Buried under decades of the dirt, droppings and debris of a crumbling chicken coop, workers at Oro Valley's Steam Pump Ranch found a treasure trove of history.
While excavating part of the dilapidated structures, workers uncovered an old box that under normal circumstances would likely have been added to the mountains of waste removed from the historic homestead.
Fortunately, the box wasn't found under normal circumstances.
"I was looking in from one of the holes in the wall and saw some photographs," Dan Zwiener said.
Along with other Oro Valley Historical Society volunteers, Zwiener has been hard at work at the town's historic property, helping to sort through more than 130 years of history.
Zwiener just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and with a background in archaeology, he knew the workers had stumbled upon something of potential significance.
"At first, I just saw maybe 15 or 20 photographs," he recalled. "To our utter amazement, there was just hundreds of photos in that chicken coop."
Historical society volunteers so far have sorted through at least 700 photos and documents found in the discarded box.
No one has figured out why the box of photos and documents was left in the chicken coop, but over the ages the building appears to have been used as a repository for all sorts of unwanted items.
"There seems to be so much stuff from the Procter era that was put in the chicken coop and garage," said Patricia Spoerl, who sits on the Oro Valley Historic Preservation Commission and volunteers with the historical society at Steam Pump Ranch. The commission was founded by Spoerl, Dick Eggerding and James Kriegh in 2005, with the mission of preserving town history through cataloguing photographs, documents and buildings.
Society members have been instrumental in sorting through the documents and photographs found at Steam Pump Ranch in an effort to piece together the narrative of Oro Valley history.
"This story is really about the volunteers," said Jerry Kyle, a historian with Skylark Consulting hired to help the town organize and catalogue historic documents found at Steam Pump.
Because the photos and documents were exposed to the elements for untold decades, many have sustained water damage.
Kyle and the historical society volunteers are working to clean and preserve the documents.
Once that task is complete, the documents will be categorized and stored in acid-free boxes.
The documents and photos workers found in the chicken coop at the ranch provide the raw materials that historians use to piece together episodes from the past. Even what at first might seem a rather mundane find could end up a crucial element of the story.
One of the photographs from the 1930s depicts Henry (Hank) Leiber in his New York Giants baseball uniform. Leiber married Elizabeth Procter, whose father, John Procter, bought the property from ranch founders the Pusch family in 1933.
"He was actually a very decent third baseman," said Kyle, who searched through historic baseball statistics to help date the photo of Leiber.
Another find from the chicken coop included a 1961 Tucson High School "Handbook of Social Conduct." The book provides insight into the social mores and expectations of the time.
"In social history, this is the kind of thing that can be missed," Kyle said.
While Oro Valley's historic
cataloguing efforts undoubtedly are in their infancy, the Arizona Historical Society has been documenting the history of southern Arizona since the 1880s.
Like the Oro Valley social history project, the Arizona Historical Society started from humble origins. A group of Tucson shopkeepers, saloonkeepers, merchants and firefighters banded together at the Palace Hotel in 1884 with the shared mission of preserving the area's pioneering past.
From a collection of diaries and family photographs, charter members could have never imagined the extent of the Historical Society's collections today. The society's 4,300 feet of shelving holds more than 50,000 books, 12,000 biographical files, 6,000 maps, 1,300 manuscript collections and 1 million photographs.
Much of the society's holdings date back to Arizona's Jesuit and Spanish era.
"These are the primary sources," said Katherine Reeve, head of libraries and archives at the society's museum at 949 E. 2nd Street near the university.
While many people may not easily see the value of archiving photographs, memoirs and publications, to Reeve it's evident. Not only do professional researchers use the facility, but the materials found deep inside the museum's three-story, climate-controlled archive also benefit journalists, genealogists and people curious to learn their own family history.
"A man walked in the other day who was lost when he was eight years old," Reeve said. Searching through archived newspapers, he was able to recount the story of his three-day absence and recovery at a ranch north of Tucson.
"That's why cataloguing is so essential, we don't know what people might be looking for," Reeve said. "I feel the generations have entrusted these things to us."
Oro Valley Historical Society volunteers have taken it upon themselves to honor that social contract as well. Group members, along with Kyle, are still hard at work cleaning and preserving the photos that workers likely would have thrown into a dumpster had Zwiener not been peering through a hole in the wall of a chicken coop.
Future historians will one day be glad he was there.
History of Steam Pump Ranch
German-immigrant George Pusch founded the ranch homestead in the 1870s. In the more than 130 years since, Steam Pump Ranch has undergone numerous changes from its beginnings as a working cattle ranch and popular stopover for cattlemen on their trips to deliver herds to rail yards.
The property draws its name from the steam-powered pump Pusch used to plumb water from the depths.
The town bought the home and surrounding acreage from the Leiber family in 2007 for $4.5 million.
George Pusch and business partner John Zellweger purchase Cañada del Oro Ranch (later renamed Steam Pump Ranch).
Southern Pacific Railroad arrives in Tucson. Steam Pump Ranch prospers from the influx of cattle drives by ranchers trying to get their cattle to market and transport on the railway. Steam Pump becomes a popular stopover on cattle drives.
Pusch and wife Matilda begin to live much of the year in Tucson, where he tends to his numerous business interests.
Pusch serves in Arizona's 16th Territorial Legislature.
Pusch dies on August 20, at his Tucson home.
Matilda Pusch dies in Tucson. Steam Pump Ranch is sold to John Monroe "Jack" Procter for $10,000.
Procter daughter Elizabeth marries professional baseball player Henry Leiber. The pair's sons John Lee and Henry inherited the ranch after their grandfather's death in 1972.
Oro Valley buys the property from John Leiber.
Source: Oro Valley