Many of us know of Tohono Chul Park and perhaps have frequented the botanical gardens as a place to enjoy nature, conservation, art, and culture. But the modern park, which became part of the Town of Oro Valley in April 2013 with the Oracle/Ina Annexation, has a very interesting story of origin.
During the 1920's, Northwest Tucson, and more specifically the property between Orange Grove and Ina Rd. was owned by Maurice Reid. Introducing black date palms and citrus groves to the area, the area was eventually subdivided. The future site of Tohono Chul Park was sold to John T. deBlois Wack in 1937 after walking the property with young Gene Reid (future namesake of Tucson’s Reid Park Zoo) for the bargain price of $16,000.00 for 80 acres, or $200.00 per acre.
Eventually building a Santa Fe style house, today's exhibit house, the property exchanged hands several more times until purchased by Colonel Robert Bagnell and his wife Eugenia, whom began the process of wide lawns and rose gardens. Mrs. Bagnell donated a portion of the property to the Catholic Diocese of Tucson to serve as the site for St. Odilia’s Catholic Church, visible today to the north, while their son built "West House,” the current site of the Tohono Chul Garden Bistro and La Fuente Museum Shop.
In the 1960's a portion of the property was sold to Richard and Jean Wilson, the founders of what we would come to know and love as Tohono Chul Park. Thirty-seven acres including the section with the "West House," though they offered it up as a halfway house instead of inhabiting the home themselves, would begin to form the "core" of the Park. They refused to sell it to developers in the 1970's and instead decided to "put down some lime to make a path and marked the names of some of the plants and bushes, but then it started to snowball.” In fact when Pima County condemned a strip along the southern boundary of the property in order to widen Ina Road, Mr. Wilson "demanded that they move every saguaro and replant it on their adjacent property." By 1980 they received a citation from the Tucson Audubon Society for "saving the desert greenspace and opening it to the public."
With the addition of special collection plants and demonstration gardens the park began to take shape. Tohono Chul Park was formally dedicated as a 37-acre desert preserve on April 19, 1985. The Wilsons deeded the property to the non-profit foundation, Tohono Chul Park, Inc., in 1988. With the help of longtime member John Maher, Tohono Chul was able to acquire another 11 acres of property to the north in 1995, establishing a memorial to John’s late wife, Mary.
I would ask that you think of the Wilson's the next time you visit the park and especially the foresight of this couple to preserve and cultivate an oasis of Sonoran desert. Anytime I visit I know how effortless it is to forget I'm in the middle of an urban town. And I think that is exactly it's purpose. Any experiences you'd like to share about time spent at the Park? We'd love to hear from you.
Heather Nenadovich has lived in Oro Valley for 6 years. She has a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Arizona. She loves gardening, nature, art, and travel. Currently her two young children fill up most of her days (and nights) with chaotic bliss. Oro Valley favorites: memorial bench at the entrance of Romero Canyon Trail in Catalina State Park, Toscana Studio and Gallery, OV Fall Festival, the gumption and determination of OV residents!