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The Desert Oasis of Phoenix

Jack Swilling
Jack Swilling, the founder of Phoenix, Arizona (United States Public Domain)

So often we take our vacation spots for granted. As Canadians, we love to head south in the winter to places like Florida, California, and Arizona, where there’s palm trees and warm weather. We all like go to these areas for the sun, the beaches, the golfing, the sightseeing…you name it.

However, the climate of these three US states are quite different from each other. Surrounded by the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico on 3 sides, Florida can be hot and humid. California, at the other end of the continent off the Pacific, is not as warm and not as humid along its coast, but it’s still nice. Inside the southern portion can be a scorcher, though, where Death Valley is located. Arizona has a semi-tropical desert climate, at least in the southern half, with very hot summers, mild winters, and a mere trace of humidity (or humility, as Yogi Berra supposedly once called it).

I vacationed in Arizona for the first time in November, 1999. With son Barrie, I flew down to Phoenix, where we met my older brother, Greg, who has a condo in Scottsdale, right smack in the middle of what is called the Phoenix basin. The “Valley of the Sun.” The 3 of us wild and crazy guys batched it for a week. Sunshine every day, no cloud, with the temps reaching the high 60s F and going down to maybe 40 F at night. Not hot, but comfortable. We saw the Grand Canyon, the red rock of Sedona, the outdoor aircraft museum near Tucson, the OK Corral in Tombstone, and (being Canadians) a Phoenix Coyotes hockey game. In between the sightseeing, we stuffed ourselves with some great food. We also drove a 20-mile portion of the legendary, old Route 66 into Seligman. In other words, we had a ball. On the second or third day, I asked my brother what the summers were like in Phoenix.

“Well…hot.” “Yeah? How hot?” I wanted to know. “At least a hundred degrees, every day,” he answered.

For the rest of the week, I wondered how this metropolitan desert area of a few million was ever settled in the first place with such scorching summers. Air-conditioning had only been a factor since the 1950s. What about before that? When I returned to Ontario, I dug into the history of the Phoenix basin. And I was shocked by my findings.

So what brought people to Phoenix? Would you believe farming. Yes, farming. I could relate to that because both sides of my family have farming roots.

Apparently, the valley was settled by a civilization called the Hohokam tribe for well over a thousand years, starting about 200 BC. Thousands of these people lived and farmed in the valley by creating over 100 miles of sophisticated irrigation canals using the nearby Salt River as their water source. These industrious individuals developed a thriving culture growing beans, barley, and corn, among other crops. Then the climate supposedly changed. Droughts resulted and the Salt River flooded over on too many occasions, leaving the soil useless for farming. Then, without any explanation, the Hohokams disappeared from history without a trace about 1450 AD. No one knows why. One story is they were starved out. Another is they were hit by a mysterious virus.

Centuries later, along came swashbuckling adventurer Jack Swilling, a seasoned Confederate Civil War soldier from Georgia. In 1867, he looked the basin over from one of the high points on the surrounding mountains. (Actually, Phoenix is not surrounded by mountains, per se. More like very high rocks). Swilling had heard the countless stories about the abandoned Hohokam canals, and now he could see for himself that they were still mainly intact.  Swilling’s ship had come in. That same year, he formed the “Swilling Irrigating and Canal Company.” His new company re-dug the canals out and sold off plots of land at $48 each for the sole purpose of farming. By 1868, the Salt River was let loose to quickly fill up the waiting and thirsty canals.

A small community a few miles east of present-day Phoenix quickly sprouted, no pun intended. It was first called Pumpkinville because large pumpkins grew in the fields beside the canals. It was later called Swilling Mill, Helling Mill, Mill City, East Phoenix, then finally Phoenix. Swilling had his own farm in the valley and lived there for a while, a 4,700 square-foot showcase house with 9 rooms, complete with an artificial pond, a vineyard and an orchard of various fruits. Swilling was the town’s first postmaster and justice of the peace before moving to central Arizona, where he died in 1878 at the age of 48.

By 1881, Phoenix had 2,500 residents and continued to grow steadily. Twelve years later, electric street cars were replacing the horse-drawn carriages for transportation. In 1895, the first train came to connect them to the northern half of the state. After that, more steady growth. During World War II, Phoenix became a massive production and distribution center for military supplies. Vacationers and those seeking a healthier and drier climate moved to the valley after the war to bring the population to 100,000 in 1950. With the advent of affordable air-conditioning in cars, homes, and businesses, the people kept right on coming. By the 2010 census, Metro Phoenix population stood at 4.2 million people.

Today, the valley area is still strong into farming. When we were there, we saw orange groves, cotton, beans, and other crops surrounding Phoenix. The state, as a whole, still has a strong agricultural base, a $9.2 billion industry, according to state records. Twenty-six million acres of farmland support 15,600 farms. Arizona grows enough cotton each year to make more than one pair of jeans for every US citizen. They are second in the US in the growing and distribution of cantaloupe and honeydew melons, head and leaf lettuce, spinach, cauliflower and lemons. Yuma, one of the hottest corners of the state, is called the winter lettuce capital of the world. And we can’t forget the beef.  I, for one, strongly believe in the 3 main food groups…chicken, pork, and beef. Each year, one million head of Arizona cattle produces about 385 million pounds of beef for consumption worldwide.

All this in a desert state that we Canadians enjoy as a winter vacation spot. Thanks to farming and the Hohokams, who disappeared before we got a chance to thank them


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