History of DC Ranch

Living closely with a place, you become part of its history. Historic DC Ranch surrounds this community of the same name, where only a few decades ago men worked cattle and savored the cowboy’s life. The story of the Ranch brings together land, cattle, enterprise, and the optimism of people from the midwest, southwest, Mexico, and parts east whose lives distill the essence of Arizona.

E.O. Brown–DC Ranch’s First Anglo Settler

It all began early in the 1900s only a few years after nearby Fort McDowell closed, signaling an end to the unfortunate “Indian Troubles” of the late 1800s. The army moved out and the railroads and speculators moved in, promoting land almost free for the taking. Prospects for success and good health attracted entrepreneurs like E.O. Brown to the little agricultural town on the desert that was Scottsdale at the turn of the century.

In the spirit of that final frontier, Brown, a businessman who arrived from Wisconsin in 1901, laid claim to land that would grow over two generations into 43,000-acre DC Ranch. He acquired many of his original holdings from homesteaders to whom he generously extended credit at his general store. When severe drought drove them back to the cities and farms, they paid off their debts with waterless range land.

Brown was a practical businessman−he eventually ran Scottsdale’s general merchandise store, cotton gin, water company, and ice house — who understood that a dependable source of water was essential to success in the land and cattle business. When he and his family homesteaded, they chose a section of land near the only perpetual spring in the McDowell Mountains. Eventually he acquired that spring along with the Silver Leaf mining claim attached to it. He got it from the first white man to own it, O.R. Frazier, by whose name it was called on the maps of that time. Water from the spring was eventually piped to tanks all over the ranch. It is still producing a steady three gallons a minute within the boundaries of today’s DC Ranch community.

Some Speculation on the Origin of “DC”

About the same time, Brown bought the DC brand and earmark from a Dr. W.B. Crosby, who had registered it in 1885. Perhaps Doc Crosby (DC) established a Desert Camp (DC) for his cattle, giving the brand double significance. Brown and his partner shipped their first load of cattle to California in 1910 and the brand was used on the DC range until the mid-1990s.

E.O. Brown added to DC Ranch throughout his life, and the next generation of his family cinched it up and rode it into modern times. In the early 1900s, the range had been crisscrossed mainly by cattle trails and sandy washes where water rushed down toward the Valley from the McDowell Mountains in the rainy seasons. But by the time E.O.’s son, E.E. “Brownie” Brown, took over DC operations, ranch headquarters north of the homestead could be reached by automobile.

The driver of the car, however, had to be intrepid in those early years. After passing between 8-foot cliffs carved by runoff where Scottsdale Road crossed with the Indian Bend Wash, he would jolt over the desert to a dusty track that is now Pima Road and continue north just past Reata Pass until he came to a shallow valley bounded by buttes and bluffs. The cattle industry of that era, like the roads, bumped along through drought, Depression, and the proliferation of barbed wire fences and government regulations until it emerged triumphantly profitable in the 1940s.

By then, E.E. Brown had become a cattleman. Known as Big Brownie, he was a gritty John Wayne of a man who stood way over six feet even without his Stetson. Brownie prowled his range on Star, a 17-hand sorrel horse that could carry a Texas-size saddle. Out at the DC, he liked to ride and rope. People said that when you rode out with Brownie, you only saw a road when you crossed one. Sometimes he would win the “Big Man” races at little rodeos that sprang up when cowboys whose cattle mixed on the range got together. And he could shoot. He was the kind of man who might bag a whole covey of quail with a single blast of his old double-barreled shotgun.

