Archaeologist Allen Dart meticulously brushed away the Santa Cruz River silt and to his surprise, uncovered the head of a claw hammer lying next to what was once the doorway of the bunkhouse and tack room of the historic Bojorquez-Aguirre Ranch in Marana.
It was another clue, a fragment of tangible history providing a glimpse of what life was like on the isolated ranches of Arizona Territory during the late 19th century. The foundation to the ranch buildings, and the artifacts being unearthed there, are slated to become part of the archaeology park the town of Marana is planning for the now vacant land located near Silverbell and Cortaro roads.
But as the squad of 10 archaeologists and volunteers wielded picks and shovels and hypothesized over their finds last week, a bit of the ranch's living history was quietly going about his business 60 miles to the north in Casa Grande.
"Hell, yes, I remember that ranch in Marana. When I was a kid we probably stopped by there about once a week. It was about the only thing out there back then," said 92-year-old Ijinio "Gene" Aguirre, whose great uncle Fileberto Aguirre filed for a homestead on the property in 1896.
"I've been wanting to go by there and see if the house was still in existence."
Where traffic from the densely-packed Continental Ranch subdivision now clogs Silverbell Road, Aguirre recalls riding in a Hudson automobile as a child with his father Hijinio Aguirre, bumping over the ruts of the dirt road that was the old Silverbell highway not too long after the turn of the last century.
The Aguirres often commuted on Silverbell as they trekked between their home at Fourth Avenue and Fifth Street in Tucson and the family's massive cattle ranching operation in Red Rock, about 20 miles north of Fileberto's homestead, Aguirre said.
"Just about every Saturday we would head out to the ranch, taking vaqueros with us when there was extra work to be done," Aguirre said.
His great uncle's ranch in Marana, which the town hopes to have included on the federal register of historic places, often proved a convenient way station for the family as they crossed the more than 45 miles of desert between Tucson and the Aguirre Cattle Company headquarters in Red Rock.
"It was there the first time I ever saw my uncle and father in an automobile together, probably it would have been back in the 'teens. One of my earliest memory's of the place was that my father had a car, a big Hudson Super Six, and we got a flat tire and he stopped to change it there. My father got angry at one of my my uncles because he was having a lot of trouble changing the tire and my uncle was sleeping on the running board instead of helping him," Aguirre recalled.
As the archeologists were toiling away last week, a volunteer unearthed part of a wheel assembly from an old automobile. It was set aside with the porcelain wash basin, a piece of iron plow share and other artifacts dug from the bunkhouse that day.
The Old Pueblo Archeology Center, a Tucson-based non-profit firm that offers archeological services and educational programs, has contracted with Marana to excavate the site. Initial research on the ranch and test digs began in 1999.
They've been able to trace the ranch to Juan Bojorquez, a Tucson grocer who owned the ranch from the 1870's to 1895.
Records of the Bojorquez period are a little sketchy, the Old Pueblo researchers have found. The 1870 federal census indicates Bojorquez and his wife and three children resided in Tucson, but ran about 200 head of cattle on the Marana spread.
"I only recall my father or his uncle speaking of Don Juan Bojorquez only once in a while," Aguirre said, emphasizing the formalized Spanish title of "Don," which indicates a man worthy of respect. "They said he had quite a few head of cattle and was very successful."
Fileberto Aguirre applied for homestead on the property in 1896, and had acquired clear ownership of the property by 1900, the researchers found. By 1946, the property had been abandoned and the buildings had crumbled to the foundations.
Dart, Old Pueblo's executive director, said work will continue over the next five years on the Aguirre-Bojorquez Ranch and an adjacent Hohokam Indian village that is believed to date back to about A.D. 750.
Preliminary plans for Marana's district park, which is expected to open in about two years, call for preserving both sites and constructing trails that will add to the interpretive nature of the sites.
What's left of the ranch consists mostly of the raised stone foundations of a the main house, the bunk house/tack room, a water well, and a 23-foot by 23-foot stone cistern that was used for irrigation and water storage.
The majority of the most valuable objects have been recovered from the site, and Marana Police have increased there patrols of the area to protect it from relic hunters, said MPD spokesman Bill Derfus.
Ijinio Aguirre's memories could serve to flesh out the skeleton of the once thriving cattle ranch and farm.
"It was a modern house for the time, made of red brick with a modern roof. It didn't have the flat roof of the older houses. There was a screen porch on the front, painted green. I remember the house was raised up about three or four feet, because it was pretty close to the river," Aguirre said.
The archeologists have yet to interview Aguirre, but hope to do so soon. His memories seem to be on the mark.
"We did find just a little bit of manufactured brick out here," said Jeffrey Jones, Old Pueblo's project director. "The fact that we've found so little of it could mean that the the brick was carried away for salvage after the house was abandoned."
Aguirre's recollection that the porch was on the front of the house and the massive cistern was to the rear have already helped give the researchers a better idea of the main house's orientation - facing west, toward the Tucson mountains and the old Silverbell highway, and away from the river and the agricultural fields that spread from the 40-acre site.
The archaeologists have also uncovered the foundations to the pillars of the green porch Aguirre remembers.
Aguirre is a historian of note, having privately published two books researching his family's history in Arizona, New Mexico, Mexico and Spain.
He also has a collection of family memorabilia that includes photographs of his great uncle Fileberto, and possibly sketches of the cattle brands used on the ranch that could prove invaluable to the interpretive park Marana is developing.
Aguirre's great grandfather, Pedro Aguirre, was an early Tucson pioneer and the patron of a ranching, mining and freighting empire that stretched throughout Arizona-Mew Mexico Territory and Northern Mexico.
Pedro Aguirre arrived in Arizona-New Mexico Territory from Chihuahua, Mexico in 1852. Aguirre and his four sons soon built a lucrative freighting operation along the Santa Fe Trail.
The oldest son, Epifanio died in an Apache raid in 1870. Sons Pedro and Conrado would continue in the family business and hold important political positions in Tucson and Pima County governments in the late 1800s.
The youngest son, Yjinio -- Ijinio's grandfather -- would found the cattle dynasty that sprawled from Avra Valley to the slopes of the Catalina Mountains, according to a family history on file with the Arizona Historical Society.
"I asked my father one time how much cattle the old man ran. He said '8,000.' A few days later I asked my uncle and he said '10,000.' So I guess it was somewhere in between," Ijinio said.
The family would also play an important role in the development of the Silver Bell copper mine west of Marana.
The mine began operation in 1860, and within a few years, the Aguirre mule teams began hauling ore to a nearby railroad spur that ran to the Sasco smelter in Red Rock.
Sadly, few members of the Aguirre family remain in Southern Arizona, and the land and cattle dynasty has virtually vanished.
Ijinio's niece, Mary Aguirre, still lives in Red Rock, but the ranch originally known as El Rancho de San Francisco and the Aguirre Cattle Co. are no longer in family hands.
"The lawyers got it and then the developers after a probate fight when my father died," said Mary Aguirre. "It was a very sad day for the family."
Ijinio Aguirre said he was pleased the town of Marana was going to protect and preserve his great uncle's ranch.
"It's a good thing that they remember. My family were important people in this region and they helped build up the territory. Very few people seem to care anymore," Aguirre said.