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A.O. Kime Articles:

AGRICULTURE
Betrayal
Biocontrols
Bio-oddity #1
Bio-oddity #2
CECA
DDT ban
Family farms
Farm facts
Farm socialism
Kansas Settlement
Kime ordeal
Mission creep
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Gift of life
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Melissos
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Mnemosyne
Muse
Plotinus
Polytheism
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Suicide
Superhumanness
Time (nature of)
Two Septembers
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SOCIOPOLITICAL
19th century
Arrogance
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Kansas Settlement, Arizona... a farming community

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An account by A.O. Kime, former Kansas Settlement farmer (1973-1998)

The Kansas Settlement is an Arizona farming community with a rich history, steeped in financial dramas and teeming with interesting stories and characters. It is situated within the Sulphur Springs Valley… an almost legendary place of boom and bust, a land where fortunes can quickly be made but quicker lost. It was (and is) the place of dreams - of successes and fond memories - but also the place of countless financial disasters and ruination for reasons somewhat perplexing, somewhat veiled.

The Sulphur Springs Valley is in southeastern Arizona (Cochise County) and the ‘Kansas Settlement’ - a seemingly outdated description for an Arizona locale - is the given name for a large productive farming area in its center. The northern edge of the Kansas Settlement is about 10 miles south of the town of Willcox. To an Arizona native like myself, even though the Kansas Settlement bears the name of another state, it makes no difference... it is etched into the history of Arizona and will forever be endearing.

At the end of World War II, there were only 8,260 acres under irrigation in the entire Sulphur Springs Valley, but in 1949 it had increased to 25,297 acres and by 1956 some 60,000 acres were being farmed. Almost half of this acreage, or 25,810 acres, was in the Kansas Settlement, once a rather sleepy farming community of small scattered farms. The entire area, but especially the Kansas Settlement, was fast becoming known for its capacity to grow a wide range of high-quality crops which included cotton, milo (grain sorghum), field corn, wheat, barley, alfalfa and a variety of vegetables. Notably, in the 1940s, chili peppers and safflower were the major cash crops.

The Sulphur Springs Valley contains several farming areas which are distinctly separate generally but some adjoin in places. The farms immediately south of the Kansas Settlement are considered the Sunizona farming area and further south are the farms around the town of Elfrida. There are also some isolated farms around the small town of Cochise. The two farming areas north of Willcox are called the ‘Stewart District’ and ‘Bonita’… the latter being the name of a tiny settlement nearby, practically the entrance to Fort Grant. Including all the farms in the Sulphur Springs Valley, the land under cultivation continued to expand until it peaked at 175,000 acres in 1978 of which the Kansas Settlement had the largest share.

In the early part of the 20th century - or around 1906 - farmers began moving into the valley and started developing it into cultivatable farmland. Many, if not the majority, of those settling immediately south of Willcox came from Kansas… thus how this farming area derived its name. During the 1950s, it began to expand rapidly and milo was the biggest and most successful crop for which the Kansas Settlement first became renowned… by world standards, yields were often record breaking. Also in the 1950s, cotton was becoming a major crop and it too, at first, showed great promise. Yields were outstanding at first... especially during the 1950s-60s. It remains a mystery as to why cotton yields declined to being merely mediocre by the mid-70s although perhaps due in part to the fact DDT (insecticide) was banned in 1972.

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Lettuce... from the big boom to the 40 year fizzle

In 1957, large produce companies, many from California, began growing lettuce in the Kansas Settlement and from then on… things changed drastically. By 1960, it had become a big enterprising business employing thousands of which most all were exceptionally well-paid. Giant cooling facilities, ice-houses and the accompanying railroad sidings and shipping docks were thus constructed in Willcox to accommodate the huge amounts of lettuce being harvested. Lettuce acreage peaked somewhere between 7.500-10,000 acres in 1962 then gradually began to decline… due to the rigors of unpredictable weather mainly. Although capable of producing some of the finest quality lettuce anywhere in the country - and often the case - high winds and untimely rains began to dampen the entrepreneurial spirits of all but the hardy. By the 1970s lettuce acreage was a shadow of its previous self averaging only about 2,000-4,000 acres annually. Lettuce acreage continued to decline and by the year 2000, only a few lettuce fields existed.

This decrease was not entirely due to weather however, but to new varieties of lettuce. Since these new varieties offered various maturing dates (days to harvest), the California produce companies no longer needed the ‘time slot’ Willcox once provided. Energy costs were also a factor.

