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Q&AZ: What is the oldest Arizona ranch that is still operating?

Through KJZZ’s Q&AZ reporting project, a listener asked: “What is the oldest Arizona ranch that is still operating?” Sierra Bonita Ranch in Willcox was the first permanent American cattle ranch in the state, and it’s still going.

About 200 miles, or a three-hour drive, southeast of Phoenix lies the city of Willcox. Another 30 minute drive north on more rural roads, some of which are just dirt, will take you to Sierra Bonita Ranch, where the sounds of the city are replaced by birds chirping and a breeze whistling through the trees.

Jesse Hooker Davis runs the now 60,000 acre property, which was about three or four times that size when it was founded by his great-great-great grandfather, Henry Clay Hooker, in 1872.

“He was always a beef man,” Jesse said. “One day he was driving cattle through here and they stampeded and he decided this looked like a good place to call home.”

Jesse pays the bills by raising about 600 cattle on the same plot of land today.

“We have beef cattle and predominantly our herd is, as a base herd of Hereford cattle, but we also have incorporated Red Angus and Black Angus bulls for cross breeding. It’s called heterosis so we also have Red Baldies and Black Baldies as well,” Jesse said.

While some things have changed since 1872, many of the structures are still original, made out of adobe and wood framing. The main house was deemed a historic landmark by the National Park Service in 1964, and some cowboy traditions live on, as well.

“We use four-wheelers and trucks and stuff, but that’s more for chores and checking water, but as far as gathering cattle, it’s all done horseback, the way it’s always been done in the past,” Jesse said.

That’s because vehicles leave tracks, damaging the land and the grass in their wake. It’s not just the horses that help out on the ranch either. Every creature plays a role — from the piglets to the chickens, dogs and even cats.

“Being as how old the ranch is, you definitely need some help with fighting the mice and snakes as well,” Jesse said.

With all those animals, Jesse has his hands full, and no two days look alike.

“When you’re talking about taking care of the health and wellness of the land and the animals, your best-laid plans generally don’t always come true when you’re making your list at the coffee table in the morning,” he said.

Running a ranch requires him to know a little bit about everything.

“You’re an ecologist and you are a botanist and you are a veterinarian all at the same time, as well as, when you have your own houses, you are a plumber, electrician, and a roofer and everything else in between.”

After all, rearing a calf is only a small part of his job. He also has to make sure his operation isn’t doing ill-will to the land and that it can be sustained for years to come.

“There are certain people who do what I call burn and turn ranches where they buy a ranch and overstock it and then just sell out and move,” Jesse said. “But my family has been here a long time so I understand the capacity and what kind of numbers this land will hold and withstand and be able to flourish.”

In fact, Sierra Bonita was awarded a state honor from the Arizona Association of Natural Resource Conservation Districts. The Conservation Ranch of the Year award is given out to people who find ways to optimize their natural resources so that wildlife can thrive. For instance, Jesse drilled a well and was able to put in about 16 miles of underground pipeline, serving new ground where wildlife wouldn’t be otherwise.

“So their lives have spread out and so they flourish more and we’re able to use different country, certainly in the summertime, when there’s no groundwater running through rocks and such,” he said.

Of course, Jesse’s not doing it alone. He has several workers and two other families living on the property as well, which means the Hooker family isn’t the only one with fond memories of growing up on the ranch.

Bill Whelan runs a ranch of his own in California now, but in the 1950s, he was running around Sierra Bonita with his cousins, while his uncle Charlie worked there.

“After Uncle Charlie would milk the cows, and he’d go back to the barn, we’d go get in the pen with them calves and ride 'em like we was riding bulls, so we had big fun there for a long time,” Whelan said.

Whelan remembers Jesse’s grandmother, Jacqueline “Rinki” Elizabeth Hooker Hughes. She passed away about 15 years ago, which is when Jesse took full control over Sierra Bonita.

He runs it, for the most part, the same way it was 152 years ago.

“I’m proud of that," Jesse said. “It’s not that common for a company to stick around that long. I guess we could call it a company, but it’s more of a lifestyle.”

While there are definitely trying times, he still finds that lifestyle extremely gratifying.

“There’s something about having fresh air and clean, crisp water, no traffic, hearing all the birds chirping in the spring time and living amongst nature is a true privilege. It really is,” Jesse said.

He plans for it to continue as a cattle ranch for decades more to come.

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Senior field correspondent Bridget Dowd has a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.