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Untold Arizona: When Corn Grew As High As An Elephant’s Eye In Southern Arizona — Not Oklahoma

Arizona’s warm climate, financial incentives and varied geography have long attracted filmmakers to the state.

Millions of people all across the would would recognize Yuma’s sandy dunes as Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet in "Star Wars: A New Hope." The desert landscape near Page acted as an otherworldly backdrop for both the original and 2001 reboot of "Planet of the Apes."

But one small valley in southeastern Arizona is celebrated in a film that’s less apocalyptic and more Americana: the 1955 movie-musical "Oklahoma!"

“I do think people are surprised to learn "Oklahoma!" wasn’t filmed in Oklahoma,” said Marshall Trimble, Arizona's official state historian.

Trimble said location scouts logged 250,000 miles traveling across Oklahoma in the early 1950s to find a suitable location that could pay proper homage to the vastness of pre-statehood Oklahoma circa 1906.

"There's a bright golden haze on the meadow The corn is as high as an elephant's eye And it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky" — Lyrics from "Oh What a Beautiful Morning"

“Everywhere they looked an oil well would pop up, you look over here and airplanes are going over and making a lot of noise,” he said. “They were looking for somewhere with wide open spaces.”

Complicating the search was the studio’s plan to use the new Todd-AO 70mm process, which would provide audiences a sweeping, wide-angle picture.

“It was the '50s, they couldn’t edit the film like that to delete any power lines or buildings in the background,” Trimble said.

Legend has it a scout was thumbing through an Arizona Highways magazine when he saw a photo essay about the San Rafael Valley, a small patch of land about 40 miles east of Nogales.

“You’ve got that lush, green valley in the summer so it was just ideal,” Trimble said.

The studio set-up shop. The cast and crew stayed in Nogales and traveled hours to filming locations in remote areas around Southern Arizona.

“The main actors were in limousines, of course, and on a dirt road that was getting washed out quite regularly during the summer time,” said former Rep. Jim Kolbe with a laugh.

Decades before Kolbe traveled to Washington, D.C., to represent Arizona in the U.S. House, a scene of the movie was filmed on his family’s ranch. He remembers watching flatbed trucks carry stalks of corn past his school window when he was about 12 years old.

“They transported each corn plant in a pot — an entire cornfield! — up to the San Rafael Valley and planted it in May or June,” he remembered.

A 1954 article in the New York Times said the studio planted the corn in Nogales a full year before filming to insure it could grow “as high as an elephant’s eye.”

“It was still not quite as high as an elephant's eye,” Kolbe said with a wink. “But it was growing at least.”

But it’s not just the stunted corn that gives away the true location of Aunt Eller’s farm said Steven Semken, a geology professor at Arizona State University.

“There's too much mountainous topography to convince you that this is Oklahoma,” he said.

“It’s quite flat,” Semken said while while reaching for a topographic map of Oklahoma he had handy in his office. “Contrast that to this relief map of Arizona and you can see most of Arizona is much higher than that.”

Semken said it’s not just geology enthusiasts that notice these discrepancies in movies and TV shows.

“Certainly if I were an Oklahoman and looking at that movie I would say, 'Well, that's not home,” he said then chuckled. “That's not OK.”

There is an urban legend to that very effect.

“Well the citizens of Oklahoma just thought, ‘Wow how can they film a movie called 'Oklahoma!.' about our Oklahoma, in Arizona?" Said historian Trimble.

“The good people of Nogales — and they’re some of the finest people you’ll ever meet — said, ‘You can adopt us until the film is over and we will be Nogales, Oklahoma!” He said.

That fun fact is noticeably absent from any media coverage of the filming. And neither the Oklahoma Historical Society, the Arizona Film Office nor the City of Nogales had any documents that support the story.

But what is supported by fact, and is a theme in "Oklahoma!," is the frustrations felt by immigrants to the Arizona and Oklahoma territories.

“When you're a territorial citizen, you're really a second class citizen,” Trimble said.

"I don't say I'm no better than anybody else, But I'll be damned if I ain't jist as good!” — Lyrics from "The Farmers and The Cowman"

White men, used to full suffrage while living in other states, were shocked by the lack of autonomy when they moved to out West, Trimble said. Territorial citizens weren't able to vote for the President or pick their governor. Any bills passed by the shoestring territorial legislature had to be approved in Washington, D.C.

The Oklahoma Territory was formed in 1890 and became a state 17 years later. Immigrants to the Arizona Territory, on the other hand, lobbied for statehood for almost 50 years — from 1863 to 1912.

“We thought we ought to be a state!” Trimble said.

A lot has changed in Arizona since those frontier days, and since the Golden Age of Hollywood when star Gordon MacRae and then-unknown  Shirley Jonescrooned to one another in a golden valley framed by the purple peaks of the Patagonia and Huachuca mountains.

"The sun is swimmin' on the rim of a hill The moon is takin' a header, And just as I'm thinkin' all the earth is still A lark'll wake up in the meader.” — Lyrics from "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top"

But the San Rafael Valley of 2019 is “just like it was 150, 175 years ago,” said Park Ranger Allan Clemans. Clemans is caretaker of the San Rafael State Natural Area and lives on the remote piece of land with his trusty sidekick, a chunky corgi named Fargo.

The 3,500 acres under Clemans and Fargo’s care is an expansive wash of soft, golden grass broken up only by the occasional cottonwood tree. Large, fluffy clouds hang in the crystal blue sky and the only sound for miles is the wind.

“It’s just a pristine piece of land,” Clemans said while walking past a grand 119-year-old farmhouse built by the Greene family, a historic ranching dynasty.

The house is the tallest structure for miles. The only other proof that humans ever set foot in this valley is a barn, a windmill and a small cowboy house over a hill, which is where Clemans hangs his hat at the end of the day.

“There’s no powerlines, no houses, no roads,” he said while watching Fargo bounce down a small hill to the windmill. “It’s 45 minutes to pavement.”

Dozens of other classics like "Little House on the Prairie," "McLintock!" and "Tom Horn" were filmed in the San Rafael Valley. All romanticizing, but preserving, America’s connection to the settlers who laid the groundwork for the towns, cities and states most Americans live in today.

“We hope to make it the same, you know, never let it change,” said Clemans. “It's not gonna be broken up into pieces. It's not going to be sold.”

The San Rafael State Natural Area isn’t alone. Arizona has 90 federally designated wilderness areas, 31 state parks and a state trust to insures millions of acres will remain wild and free.

"We know we belong to the land And the land we belong to is grand!” — Lyrics from "Oklahoma!"

Claire Caulfield was a reporter and Morning Edition producer from 2015 to 2019.