Skyrocketing energy costs

Overall, the Kansas settlement was a healthy and vibrant farming community up until the early 1980s when, economically, things began to drastically change once again. Energy costs, a major budget item for irrigated farmland - or about one-third of the growing costs - began to skyrocket. From 1973 to 1983, electricity costs rose 500% and natural gas went up 1100% (see CECA). Primarily due to this, the overall acreage being farmed began a steep decline. Through the 1980s and 90s, many family farmers quit or went broke and at the bottom of this abyss, at the most desperate point, there was only a handful left… about a dozen. Those still actively farming in the Kansas Settlement were James (Bunky) Adcock, Charlie Aigaki, Gus Arzburger Jr., Buckner & Kidd, Daniel Dunagan, E.V. (Eddy) Hart, Jack Robison, A.O. (Allen) Kime, Earl Moser, Floyd Robbs, Hollis Roberts, Victor Shotton and Donald Thompson.

Of the 175,000 acres under cultivation in the Sulphur Springs Valley in 1978, by 1983 only 40,000 remained, and by the mid 1990’s it further shrank to about 30,000 acres. It was the Dark Ages revisited - a time of mere survival - but in 1997 another change began to take place… irrigation methods. As a result, field corn was making a huge comeback.

Center pivot sprinklers and corn

While center-pivot sprinklers had been tried locally in the past, but with poor and/or disastrous results, the locals didn’t want any more to do with sprinklers. New innovations therefore were largely ignored… except these innovations did not go unnoticed by the younger generation, those who were never bitten by this dog. While pivot sprinklers were now proving their worth, it was too late for most of the locals; many of the long-time farmers had already given up or went broke. Most of the rest were too strapped to consider such an investment. It was new blood now… and the relatively new farmers from the Midwest were making their presence known in a very big way.

While to stray from local customary farming practices usually spells disaster, this was not the case with these young Midwesterners. Not only were their center pivot sprinklers out-yielding row irrigated corn, but were doing it using two-thirds less water. Of these couple of farmers, Monte Kennedy had established that 13,000 pounds of corn per acre was not to be considered uncommon anymore. This would be about 230 bushels, although ‘bushels’ is not in the vocabulary of Arizona farmers. Aside from their astounding successes in yields, to the further amazement of the locals was their boldness… they were acquiring land left and right and installing pivots as fast as could be erected. While ‘bushel’ might have been in their vocabulary before arriving in Arizona, apparently ‘caution’ and ‘patience’ never were.

Following suit but in a more conservative fashion, a few local farmers - those who financially could - began farming with pivot sprinklers with almost equal results. With energy costs so high, this may prove to be the salvation for the Kansas Settlement. Something, finally, might last. The more recent tree-crops of pecans, apples, pistachios and hot-house tomatoes are also helping stabilize the economy of the Sulphur Springs Valley.

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History, character and mystery

Such innovations are not new to the area however… in the fall of 1904 on the John May ranch about eight miles southwest of Willcox, solar power was first utilized for pumping water. Former Boston resident Aubrey Eneas, who in 1903 moved his company The Solar Motor Company to Los Angeles, in the early part of 1904 sold his first complete system to Dr. A.J. Chandler in Mesa, Arizona for $2,160 but it was destroyed by high winds in less than a week. Then in the spring of 1904, another was constructed in Tempe. In the fall of 1904, Mr. Eneas sold his third complete system to John May (of Willcox) for $2,500. Assuming it was the same size as the first system, the reflector spanned 33 feet in diameter and contained 1,788 individual mirrors. It was later moved to the Esperanza Ranch where it was used to irrigate beans but sometime soon afterwards a hail storm shattered every single mirror. Pieces of these mirrors can still be found lying about. While once fully operational and highly successful, strangely it was never restored.

To further describe the Kansas Settlement, born of simplistic desires, of meagerness yet culturally and spiritually wealthy, overshadowed initially by the headline-grabbing glory days of cattle ranching, mining and territorial lawlessness, it can now present itself as the land of the fully automated center-pivot sprinkler… except so much of its essence lies in-between.

Much of this essence is comprised of the valley's rich history. It is in the dead center of Arizona’s legendary past, of barroom brawls, famous gunfights and crooked lawmen. From the air, the old Butterfield Stage route can still be seen and surrounding the valley are the huge cattle ranches which once gave Willcox the title 'Cattle Capital of the Nation’. The mountains surrounding the Kansas Settlement, bearing gold, silver and tungsten, also have an interesting history... one of mining. These mining operations, more noted for financial intrigue than ore, more noted for bust than boom, is the stuff of legends. Huge fortunes were continually lost.

As for the farms, I once asked a retired USDA official if he thought a 5% success rate for farmers in Cochise County was a fair assessment, he immediately responded “less than that”. As if using the same revolving door as several hundred farmers once did, many ranchers and miners came and went just as fast. Perhaps being a place to ‘go busted’ is just part of its mysterious nature. One cannot overlook the institutional treachery on the part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the damage done by the utility companies however.

Going busted at such a high rate shouldn't be taken as a poor reflection on the valley's prospects however, the valley just had far more than its share of gutsy risk-taking entrepreneurs. Whether they were miners, ranchers or farmers… thousands seemed willing to risk everything in the Sulphur Springs Valley, as if lured to do so by a host of mythical sirens. It would take a directory the size of a phone book to name them all. They came from every quarter and many were highly educated. They came from places like Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Three German counts, of European royalty, had vested interests in the mining.

