The historic Empire Ranch has been a working cattle ranch for 140 years. Its rich history includes successive ownership by two prominent ranching families, two corporations, and finally by the federal government on behalf of the general public. Its history is briefly summarized below by ownership era. Arizona’s Empire Ranch: A Prominent Past and Promising Future is an 18 minute video presentation on the history of the Empire Ranch from its founding in 1876 to present day efforts by the Empire Ranch Foundation and the Bureau of Land Management to protect and preserve the historic buildings. Click here to view a chronology of the events that led to the establishment of the Empire Ranch.
The Empire Ranch was originally established in the 1860’s as a homestead ranch of 160 acres with a flat topped four-room adobe ranch house and adjoining adobe-walled corral. In 1876 the ranch was owned by Edward Nye Fish, a Tucson businessman, when it was acquired for $2,000 by Walter L. Vail, a native of Liverpool, Nova Scotia, and Plainfield, New Jersey, and Herbert Hislop, an Englishman. John Harvey, an Englishman from Bermuda, joined the partnership a few months later.
Over the next 20 years, as a part of the historic expansion of ranching, railroads, mining and other growth in the West, Vail and various partners expanded the original land holdings to include over 100,000 acres. The Total Wreck silver mine was discovered and developed, adding to ranch prosperity. The Ranch House became an extended complex with more than 22-rooms and a number of outbuildings and structures were added. Their original flat earthern roofs were later replaced with wooden gable roofs. Click here to learn more about the Empire Ranch buildings and structures.
In 1896, in order to turn his attention more fully to growing corporate holdings in California. Walter Vail moved his family to Los Angeles and established his corporate headquarters there. Continuing Empire Ranch operations were overseen by Vail Company foremen until 1913 when William Banning Vail, Walter’s third oldest son, took over ranch management. He and his wife Laura Perry Vail, and their three children lived at the ranch until it was sold by Vail Company in 1928.
For a detailed chronology of events during the Vail Family Era click here.
For publications about the Vail Family and the Empire Ranch during their ownership period click here.
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In 1928, the Empire Ranch was purchased by the Chiricahua Ranches Company (CRC), successor to the Chiricahua Cattle Company (CCC). The CRC was incorporated by three Boice brothers, Henry Gudgell, Frank Seymour, and Charles Gudgell, respected ranchers known for their promotion of the Hereford breed of cattle in the Southwest. Frank Boice and his wife, Mary Grantham Boice, moved to the Empire Ranch in 1929. Frank and Mary’s sons, Pancho and Bob, grew up on the Empire Ranch and as adults assisted with ranching operations.
The Boices added many modern conveniences to the Ranch House. Propane, and eventually natural gas, was piped into the house; a large electric walk-in refrigeration unit was installed; plumbing was upgraded and cement stucco was applied to the exterior house walls. The living room, diningroom, and kitchen in the family residence were remodeled. A swimming pool was installed south of the house and became the focal point for family gatherings and parties.
During the 1940 and 1950s many Hollywood films were shot at the Empire Ranch and in the vicinity. The Boices hosted numerous film stars, including John Wayne, when Red River was filmed at the Empire Ranch. Click here for a listing of movies filmed in Empire Ranch territory.
For additional information on the Boice Family click here.
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In 1969, the Boices sold the Empire Ranch to Gulf American Corporation (GAC) which planned to build a large residential community development. GAC contracted with Pancho Boice to continue ranching the Empire Ranch under lease arrangements.
In 1974 Anamax Mining Company purchased the Empire Ranch from GAC for its water rights and mineral potential. Anamax leased the Empire Ranch to rancher John Donaldson. Neither of the planned corporate enterprises materialized, so that to this day the Empire’s lands and ranch headquarters have supported only cattle operations and further remodeling changes to the ranch house and buildings have been minimal. In 1976 the Empire Ranch House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
For additional information on the Corporate Era click here.
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In the 1980s a groundswell of public support developed to preserve the ranch and its natural resources in their pristine condition. In 1988 a series of land exchanges put the property into public ownership under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the U.S. Department of Interior. In 2000, the U.S. Congress officially designated these 42,000 acres to be Las Cienegas National Conservation Area (LCNCA).
BLM entered into a lease agreement with John Donaldson and his son Mac to continue ranching on the Empire Ranch, following modern ranching practices designed to preserve and monitor the LCNCA’s natural resources and also accommodate public recreation. In 2009 the Tomlinson family, owners of the Vera Earl Ranch in Sonoita, assumed the Donaldson grazing lease and are ranching on the Empire Ranch today.
From the outset, BLM managers were committed to preserving the historic Empire Ranch headquarters buildings and interpreting them for future generations. Necessary studies were undertaken to support and specify appropriate historic preservation.
The Empire Ranch Foundation (ERF) was established as a private non-profit organization in 1997 to work with the BLM to develop private support to preserve the ranch buildings and enhance the educational and recreational opportunities it offers to the general public. In the time since, ERF and BLM have completed significant emergency repairs to the main ranch house and to major outbuildings at the headquarters. Major long term permanent repairs to the Ranch House and Adobe Haybarn are being specified and undertaken as funding permits, while interpretation and education programs and a Discovery Trail and other visitor enhancements described elsewhere on this website are being implemented continuously.