Those who loved him thought the sun rose and set with Big Brownie, but there always seemed to be men who couldn’t resist the challenge of trying to get the better of him. “I never started a fight,” he liked to say, “but I never lost one.”  His Colt .45 discouraged idle encounters long after his fighting days were over. As often as not, though, confrontations occurred when he was setting things right, the way he felt they should have been in the first place. Dark-haired and often taciturn, he had his father’s determined chin and a fancy silver belt buckle no one ever seemed to forget. In town, Brownie could be found with the men who got together at the Pink Pony in Scottsdale or at the cattlemen’s bar at the Adams Hotel in Phoenix. His gold-tipped cigar holder clenched between his teeth and his father’s watch chain disappearing into the pocket of his shirt, he cut quite a figure. You couldn’t miss Big Brownie.

Chicken Henry and Other Interesting Characters

Brownie’s cousin George Thomas, the first Anglo male born in Scottsdale, was a gentler sort of man. He never spurred a horse unless a person or animal needed help in a hurry. In the days when their generation was beginning to take over ranch operations he supervised the cowboys and ranch hands while Brownie tended to business affairs. He understood the satisfaction of butchering a cow and jerking beef, shoeing a horse at the ranch blacksmith shop, or helping treat animals that had tangled with jumping cholla. During busy times−roundup, shipping, or when he and Brownie went to Mexico to buy desert-bred cattle−Thomas rarely saw the inside of his comfortable family home near what is now Scottsdale Civic Center. He threw his bedroll down with the other men at camp north of Shea, showered under a bucket of water, and ate whatever Chicken Henry, the famously ugly cook, rustled up in the next room−usually beef, biscuits, and beans. Life was basic there, and few women cared to share it, even temporarily. The skills Thomas taught his nephew, Stanley Crews, out on the DC Ranch helped his company survive on Bataan after a Japanese attack in World War II.

The First Ranch House

At first, ranch headquarters were only slightly more luxurious than a line camp. The original wooden house that lay in the valley north of what is now Dynamite Road served variously as a bunkhouse, a residence for ranch manager Harvey Noriega, a place to dry beef jerky, and a storage barn. Later they brought tufa stone bricks and windows up from the old homestead near the McDowells to build a new house at headquarters−a thick-walled, two-room place with a wood stove and a fireplace. Brownie eventually came out from Scottsdale to live there with second wife, Goldie. Brown’s sons, E.O. and Cotton, added a bedroom and storeroom onto the house. Down the draw, sheltered by beehive-laden Honey Bluffs, lay pastures, pens, and corrals, the blacksmith shop, the old barn, and a windmill that drew water for the stock.

A Working Cattle Ranch

Cattle ranching had changed drastically by the end of World War II. Brahmas and white-faced Herefords grazed on the Indian Wheat and filagree grasses where Mexican longhorns had prevailed when cattle was bought by the head rather than by the pound. Big outfits in northern and southern Arizona that ran thousands of head of beef brought new sophistication to the business. Contracts replaced handshakes. Big money changed hands. Agribusiness had arrived.

The Brown–Marley Partnership

It was time for Big Brownie to bring in a partner: his friend, Kemper Marley. They had known each other since childhood, and their fathers were friends. Kemper grew up with the country, learning about agricultural business on family ranches in Colorado and Arizona. He’d gone out on his own early and graduated from the school of life with honors, turning hard-won knowledge into wealth. By the 1940s he was a force in Arizona business and agriculture.

Kemper and Brownie had more in common than a long association and a love of ranching. They both made it a point to know people in the cattle business. They minced few words and held strong opinions. They didn’t mind taking risks. They liked to spend their off-time hunting quail, betting on the occasional fighting cock or racehorse, watching sports, and solving problems over VOs and water.

Kemper was a valuable partner, so skilled that doing business seemed effortless for him. His friends said he was smarter than intelligent. It was his nature to pay attention to everything and to remember what he learned. He preferred doing business without paper, so he picked associates with the same care he selected his airplane pilot. He found it as easy to talk to Wall Street bankers as to the men who herded his sheep along the Verde River.

