By Linda Luddington
An ancient pole barn stands nobly in the cottonwood-shaded sunlight of the W-Dart Ranch headquarters. Last summer's alfalfa hay welcomes visitors with a fragrance more heady to a rancher than the costliest French perfume. The barn seems anxious to share a story, a story of a central Arizona valley watered throughout the year from a never-drying stream. It's a story of copper-mining wages sustaining a ranching way of life. It's a story of a tenacious young immigrant whose fierce love for the land founded a successful ranching family, now stretching into the fourth generation. This is the story of the Verde Valley's W-Dart Ranch and the Groseta family.
The Valley's past helps to define its present. Archeological digs reveal that by 600 A.D., Native Americans had cultivated crops near the Verde's banks. To sustain about sixty acres of corn and squash, the Hohokam people fashioned two miles of irrigation ditches. Four hundred years later the Sinagua peoples merged peacefully with the Hohokam. The resulting agrarian society had disappeared from the valley almost a hundred years before the first Spanish explorers crossed the Verde in May, 1583. Yavapai people, less sophisticated in agriculture than the earlier inhabitants, gathered wild plants on the Verde's lush banks and hunted for deer and smaller game. The Spanish reported enthusiastically about excellent farming land and rich mineral deposits here, but the area never became part of the Spanish empire.
Three centuries later Americans settled in the Verde Valley. Farmers cut wild hay and grains to supply Fort Whipple and, later, Fort Lincoln. Land deeds prove that the first American ditches were dug in the Cornville area in 1864. Most valley ditches date from the late 1860s and 1870s. Bourke's On the Border with Crook describes Native Americans being forced to dig a five-mile ditch at Fort Lincoln, present Camp Verde, using only worn tools and hardened sticks. The largest canal was Cottonwood Ditch, fed by the Verde's natural flow. It's original water rights were filed by eighteen farmers on December 10, 1878. Early orchards, corn, wheat, alfalfa fields and vegetables were watered by this canal. High above the fertile valley floor in the Mingus Mountains were rich mineral deposits mined for centuries by the native peoples. In the 1870's, American prospectors and miners began to work the huge copper veins. The United Verde Copper Mine built Jerome into one of the major copper towns of the West, a great melting pot of workers from around the world.
Into the melting pot of 1906, came a young Croatian seeking better opportunity. Peter Groseta, Sr., found work in the mines, married fellow Croatian immigrant, Antonia Blazina, in 1914, and diligently saved from his mining wages to purchase land. His dream was realized when, in 1922, he bought a farm in Middle Verde just above where Hayfield Draw empties into the Verde River. This was the first of his numerous land buys and trades. Peter Groseta, Jr., was four years old when his father gave up mining and moved his family to the farm. He remembers the early years. The family raised a few head of beef cattle, several dairy cows, some sheep, turkeys, chickens, ducks, and rabbits. Cabbage, corn, carrots, sweet potatoes, and fruit were sold; eggs were sold; Antonia's homemade soft cheese was sold. The family worked steadily to make a success of their land. During the 1930's, the Forest Service granted grazing allotments for every farm on the Verde River. At that time numerous small acreages lined the Verde. In the Middle Verde area were large numbers of horses running wild on National Forest land. Pete, Jr., had broken one for a saddle horse. On this mare he made his first cattle drive, trailing thirty-five head of Herefords to the Association Tanks in the high country north of the Valley. It was a three-day trip. Cattle grazed on the open range all summer, running free with stock from other outfits. In the fall he returned for the big roundup to trail them back to winter pasture along the Verde. In 1936, Peter Groseta, Sr., negotiated a land swap with Phelps Dodge Mining Company, trading his farm for prime Upper Verde land at Bridgeport. Needing lumber for a barn, he drove a team and wagon to Schnebly Hill east of Sedona, cut Arizona Cypress trees, and built a pole barn that serves the W-Dart Ranch even today. He became Ditch Boss on the Cottonwood Ditch, a post his son and grandson have each held in turn. The Ditch has been moved and improved over the years, always maintaining a vital lifeline for successful ranch operations.
