by Mary Kasulaitis
In Southern Arizona in the 1920s there was an era of large ranch building, wherein homesteaders sold out to a few wealthy entrepreneurs who expanded their properties exponentially. Regular homesteads and Desert Land entries were augmented by the Stock Raising Homestead Act, passed in 1916, in which one could make entry on up to 640 acres in areas that had been designated by the Secretary of the Interior as “stock-raising lands.” Much of the rangeland was in this category. After 1912 you only had to live on a homestead for 3 years, not 5, and make suitable improvements for cattle raising, not just farming. From 1915 to the early 1920s, ranchers had been picking up State school land leases, usually 620 acres. These added considerably to the grazing possibilities, but generally not really enough to allow for very many cattle, thus there was a need for accumulating multiple properties adjoining each other. Deep wells could now be drilled and water tanks filled. The era of open range was coming to an end. The window was closing on ranch building: in 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act provided for regulated grazing on federal public lands to improve range conditions. Under this law, President Franklin Roosevelt withdrew most public lands in the western United States for classification as part of grazing districts thus effectively ending the opportunity for further homesteading almost everywhere except Alaska. (Muhn and Stewart, 1988) the 1920s a number of wealthy Easterners began arriving in the area and picking up ranches, such as La Osa, near Sasabe, which attracted more visitors and potential ranch buyers. Dude ranches began to flourish.
As the 1920s open, several thousand acres of the Sopori valley belonged to the Elias family and separately the Sopori Land and Cattle Company, which at that point had run into financial trouble, probably due to the large loan it had taken out. Evidently they couldn’t pay it back, so the land went up for sale by the Sheriff in February 1924. Grace Davis Lee, an heiress from the Robert E. Lee family whose father was a U.S. Senator from West Virginia, had moved to Southern Arizona in 1923 where her son Arthur, Jr. was going to the University of Arizona. There were two other sons, Henry and Thomas. Her husband, Arthur Lee, Sr., died in 1925. Grace bought the ranch from the widow of the mortgage holder, Mrs. A.O. Jahren. (Arizona Daily Star, April 5, 1926) But this was not all of the Sopori ranch land. In May of 1927, Tomas Elias and his wife Juana Orosco de Elias, and their children Amalia, Armida, Arturo and Federico sold to Arthur Lee, Jr. their homestead properties in the area west of Amado. (Santa Cruz County Records of Deeds.)
Besides the Elias properties, another reportedly extensive ranch was sold to the Lee Family: that of John Walter Chambers and his partner James Converse. Walter, who was from Texas, had been working for several years for the Arivaca Land and Cattle Company and gotten to know the country. In 1926, he had proved up on a stock raising homestead of 560 acres in an area west of Agua Linda ranch.(BLM Land Patents) In times past it had been part of the Sabino Otero ranch, which was one of the oldest in the Santa Cruz Valley. It bordered the Sopori on the south, so the purchase extended the ranch lands deeper into Santa Cruz County and made the Sopori one of the larger ranches in the valley. (Tucson Daily Citizen, Apr 30, 1926) James Converse was more of a real estate dealer: he had not homesteaded in this area but apparently had acquired some range. He went on to buy the Tanque Verde Ranch in 1928 from the Carrillo family, east of Tucson, and operated it as a guest ranch for many years.(Star, Feb 20, 1932; Star, Feb 20, 1957)
North of the Sopori, in the early 20s, Canoa owner L.H. Manning and his son Howell Manning, Sr. had begun buying and leasing State land to the west of La Canoa Ranch. This included land that bordered the Elias’ Sopori on the north. Jesusita Proctor Elias, along with neighbor Robert Catlett, sold out to Manning, contributing to his extensive properties which would eventually extend all the way to the Altar Valley. (Citizen, Feb 11, 1926) Earlier, Catlett had taken a dangerous fall off a stack of hay, and injured himself considerably. (Citizen, May 23, 1921) He had been accumulating properties since 1912 but this event may have led him to sell out to the Mannings and also the Arivaca Ranch, both of which bordered him. (Star, Sept 9, 1926) Catlett passed away in Tucson in 1934 at the age of 66. (Baltimore Sun, Dec 20, 1934.)
