“Casa Grande is right off the highway,” I said.
“There are Native American ruins in Casa Grande,” I said.
“It’ll be an easy, convenient stop between Phoenix and Tucson,” I said.
Thirty minutes after we get off the highway, we’re driving through the middle of nowhere when Mr. History Tourists turns to me and says, “Right off the highway?”
Turns out that the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument isn’t right off the highway. It isn’t even in the town of Casa Grande, which is right off the highway. It’s in Coolidge, which is in the middle of nowhere.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument preserves a farming community that was home to an ancient Sonoran Desert people now called the Hohokam. There are the foundations of large village compounds, irrigation canals and a large building (under cover, above) that 17th century Spanish missionary Eusebio Kino named Casa Grande, or Great House. No one knows what the circa 1300 Great House was for, just that it was probably the largest and most important building for miles.
How do they know that it was important? Well,for one thing, the building was a giant public calendar of sorts, incorporating the cycles of the sun and moon into its architecture. See the little windows in the upper corners in the west facade of the Great House, above? The one on the left aligns with the setting sun on the Summer Solstice (June 21) and the one on the right aligns with the setting moon every 18.5 years. Other windows and doors also align with the sun and moon at significant times. It’s a Hohokam Stonehenge.
Casa Grande and the village it anchored were stops along a major trade route. Archaeologists have found sea shells from the Pacific Coast and copper bells from Mexico. In return, the Hohokam traded surplus crops, jewelry and pottery.
The Hohokam started disappearing about 1450. “Speculations as to the cause,” says the National Park Service website, “have included drought, floods, disease, invasion, earthquakes, internal strife, and salinization of farmland.” That pretty much covers everything but alien abduction. By the time Father Kino came along in 1694 and named its last standing structure Casa Grande, the village was in ruins.
In the late 19th century, Americans started moving west in droves and vandals and tourists started plundering the site. Mary Hemenway, a philanthropist from Boston, is credited for having the most to do with saving the Casa Grande ruins. She financed the Hemenway Southwestern Archaeological Expedition of 1887/88, the first scientific archaeological expedition undertaken of the American west. And when the expedition visited Casa Grande and reported back that the ruins had been extensively vandalized, Mrs. Hemenway spearheaded an effort to repair and protect the ruins. In 1892, the Casa Grande Ruins became the first prehistoric and cultural reserve protected by the US federal government.
Her motives were not completely altruistic, however. Her intent in sending out the expedition was to collect objects for a museum of Native American artifacts that she planned to build in Salem, Massachusetts. That museum was never built, but she did take objects that she eventually donated to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
There’s a small museum on site that tells the story of the Hohokam, and displays artifacts more recently found on the site. They think that the ceramic figure above is a deer, meant to be a children’s toy.
The Casa Grande ruins were worth the slight detour (yes, slight detour) off the main roads. The site and the museum are tiny and probably won’t take you more than an hour total to visit, unless you decide to participate in one of their programs or listen to a lecture. I knew almost nothing about the Hohokam and the museum at the Casa Grande monument did a very good job of giving me a solid overview.