Travels of a totem pole cactus in Ahwatukee - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Arts & Life

Travels of a totem pole cactus in Ahwatukee

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Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2013 4:49 pm | Updated: 3:59 pm, Fri Sep 12, 2014.

One arrived before Rudy Valee and the other a year before The Beatles, but together they made beautiful music in nurturing a piece of Ahwatukee that spanned the decades between the roaring ‘20s and this year’s cold winter rains.

After homesteading in the Higley area during World War I, Byron Slawson and his general-contractor brother helped to build “Casa de Suenos” — the House of Dreams — in 1921. Better known by its botched translation from Spanish into the Crow Indian language, the “Ahwatukee” ranch stood just off of today’s Warner-Elliot Loop for 54 years until it met an unceremonious end via the wrecker’s ball.

But before the 17-room, 12,000-square-foot adobe ranch house came crashing down its care and maintenance was faithfully overseen by Slawson, whose duties as caretaker stretched from original move-in on Thanksgiving Day 1921 to the death of the ranch’s second owner in January 1960. In her will the wealthy spinster deeded 40 acres to Slawson in a life-estate, allowing the former caretaker to live in his modest adobe house on the property for as long as he wished.

As the youngest member of Philadelphia’s herpetological society, Jim Pinter headed west to Arizona State University in 1963. While a big attraction was ASU’s Poisonous Animals Research Lab, Pinter’s interests gradually expanded to agriculture, and he ended up earning degrees in zoology and botany, including a Ph.D. In 1979 Pinter moved into a new Wood Brothers house as close to South Mountain as development permitted. The research biologist and his wife, Teresa, both now retired, have lived in their Ahwatukee home on the desert’s fringe ever since.

Blame it on the beet armyworm. One of the country’s most prevalent agricultural pests and the cause of millions of dollars in crop damage annually, the insect became Pinter’s object of focus as he worked toward his Ph.D. in the early 1970s. Seeking to study the insect in its natural desert habitat, the graduate-student needed electricity to power his research equipment’s instrumentation. One of Pinter’s ASU professors hooked him up with Byron Slawson, and the graduate student and former caretaker became fast friends.

Utilizing the ranch garage’s electrical outlets, Pinter ran a 100-foot extension cord into the desert behind the building, which stood at the end of a straight-as-an-arrow dirt path called Warner Road. The miles-long road passed through the pristine green cotton fields of the Lightning Ranch to the east of the property — land which would eventually become Presley Development of Arizona’s Ahwatukee core.

In addition to having graded and landscaped during the ranch’s early 20th century construction, Slawson single-handedly built hiking and horseback-riding trails up into South Mountain, gathered colorful desert boulders to control erosion and constructed an elaborate cactus garden near the ranch house. The garden included local specimens as well as exotic varieties native to California and Mexico, which Slawson procured at the behest of Ahwatukee owner Helen Brinton — she of the botched translation from which the village takes its name.

Pinter spent many enjoyable afternoons in pleasant conversation with the octogenarian Slawson. The ASU graduate student remembers the former caretaker as “a wise and gentle elderly man who knew a lot about the area. He had a lot of recollection about the way things used to be, and a folk-wisdom regarding the desert plants, their names, and the connection between the area’s flora and fauna.”

In 1972 a proud Slawson favored Pinter with a gift: a 12-inch-tall totem pole cactus from the Ahwatukee ranch’s garden. The appreciative Pinter planted the totem pole — a cactus characterized by a smooth, green and thornless surface with small, knobby protrusions — in the front yard of his south Phoenix home. When Pinter moved into the Ahwatukee development north of Elliot Road seven years later, the yardstick-tall totem pole came along for the ride.

And for the next 33 years the plant thrived in Pinter’s yard. The research biologist’s desert-landscaped backyard was ideal for the totem pole, which ultimately grew to a towering 12 feet tall with a girth almost as wide.

During the 1960s the Ahwatukee ranch house sat empty. By the time Pinter arrived on the scene a few ASU co-eds, one whose father headed the land syndicate which had purchased the property, were living in the big house. Huge parties, some meriting advance billing over ASU’s campus radio station, periodically shattered the desert’s tranquility — and in the process hastened the deterioration of the once-grand residence. Both the amiable Slawson and the studious Pinter could only watch and wince, before Pinter completed his research and moved on.

When the end came Byron Slawson was moved to tears. The old ranch house — the magnificent structure that he had helped to build a half a century earlier, but by then reduced to a crumbling relic — was bulldozed in 1975. With it, the transformation from pristine desert to residential community was under way. Slawson died a year later at the age of 84.

When this past January’s winter rains came and the plant’s shallow root system could no longer support the massive plant, it toppled over in the rain-soaked ground. Jim and Teresa Pinter cut the cactus into small sections and one of them, an 18-inch specimen similar to the one handed down by Byron Slawson in 1972, lives on. Fittingly, it now resides in the yard of this newspaper’s founder, former editor and longtime Ahwatukee resident, Clay Schad, who tirelessly promoted the fledgling community during its early and rapid-growth years.

It was 40 years ago this month that Presley opened its initial model homes for viewing, thereby ushering in the first master-planned community on the south side of South Mountain. The strange word “Ahwatukee” entered the Valley’s lexicon, and like a certain totem pole cactus, continues to thrive despite the occasional winter rain.

• Marty Gibson is author of “Phoenix’s Ahwatukee Foothills.” Reach him at mgibson24@cox.net.

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