Was this a calling of the entrepreneurial spirit? After all, the draw of such a large number of gamblers, speculators and adventurers can't otherwise be rationally explained. Perhaps people can sense something grand is in store for the Sulphur Springs Valley… as it does seem inevitable. Many dared to venture too far though, as caution was continually thrown to the wind. In many cases, entire fortunes were bet on a single roll of the dice.

The Old West and Willcox... the Culture Capital of Arizona

Perhaps there is a rational explanation. Since it is well documented the Old West beckoned every type of entrepreneur during the 1800s, and if this held true to the very end, then perhaps the American entrepreneurial spirit had just concentrated itself on the last remaining portion… the Sulphur Springs Valley. It was the last part of the Old West to be civilized. Although Willcox briefly had electricity between 1899-1902, it wasn't until 1926 that it was reintroduced. The extreme southwestern part of the state didn't have it until the 1980s. Willcox didn’t pave their streets until the 1960s.

But hold on... electricity in Willcox in 1899-1902? Solar powered irrigation in 1904? In some respects, the valley was already decades ahead. While Willcox wasn't the first in Arizona to have electricity since Tucson had it 17 years earlier (1882), Willcox was likely one of the first in Cochise County, albeit for only three years. I could not find any information on which town in Cochise County was first however. Still, it was a remarkable undertaking for such a small town at the time. As for the solar system, while Aubrey Eneas began his solar motor experimentation in 1892, the first year it was marketed was in 1904. Solar powered irrigation was a totally new concept. While John May of Willcox bought the third one ever made, he also bought the last one. Unable to financially continue due to only three sales, The Solar Motor Company folded shortly thereafter.

There were other curiosities. While Willcox often looked like a dusty old cattle town, of little import, the surrounding farms looking no different than any other western farm - largely unchanged in appearance over the years - nonetheless there was something grand happening behind these deceptive mundane scenes. It was a 'force' or 'presence' of some kind, and somehow related to the energy, drive and expectations of some socially astute and very brilliant people. The strange part was... there was an unusually large number of such individuals. Why? Even the Willcox shopkeepers seemed ahead of their time... men such as Harry Parks. Their aim, apparently, was to settle the last of the Old West and they did so with exceptional style… by culturally jumping ahead of every other Arizona neighborhood. Despite some remaining western-style rowdiness, despite the tumbleweeds and blowing dust, the local Willcox elks club, a somewhat upscale place for social gatherings, meetings and dances, has for decades outclassed all other social clubs in Arizona, including those in the metropolitan areas. Before that, it was the Willcox Woman Club... although everywhere exception folks congregated. The cafes and taverns were commonly frequented by millionaire businessmen, big ranchers, big farmers, powerful politicians and occasionally some western movie stars (not just Rex Allen). The Sulphur Springs Valley also had more pretty women per capita than anyplace else in Arizona... although only one handsome man.

Politically, economically and within academia, from the beginning until the mid-1980s, the Willcox area once contributed to Arizona enormously… largely due to this elevated social atmosphere. Willcox was once home to several very powerful legislative leaders, a university president, celebrities, intellectuals and an array of other successful people. So what happened? Institutional treachery, that's what. The valley was devastated by the farm policies of the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Also responsible for the decline was the self-serving atmosphere of the Sulphur Springs Electric Cooperative (SSVEC). It was they who created this ruinous 23 year-old economic depression which the valley has not yet fully recovered. I've written two articles about this in Family Farmers of America and An Arizona Family Farmer. However, enough valley magic still exists, I think, to recreate the glory days once again.

Yet, it might already be happening. While institutional treachery may never go away, or self-serving utility companies, different crops, more efficient irrigation systems and new types of businesses seem to have begun offsetting this. Football players might call it 'the end around', sergeants a 'flanking maneuver'.

I can’t end this without mentioning E.V. (Eddy) Hart once again, one of the few Kansas Settlement farmers never beaten. He passed away in 2004 and will be missed. Of all people, he legitimately should be considered “Mr. Kansas Settlement”. He began farming in the Kansas Settlement in the mid 1950s and hung-on - however tenuously - to the very end. He was also an unforgettable character. He often referred to his fellow farmers as his ‘contemporaries’, continually exalted ‘creative financing’ (as if our only salvation), frequently quoted literary legends and liked to mimic W.C. Fields.

A.O. Kime

Sources:

  1. The book Southwestern Town, the Story of Willcox, Arizona by Vernon B. Schultz (centennial edition)\
  2. Documentation from the Cochise Energy Consumer Association
  3. The personal observations and records of A.O. Kime, a family farmer for 25 years in the Kansas Settlement (1973-1998)
  4. History of solar energy (solarenergy.com no longer has this information on their website)

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Last modified: 10/25/13