First came the river. Then the ranch. And now a resort that embraces the history of a territory and the legacy of a family who inspired a destination. Water in the desert — issuing from the enduring Santa Cruz River — is what first drew ancient people to what is now Tubac, Ariz. Centuries ago, the river ran above ground (and year-round), nurturing tall cottonwood and willow trees, turning the hardscrabble desert terrain into rich, rippling grasslands.
The life-giving water also drew European settlers, and throughout the 1700s, Spanish explorers and missionaries ventured here. They founded a presidio, or military outpost, to protect settlers from frequent raids by native Apache Indians. In 1789, the King of Spain awarded the first known land grant — 400 acres — to Don Toribio de Otero, a descendent of Basque gentry, who was then living in northern Mexico. The land grant would eventually give birth to the Otero family ranch, and later, the Tubac Golf Resort. Tubac was at various times, a Spanish outpost, Confederate Army stronghold, mining boomtown and ghost town.
Drought and Indian attacks led settlers to abandon it several times — most notably during the Civil War, when presidio troops were sent elsewhere. It wasn’t until 1867 that Sabino Otero — a great, great grandson of Toribio — moved the family back to the Tubac area. Under his guidance, the family ranch buildings were constructed, and the Otero land holdings were expanded into a ranching empire that extended from Sabino Canyon in Tucson to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. At times, the ranch was also home to Sabino’s sister, Gabriela Otero — who took the name Sister Clara when she joined the Catholic religious order of Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Sister Clara taught religious studies in the Tubac area, ministered to the sick and dying during the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918, and is now honored as a distinguished pioneer in the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame.
By his death in 1914, Sabino owned several ranches, and tens of thousands of head of cattle. It was said that his cattle grazed “on a thousand hills.” Sabino’s younger brother, Teofilo, inherited the land, but years of drought, business complications and a general disinterest in cattle ranching led him to sell all the property except for the original family ranch. Over the decades, the Otero ranch was bought and sold several times. Owners included William Morrow, of the Morrow’s Nut House national retail chain, and Joanna Shankle Davis, an aviator who flew in the famed “powder puff” transcontinental air race — the 1929 Women’s Air Derby. In 1959, a group of businessmen (led by crooner Bing Crosby) bought the ranch and dubbed it the Tubac Valley Country Club.
Other members of the Hollywood elite were taking interest in Tubacarea ranch properties, which became part-time retreats for celebrities like British actor Stewart Granger, British actress Jean Simmons, motion picture producer Arthur M. Loew, Jr. and Western movie star John Wayne. In 2002, a group of investors including Telluride, Colo. developer Ron Allred purchased what is now known as the Tubac Golf Resort. Over the years, the resort has attracted its share of notables, including U.S. President Gerald Ford and Mexican President Luis Echeverria, who were flown in for a heads-of-state meeting in 1974 (and lunch at the Stables Restaurant and Bar.) Movie actor Kevin Costner and company traveled here to film scenes for the 1996 romantic comedy “Tin Cup.” (Check out www.tubacgolfresort.com for more information)