While the ancient Hohokam settled into villages across the Salt River Valley, it was a temple mound in present-day Mesa that they chose as one of their most important cultural centers.
Generations of modern settlers recognized the value of the ruins and preserved the site, but an imposing wall has kept the public from learning the marvels surrounding the Mesa Grande platform and its builders.
But the centuries-old story behind the ruins will finally emerge this fall, when a visitors center debuts and establishes the first regular access.
It will be a milestone that’s generations in the making.
The community determined to make Mesa Grande the first historical preservation effort decades ago, and a downtown Mesa parade was held in 1927 to rally support. Mesa had once planned for a grand museum, but will instead open a 1,200-square foot center that ensures visitors focus on the ruins.
The 6-acre site will have only a few small signs and will use tour guides to explain the history of the mound and the people who built it, said Jerry Howard, anthropology curator at the Arizona Museum of Natural History.
“We’re going to be driven more by smart phones, by the audio tour,” he said. “We’re also keeping the place very undeveloped so people get the feeling of exploring something that’s pretty much untouched, which it mostly is.”
The Hohokam’s only other large mound to survive in the Valley is Pueblo Grande in Phoenix, which is far more developed and includes a museum. Perhaps the best-known Hohokam mound is Casa Grande, which is covered by a ramada and has adjacent structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as far back as the 1930s.
Mesa Grande was constructed from about 1100 and 1400 A.D., at the headwaters of canals that stretched southward. The Hohokam’s total system irrigated 110,000 acres in the Valley and was the most sophisticated prehistoric canal network in North America.
The ruins are tucked into a neighborhood near Brown Road and Country Club Drive.
Howard said many people are unaware of the ruins. Mesa has only opened the site to the public one day a year recently, drawing several hundred visitors. Howard said curious groups will walk through an open gate when archeologists are working, but that probably fewer than 10,000 people have ever been to Mesa Grande.
When the $250,000 center opens this year, Mesa expects to operate it from Oct. 1 to May 15. The expected hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.
Mesa doesn’t have estimates for how many visitors are expected. The small center is part of a plan to keep the ruins from being overrun.
“We’re focusing on more of a high quality experience and keeping things down to a dull roar, which would be good for the preservation of the mound,” Howard said.
The Hohokam lived in the Valley from about 1 A.D. to 1450 A.D. About 40 small mounds were once scattered across the Valley, but development destroyed most of them.
That leaves Mesa Grande as one of the last places to show how the Hohokam created an irrigation network that pioneers began to reuse in the late 1800s. Mesa’s first inhabitants realized the partially filled canals for what they were and began excavating them to start the Valley’s modern agricultural industry.
Howard said the Mormon pioneers were able to operate the system within months. Had the Hohokam not performed the hard work hundreds of years earlier, the pioneers would have needed years by starting from scratch.
The canals did more than water Hohokam corn, squash and beans. The network took silt and nutrients from the Salt River and distributed the enriching material across the Valley.
“They basically turned the desert soils into some of the best agricultural soils in the world,” Howard said.
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