and Sharon E. Hunt, will introduce you to the ranching life. The book abounds with historical photographs that inspire the reader to visit the ranch for a personal experience.

The Empire Ranch Foundation is a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving and interpreting the Empire Ranch buildings and landscape. They work closely with the BLM and people who are knowledgeable in preservation methods. Several preservation projects have been completed, and more projects are planned.

David “Mud Man” Yubeta, is recognized for his expertise in adobe, lime plaster and earthen architecture, which he gained during his career with the National Park Service. He has received awards for his contributions to historic preservation in the United States and Mexico, and serves on the Foundation’s board. He teaches volunteers to preserve adobe structures using traditional methods.

“It’s cool for me to be able to bring my expertise to the Empire Ranch,” says Yubeta. “Preservation has been my life’s work, and I’m known as the adobe guy, and I just like dirt.”

“What we are doing at the Empire Ranch is important to Arizona and American history. The Empire Ranch is an amazing place, and we need to preserve it, and keep it standing for as long as possible so we can save this representative of ranching for future generations.”

The 13th Annual Empire Ranch Roundup and Open House will be November 2 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission is free, but a $10 donation per vehicle is requested. It is a great opportunity for a glimpse of traditional ranching life with many skill demonstrations, talks, food, tours, music, western authors and activities for kids. There will be demonstrations of crafts such as blacksmithing, leatherworking and rope making, and “Cowboy Conversations” will cover topics such as ranching life, western films and storytelling. Visitors will connect with local history and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

“We do everything we can to make this event authentic and non-commercial,” says Christine Auerbach, Empire Ranch Foundation administrator. “We also are proud to say that the Foundation was awarded a grant from the Arizona Humanities Council to create a Cowboy Life exhibit, and that we also are working with the Patagonia Public Library to develop projects and events for a Smithsonian Journey Stories Exhibition.”

The Foundation hosts other events during the year including tours, a spring trail ride and educational events for kids. There also are many volunteer opportunities. For more information and directions, check out the Foundation’s website at or call them at (888) 364-2829.

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