Thursday, March 1, 2012


Though named for the nearby Empire mountain, this ranch was once  spread over a million acres.  Grasslands so vast and profitable during the big beef bonanza days, the ranch made fortunes for its owners.  A cattle empire.

It started modestly enough, with a 16o acre homestead owned by William Wakefield who built this adobe, a flat-roofed building with packed dirt floors and four rooms  between 1871 and 1874,  as near as anyone can pinpoint.  Added onto over the years, The roof changed, flooring installed, electricity and other amenities came with subsequent owners.

Adobe was the right material for the day and this adobe  and beam framed  barn is still in good shape from a later era.

Vail and Hislop purchased the ranch and expanded by purchasing ranches around them.  They added a bunk house, a cook house and a wood frame building for themselves.  Hilsop returned to England and sold his shares to Vail who continued to expand and buy more livestock  until it became the largest cattle operation in the region.

A huge adobe barn, that once survived a fire is in rough shape but scheduled for restoration with adobe bricks.
A beam framed feeding station for the horses that road up to the bunkhouse at the end of the day.

A hitching post attached to the bunk house was a handy place to park and unsaddle.

Water came from wells.

Heat from fireplaces. The old frame house, and adobe bunk house is in rough shape as it waits for restoration.

This is what the small dining area looked like in its day. (A photo of the photo over the fireplace above.)

In the bunk house, doors were pulled open with a  simple  leather strap and locked with a simple slide bolt.

The house, however, has a fancy door knob and key lock. When the Boice family bought the ranch in 1929, Mary Boice was considered as good a rider and ranch hand as two cowboys.

During the western movie making heyday, the ranch was a perfect setting.  The photo below shows John Wayne at the ranch with Mary Boice  and a couple of ranch hands.

Boice sold in 1969 to Gulf American, a land development company.  In 1988, the Bureau of Land Management acquired the what was left of the ranch lands through a public-private land swap and it is now a 48,000 preserve designated Empire Cienega Resource Conservation Area.  And the Empire Ranch portion of about 2,000 acres is on the National Register of Historic Places. A foundation formed to restore the ranch buildings holds fundraising events every year. A spring trail ride that takes place in April every year. April 7th is the date for 2012 with wagon rides for the kids, and a steak barbeque afterward.  They hold a Western Heritage program for children from 9 to 17 years. This one is June 4-9, 2012. And a western art competition and  show that raises money for restoration and I don’t have a date for that.

There are still cattle working on this ranch. They allow hunting for elk and deer, but, not prairie dogs. It would be nice to horse-back out and check the various features of this fabulous place, and you can make arrangements to do that. Empire Ranch is located near Sonoita, AZ .  It was a picture-taking bonanza with plenty of weathered wood and old adobe. Enjoyable visit with camping on another part of the BLM land. We didn’t venture past the homestead.


Petra Forbes said...

This is probably one of the best and biggest ranches anyone could ever dream of! Considering the fact that it was established in 1860’s, the infrastructures and the surroundings still look awesome! It just shows how well-maintained the place is. I wonder who owns it now. Why aren’t there more cattle photos here, btw?

Mary Matzek said...

The Empire Ranch was divided years ago into several entities, one area preserved as a land conservation area; the homestead is being restored as a National Historic Site. One piece is still a ranch but most of it was sold off to other ranch interests some years back. In any case, a fascinating place. Thanks for stopping in.