Ninety years ago, Canoa Lake anchored a ranch that covered hundreds of thousands of acres and showcased the most advanced cattle operation in Arizona and possibly the U.S.
Sixty-three years ago, Canoa Lake played host to 19-year-old Shirley Jones, swimming in the buff for a scene in the movie “Oklahoma!” which was filmed in Southern Arizona.
Twenty years ago, Canoa Lake was a dry basin, the surrounding trees dead or dying, the ranch houses to the south dilapidated.
Today, the lake — although smaller and more aptly called a pond — brims with water again, because of a $750,000 Pima County project to restore some of its former grandeur.
The 2ƒ-acre pond shimmers a bright blue green, greeting visitors as they turn off the Interstate 19 frontage road into the historic Canoa Ranch south of Tucson. It’s part of an ongoing restoration project that’s also fixing ranch buildings up to a century old.
Nine feet deep at the south end and 3 feet deep at the north end, the pond is half the acreage of the original lake. It contains no bass or frogs like the old one did. Only patches of mesquite trees and waist-high grasses serve as a natural backdrop.
But over the next few months, the area will become a county park, complete with walking path, picnic tables and ramadas for public use.
Native cottonwoods, willows, ash, elderberry and other trees will be planted. Birds, a fixture at the lake in its heyday, should return in good numbers. It’s hoped the other improvements will be in place by mid-October, said Valerie Samoy, a Pima County Department of Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation spokeswoman.
Leslie Manning Woods-Hulse, who lived at the ranch as a child in the early 1950s, said she’s thrilled that a rare desert lake like this one was restored. A photo from that time shows her and her sister Ann Fiegen as toddlers sitting by the lake, wearing gingham shirts and holding fishing poles.
Their grandfather, Howell Manning Sr., owned the ranch from the 1930s until he died in 1966. He told Woods-Hulse’s mother (his daughter-in-law) Deezie Manning that his last wish was for the ranch, including the lake, to someday be restored to peak conditions, Woods-Hulse said.
Leslie’s father, Howell Manning Jr., was killed in an auto collision with a drunken driver just before Christmas 1951. The family sold the ranch at the end of the 1960s. Deezie died in 2010 after spending years working on preserving and rehabilitating Canoa Ranch.
“I definitely feel my father’s spirit is there and definitely my mother’s, no question,” said Woods-Hulse. “I feel all of this energy being lifted, being put in there, because this is something that needed to be done. It’s for everybody, not just for one person. That’s what makes it so magical.”
“NO FINER SPECIMENS”
Howell Manning Sr. built the lake in 1921, nine years after his father, General Levi Manning, bought what was known as the old Canoa Land Grant.
The ranch ran purebred Arabian stallions and mares and Hereford cattle. Corn, alfalfa, cotton and barley were grown. The Mannings also ran cattle at a much smaller operation to the north known as Scotch Farms, in what’s now Tucson subdivision Midvale Park.
Howell Manning Sr. designed the lake as part of a much larger irrigation system, seeking to adapt to the vagaries of the neighboring Santa Cruz River, which ran only irregularly although far more often than today.
He dug a ravine from the river to draw its shallow groundwater.
“Wells were then sunk at the head of the ravine, pumping plants installed, and a large stream was piped away for the irrigation of 1,200 acres,” the Arizona Daily Star reported in 1927. “The pumps are now idle, but the ravine, now seemingly nature-made, runs as a clear brook to the Canoa, where the water is now collected in a pond arbored by stately cottonwoods.
“Visiting experts, after seeing the herds at the Canoa Ranch and Scotch farms, have declared that there are no better specimens anywhere produced in the United States,” the Star wrote.
Twenty-two years later, Edward Lewis, a Philadelphia-area architect, saw the ranch and lake for the first time during a visit to his sister Deezie Manning, a native of the Scranton, Pa. area who had married Howell Manning Jr. in 1948.
“It was a green oasis,” recalled Lewis, now 88. “You came right out of the desert, and there was this verdant thing and then you drove right into the (ranch) compound.”
He remembers smelling the mesquite wood in the guest house where he stayed, which Howell Manning Sr. built as a wedding gift for his son and daughter-in-law, and which he recalls combined the essence of Spanish adobe and modern architectural styles.
Its living room picture window looked out on the lake, which Lewis says was the core of the ranch operation.
“You can’t raise cattle without water. They had windmills that pumped the water to watering troughs for cattle and they pumped water out of the pond,” he recalled.
In 1951, an American Airlines calendar featured a photo of Howell Manning Jr. on horseback facing the lake, with Deezie standing at his side in a grassy field.
That year, Marco “Tony” Salcido, now 68, moved to Canoa with his family. His father Jesus was one of about 40 people who worked there as a ranch hand, installing and welding fences and cooking until 1965.
Tony Salcido, who worked there too as he grew older, regularly took a canoe — Canoa translated from Spanish into English — onto the lake to catch bass for his dinner. He said he caught and sold bluegill at five cents a fish to a woman who gave them as food to cotton pickers she supervised.
“It was fantastic, the cottonwoods around the ranch, the lake, the willow trees. You cannot imagine having a childhood like that growing up among horses and cattle,” said Salcido, who today does volunteer work for the ranch restoration.