Pete, Jr., graduated from Camp Verde High School before the family moved to the Bridgeport ranch. This was during the Great Depression. He found work at the Phelps Dodge concentrator in Clarkdale. The Grosetas continued to add to their land holdings through purchases and trades. The family jokes about one particular piece of property that both Pete, Sr., and Pete, Jr., refused to trade for: a parcel on which the present Sedona business district now stands! These ranchers had seen it as just a lot of red dirt, "not fit to run a cow on."
In 1948, two years after Pete, Jr., had married Katherine Maglich, he bought the W-Dart cow outfit from Norman Fain. This deal brought him several private grazing leases, the cattle, and the W-Dart brand. Later he added the Verde and the Hull-Hill/Cherry Forest Allotments, forming the basis of the present ranch. It stretches from Cottonwood to Camp Verde, and borders on the Verde River on the east and the rim of the Black Hills on the west. Pete, Jr., became a full-time rancher when mining operations closed in 1953. He worked the last shift when the final pound of ore ran through the concentrator. He has always acknowledged that, "Getting a paycheck every two weeks really helped out in the ranching business." Pete also worked for Yavapai County Roads Department for several years. In addition, Katherine worked for years as a nurse in Jerome, Clarkdale, and Cottonwood. Their efforts paid off; the ranch prospered. In 1980, they purchased the Pine Creek Ranch north of Williams, the ideal location to fatten their cross-bred yearlings before selling them to Midwestern cattle feeders. The W-Dart Ranch is managed today by Andy Groseta, Pete Jr.'s son. After graduating from the University of Arizona, teaching Vocational Agriculture and FFA for eight years in Tucson, and marrying the daughter of Montana ranchers, Andy returned to his family ranch. He and the former Mary Beth Meyers and their three teenage children live at the ranch headquarters in the fine old Jordan house built in 1913. The family's involvement in professional and community activities bespeaks the long-honored family commitment to being a good neighbor in the best Western tradition. Andy currently serves as Cottonwood Ditch President. In addition, he serves on the Catholic Community Foundation, as well as on the boards of Northern Arizona Health Care and the Verde Valley Medical Center. He is Chairman of the Federal Lands Committee of the Arizona State Cattle Growers Association. Andy is also a recent Past President of the Yavapai County Cattle Growers Association. Andy's brother George runs a sheep operation in northern Arizona. Mary Beth, when not quilting or helping her children with their many projects, works tirelessly for the Arizona Cowbelles. Paul, Katy, and Anna excel in 4-H and FFA. Both Katy and Anna have shown Grand Champion Market Lambs and Swine at the Verde Valley Fair. Paul showed the Grand Champion Steer at the 1999 Yavapai County 4-H and FFA Expo. His dad proudly calls his tall son, "A first-rate hand".
Development encroachment, environmental issues, and political controversies are just some of the challenges the modern ranching family must meet. In the past the major concerns discussed at the bull sales were having enough rain and surviving the fluctuating calf prices. Andy fondly recalls that bygone era when herds were tallied on matchbox covers; when calves were sold on a handshake; when large herds of sheep were trailed up the Sheep Driveway through the ranch property, slowly moving along the designated one-mile-wide path from the Salt River Valley to the summer pastures near Flagstaff and Williams; when Pete, Jr., and his friend Carl Goddard often took young Andy to Varela's Centerville store for his favorite strawberry soda on hot summer days; when Sunday afternoons meant large gatherings of family and neighbors at the Groseta ranch for spit-roasted lamb. That era is gone. But the Groseta family ranch survives. Also surviving are Groseta values of conscientious land stewardship, of hard work, of personal integrity, of self-reliance, and of devotion to family and community. Andy's grandfather would be proud. His old pole barn stands ready for the next generation of Groseta ranchers.
The Grostea Ranch will be honored with a story telling session at 1:00 pm Saturday during the 13th annual Cowboy Poets Gathering at the Sharlot Hall Museum. The gathering goes on Friday and Saturday. More details can be obtained at the Museum, or call 445-3122, or visit www.sharlothallmuseum.org.
Linda Luddington is a volunteer at the Sharlot Hall Museum who specializes in assisting with the Cowboy Poets Gathering each year.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (Groseta collection). Reuse only by permission.
Andy Groesta branding calves at hayfield ranch corral in 1997. The Groseta family has been ranching in the Verde Valley since the early 1920s and their legacy will be honored this weekend at the Cowboy Poets Gathering.