At the age of 93, Sam Lewis still gets emotional about his grandparents’ former property in west Mesa — the one he and his family knew as home in the 1920s, long after the ancient Hohokam lived there.
When he was a boy, Lewis, the grandson of Elmer and Anna Rebecca Lewis, lived in the 1000 block of Date Street near Brown Road and 10th Street — on the Mesa Grande Ruins property — and liked running “up the hill” next to their house.
“I grew up on that hill,” Lewis said Tuesday as he pointed to the 27-foot high mound after the long-awaited groundbreaking ceremony of the Mesa Grande Ruins Visitors Center for what history preservationists deem an archaeological treasure.
Lewis was among about 100 people in attendance for the groundbreaking on the 6-acre site on Tuesday.
Lewis, of Payson, who is one of three surviving Lewis grandchildren, attended the event with his sister, Verdene Lewis Rogers, 86, of Mesa. He said, “This place was home to us.”
The Mesa Grande Ruins is one of three historically significant sites, along with the Pueblo Grande Ruins in Phoenix and the Casa Grande Ruins, containing prehistoric remains throughout the state. Mesa Grande represents the remains of one of the two largest and most complex ancient Hohokam platform mound communities in the United States.
The Hohokam (“Those who are no longer here”) built and used the temple mound site once covering about 600 acres overlooking the Salt River between approximately A.D. 1100 and 1450 when the community perished, according to the Mesa Grande Ruins Community Alliance. The community later benefited from the birth of the canal system designed by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community who built and maintained a system for a source of water for progress and economic development.
The center will be a valuable tool in teaching future generations and residents of the surrounding bustling neighborhood about the historical significance of the site and the people who settled it. The $750,000 project, which was made possible mostly through a number of grants for a 1,000-square-foot visitors center and a walking trail including one from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community, is scheduled to be completed in early 2013.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, Salt River Pima-Maricopa community vice president Martin Harvier, Mesa City Council member Dave Richins who lives near the site, Dr. Tom Wilson, administrator of the Arizona Museum of Natural History, James Garrison, officer of the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office, and Dale Marr, president and CEO of Concord General Contracting, the firm building the center, also were at the groundbreaking.
It was Lewis’ family who homesteaded the property in 1892 around the time some of his relatives were excavating on the property. After returning from a lunch break, they noticed that part of their excavating efforts had caved in, revealing more of the ruins that first became known to modern man in 1856, according to city records.
Similar to the native people who lived on the land before them, the Lewis family grew crops such as watermelon and corn, anything they could to make a living before their grandparents sold the property in 1927, said Verdene Lewis Rogers. “It was a peaceful place,” she said.
Jonah Ray, a member of the Onk Akimel O’odham Community, performed the blessing of the sacred site.
The project is about a year behind schedule as various organizations sought funds to make the project complete while downsizing the scope of the project, but Stephanie Wright, co-chair of the Mesa Grande Alliance knows it will be worth the wait.
“This has been a long time coming,” Wright said.
The Mesa Grande Ruins has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978 and more recently was designated as an Arizona 2012 Centennial Legacy site thanks to private owners like the Lewis family and state history officials who knew the importance of preserving the site, an accomplishment in itself through past decades as the property was in private ownership until 1985, they year the city purchased it.
“The private owners realized the importance and significance of the site through the years,” Garrison said. “They were the stewards of preserving the site. This was one of the most meaningful sites in Arizona because it was the center of activity. This was ‘the place.’”
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