He recalled cottonwoods reaching 40 feet tall, and 20-foot-tall willows whose “branches, limbs and leaves kind of drooped over the water.”
His sister Amanda Castillo, a year younger, recalled the lake as a meeting place, where she and her friends would sometimes hop in a rowboat with a hole that they had to regularly bale water out of. They often dug worms from the ground and sold them to residents and visitors for fishing. Wild ducks flocked to the lake, particularly in wintertime.
“It was the unofficial rest area for people traveling from Tucson to Nogales,” recalled Castillo. “It was a destination point.
“I think when you say Canoa Ranch even now, people my age will say, ‘We remember going to the lake.’”
WATER RIGHTS used
on Sierrita mine
Barbara Nichol, now 64, lived on the ranch from 1953 to 1967 with her parents, Claire and William Schnaufer, who ran much of the operation after Howell Manning Jr.’s death. Claire was Howell Manning Sr.’s stepdaughter.
Nichol, too, remembers the lake as a “kid’s haven” and recalled that her grandfather would let visitors take rowboats attached to piers installed 15 to 20 feet into the lake to catch fish.
Her father and grandfather forbade her from swimming there because they feared she’d get tangled in moss underwater. She swam instead in an irrigation canal running behind the main family ranch house — “and we’d pull leeches off each other,” she said.
Her parents sold the ranch to Duval Mining Corp., a subsidiary of Pennzoil, around 1970. The company used its water rights on its Sierrita Mine west of Green Valley. In 2000, Claire Schnaufer said in an interview that they sold it because they didn’t have the money or energy to run Canoa and Navarro Ranch west of there, which Howell Manning Sr. gave them years earlier. Nichol’s parents died a few years ago.
The pond persisted until at least 1980, when a group of bird-watchers spotted a great kiskadee flycatcher, a bird normally seen only in Texas and Mexico, during a Christmas bird count there.
Author Jim Burns, in his book on Arizona birding, “From the Backyard to the Backwoods,” recalled that the lake was where he first saw the Mexican specialty tropical kingbird.
Rick Taylor, a veteran Tucson bird guide and author, said the lake’s cottonwoods also drew the Western yellow-billed cuckoo, which has since been federally protected as a threatened species, and more common riparian birds such as the gray hawk, yellow-breasted chat and Bell’s vireo.
But the pond dried up in the 1980s, most likely between 1984 and 1990, said Ruth Russell, whose husband Steve Russell is a well-known ornithologist who always stopped at that "very good" birding spot when going south on birding trips. The 1984 edition of 'Birds in Southeastern Arizona," Steve co-authored, recommended that birders in the area take a walk around the pond to check for birds and that ruddy ducks and American coots have nested there. The next edition of the book, in 1990, didn't mention the pond.
"Though hardly worth a special trip, this little lake provides a stopping place for water birds and waders in migration. It is recommended as a stop on the way up or down route I-19," the 1994 book said. "The trees around the pond are an excellent place to look for warblers and other land birds in migration."
Ellen Kurtz, an Amado activist who has worked to preserve the historic ranch since the 1990s, said she was told by former ranch caretaker Jimmy Johnson, since deceased, that the pond was dried because the state’s 1980 groundwater law doesn’t let mines use water from the ranch for irrigation. The law says farmland can’t be irrigated with groundwater if it wasn’t irrigated from 1975 to 1980.
Freeport McMoran Inc., which now owns the Sierrita Mine, can legally pump 22,600 gallons a minute of water using rights from the Canoa purchase, said a 2006 Pima County report. That’s enough to cover the ranch’s remaining 4,800 acres 6 feet deep.
DEER HAVE RETURNED
In the 1990s, the ranch was sold to Fairfield Homes, which unsuccessfully sought a rezoning to build more than 6,000 homes. Pima County bought 4,835 acres of the ranch during the 2000s for $10.6 million, enabling this and other restoration work.
In October 2017, parts of the pond basin were still around, when county work crews started digging, reshaping and lining it with a plastic-based material that will mix with the soil to minimize seepage.
The pond was filled this month, holding 12.5 acre-feet, enough for 56 typical Tucson households for a year. Due to evaporation, it will need refilling each year with 16 to 18 acre feet, enough for up to 82 households.
The next step in the restoration will be for the County Regional Flood Control District to plant 25 acres of native trees, grasses and other plants in the future, east of the ranch along the river.
A native plant nursery will be installed. Rainwater harvesting will supply some of the irrigation water along with a 400-foot-deep well. The county will use the restoration plantings as mitigation for its construction work elsewhere such as roads and bridges. That will help the county meet its legal requirements of getting federal Clean Water Act permits for its project.
The return of birds is a ways off; birders last week saw only two hawks near the pond during a county-sponsored bird walk. But Bob Puttock, who lives west of I-19, said he’s seen 10 to 25 deer at the pond several days in the past week, munching grass and sipping water.
Today, with “way more people” living here and with the Southwest’s native cottonwood stands “decimated” over the past century, there’s more need for the pond and its environs than ever, said bird guide Taylor.
“It will contribute a few more acres to a dwindling resource,” he said.
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