Meanwhile, at the Sopori headquarters, the Lees were building an an elaborate water development system to put 1200 acres under cultivation and purchasing purebred Hereford cattle (popular at the time). They incorporated the “Sopori Ranch.” Grace joined the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association. Grace was also completing a large Spanish style home, a showplace of the county, with Mexican builders. (Arizona Daily Star, March 11, 1927; August 7, 1927) In 1929, Grace built a rock shrine on Arivaca road, on a rocky bluff above the ranch buildings. The dedication ceremony was conducted by Msgr Louis Duval of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Nogales with a large number in attendance at the festivities. (Star, May 24, 1929) Because of the view of the mountains to the east, it was dedicated to Santa Rita, the patroness of desperate causes and miners. The shrine quickly became a place of devotion to travelers on the Arivaca road, as it is to this day.* All went well for awhile, then Grace Lee died suddenly in a nighttime car accident on the Nogales highway (Citizen, Jan 19, 1931) when the car in which she was riding sideswiped a car parked on the side of the road. Her son Arthur was apparently driving.
Arthur was learning how to be a rancher and cowboy, but he wasn’t a natural. On March 4, 1930 Arthur was working cattle and was hit in the head by some kind of …bar, rendering him unconscious for an hour. (Citizen, March 5, 1930) Doug Cummings remembered some stories about Arthur and his eccentricities, learned in his patrician home in Virginia, which didn’t set well with the cowboys. One had to do with a stolen lunch, apparently made by his family cook and which bore no resemblance to the usual food carried by cowboys. (Cummings autobiography, Chapter 14.) In a small Catholic ceremony in Tucson, Arthur Lee, Jr. married Carmen O’Neill, who was a Nogales socialite and Deputy County recorder, the daughter of Ralph L. and Dolores Avila O’Neill. (Star, March 21, 1932) Her father was a U.S. Commissioner in Nogales and Carmen was part of the social set.
For several years the Lees lived well on the Sopori, attending many social events in Tucson and Nogales interspersed with hunting trips here and there. Then, in 1937 at the age of 32, Arthur had a fatal accident during a roundup in which his horse fell and rolled on him, and then kicked him in the head as he tried to get up. One story said he frequently rode mean horses while wearing work shoes, not boots, so that when the horse fell his foot didn’t release from the stirrup. A funeral service was held in Tucson but Arthur was buried in West Virginia in the family plot. He left his wife Carmen and two children, Grace Davis Lee and Arthur Lee III. (Star, Nov. 8, 1937) Arthur’s elder brother, Henry, had had something to do with the Sopori, but he had bought a ranch in the Huachuca mountains that kept him far away and uninvolved. Henry’s second wife, Margaret, remembered Carmen as being charming and very gracious, an accomplished hostess and good friend.
When Arthur died, his estate appointed neighboring rancher Gabriel O. Angulo as manager of the Sopori until about 1942. (Accomazzo) Gabe and his father had owned the Santa Lucia Ranch just to the west, but Gabe, Sr. had also died in 1937 and their ranch was sold. In 1941 Carmen sold the Sopori Ranch to Eman L. Beck, a Mexico City Banker who was originally from Indiana. (Star, Feb 16, 1941) She moved to Tucson and remained active in the social life of town, including becoming a charter member of the Mountain Oyster Club when it was first located in the Santa Rita Hotel. (It was started to provide a place for local ranchers to associate without having to dress up). Carmen lived to the age of 83 and passed away 1978 in Phoenix. She is buried in Elkins, WVa next to her husband, Arthur, Jr. (Arizona Republic, Oct 20, 1978)
More about the Sopori next month.
*Note: in previous stories about the Shrine I wrote that Carmen built it in memory of Arthur, but his mother, Grace, was also a Mrs Arthur Lee and I was in error. Grace built the shrine.
“Gabriel Ochoa Angulo,” Betty Accomazzo, ed. Arizona National Pioneer Ranch Histories, Vol VIII, 1986, pp 1-4.
Muhn, James and Hanson R Stuart. Opportunity and challenge: the story of BLM, U.S. Dept of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, 1988.
Borderline Lady by Margaret Linley, Henry Lee’s second wife (he had married first, Polly Titcomb of Nogales.)
Stories of Douglas Cumming, Santa Cruz County rancher. Typescript manuscript.
Bureau of Land Management. https://glorecords.blm.gov/
Arizona Daily Star