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Casa Grande

The “Big House” with a bigger house over it.
The Big House Casa Grande ruins and the very nicely designed roof.

The Southwest is peppered with striking Native-American history. There are archaeological sites everywhere that tell the story of thousands of years of habitation. Part of it is that we took longer to settle the west and by the time we got around to it we were a little more interested in saving our heritage. Additionally the weather is more favorable down there to keep things in some semblance of their original condition. There were huge native cites in the Midwest that basically melted from rain since they were made of dirt rather than stone. And many of them were just shoveled away by early American farmers.

Casa Grande is a Hohokam settlement that, ironically, is not in the town of Casa Grande AZ, it’s just north in Coolidge AZ. Unlike a lot of places like this that are deep in a National Forest or Park, Casa Grande is basically in town, you can see it from the Safeway parking lot.

One of the things that made the Hohokam special is that they were an agricultural society, and as you can imagine growing crops in the arizona desert is not exactly a simple proposition. They developed an intricate network of canals, similar to what was used in ancient Egypt, to manage crops of corn, tobacco, cotton and beans. This gave them an early need to store their harvest as well as experience with the basic engineering necessary to build structures.

The Ruins Casa Grande National Monument.

The Casa Grande site was occupied for a long period of time starting probably in about 700AD until abandoned sometime around 1400AD corresponding with the collapse of Hohokam society. Amazingly though for being made essentially of dirt, it held up pretty well. When Father Eusubio Kino, the Jesuit Missionary that was the first European to visit the area, arrived in 1694 he used the ruins of the great house to hold mass.

After nearly 500 years of abandonment and vandalism (the 19th century graffiti is still scratched in the walls), Casa Grande was set up as the nations first archaeological reserve in 1892. In the 1930s Frederic Law Olmstead Jr. was commissioned to create a shelter to protect the ruins from further deterioration. Because it was the 30s and he was apparently good at his job, he went all out and created a utilitarian structure that is almost as striking as the thing is is protecting.

You can walk right up to the structure and see into most of it, though for preservation’s sake you can’t go inside. While we were there, a guy had a cat on a leash named “Chip” that was lazily wandering around. It’s a pretty calm atmosphere from a custodial standpoint. The 4 story great house is really just part of the settlement though, as you wander around you can see the remains of the walls that protected the rest of the area. It’s not a huge park, really you can take it all in over the course of an hour or so. They give interpretive tours with rangers that fill in a lot of the history, and there is a museum inside that has illustrations of what it might have once looked like.

This place underscores why the National Parks Pass is such a great value. Aside from getting into all of the big parks for free you can also get into any place managed by the park service, which covers a lot of territory. While a visit here is pretty brief, we didn’t think twice about it since it was free for us.