As partners in the DC Ranch Company, Brownie and Kemper wrangled themselves a deal to expand the operation. Until the 1940s, DC livestock had grazed across thousands of acres of leased public land extending north and west of the old Brown homestead. Through other cattlemen, Marley and Brown determined that they could buy that land. They developed a plan to acquire holdings in California that the government needed and to trade them for the public land where their cattle grazed. Brownie put up his deeded land and Kemper added cash. Their deal bought them much of what is now north Scottsdale.

When materials and labor became available after the war, they extended the pipeline from the perpetual spring from Bell to Pinnacle Peak. Running by gravity flow off the mountain, still at the rate of three gallons a minute, it fed tanks all over the ranch. That water eventually enabled DC to run 4,000 head of cattle, including descendants of the first purebred Brahmas in Arizona, some brindled longhorns from south of the border, a few Herefords, and animals representing all possible combinations of these breeds.

A bunch like this made up the last cattle drive from the DC Ranch down to the railroad in Phoenix in the 1950s. The herd was rounded up into headquarters in lush desert country a thousand feet higher than the Valley. After culling out those not ready for market, they started down towards Scottsdale. The cattle trampled ancient pottery shards as they shambled by Table Top Mountain toward Pinnacle Peak. They watered at a tank west of the old Brown homestead, filled from the spring in the McDowells. The desert began to flatten out. As they headed south toward Camelback Mountain, creosote bushes grew more numerous and the saguaros they came upon were less sturdy.

The cattle slowly passed homes with evaporative coolers that had sprung up where homesteaders’ fields failed for lack of water. Pavement crossed the dusty old track, and the cows stamped and snorted at the sound of a noisy truck in the distance. The next bunch would make the trip to the railroad in one of those vehicles. By late afternoon they passed the Papago Buttes and headed over the last mile to the shipping pens, where the cowboys would meet Brownie and Kemper and the buyers. Following the downward slope of the land, they tramped into history.

A Partnership for a Preserve in Perpetuity

In the 1980s, the land owners formed a partnership with DMB Associates Inc., which envisioned a community thoughtfully developed to complement the desert surroundings. In the late 1990s, DMB had the foresight to seek a partnership with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy (formerly known as the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust), a grassroots advocacy group seeking to create a 36,000-acre preserve of untouched desert. In 1998, DMB sold more than 4,600 acres in the upper Windgate Pass area to the City of Scottsdale, which would become what is today considered the “heart of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.” This sale cut DMB’s development in half, but will forever stand as testament to the company’s commitment to environmental stewardship. At completion, the MCDowell Sonoran Preserve will be the nation’s largest urban land preserve, encompassing one-third of the City of Scottsdale—57 square miles—and will connect with the Tonto National Forest.

Esteemed Architectural Lineage

Even today, the DC Ranch landscape philosophy is tied directly to preserving the Sonoran Desert. Vernon D. Swaback, the youngest apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, served as architect of DC Ranch. Swaback refers to DC Ranch as “an orchestration of natural materials,” given the use of native stone from the site and a landscaped profusion of arid-region, drought-tolerant, flowering plants. Swaback notes that streets and pathways have been laid out to dramatize both near and distant views while flowing with the topography of the land. Low stone walls appear along the way with no apparent purpose other than to offer an eye-pleasing interplay between nature and architecture. Signs, light standards, bridges, buildings and houses all show respect for the character of the desert. None of this happens by chance. “The decisions of countless people have all played from the same score, each inspired by the original beauty and authenticity of the land,” said Swaback.

DC Ranch as an Address

In the late 1990s, Desert Camp Village and Country Club Village were the first two of four DC Ranch villages to welcome residents. In November 1997, Don and Barbara Ruff were the first residents to move in to the Pioneer neighborhood. Around 2002, Desert Parks Village welcomed its first neighbors, followed by Silverleaf, the most recent of the villages to welcome residents. Today, DC Ranch is a community of engaged residents who appreciate its majestic beauty and share such values as environmental stewardship, healthy living and connection to the greater Valley community.

From the outset, DC Ranch was envisioned as a special place. Its fruition is the result of thoughtful planning and careful consideration of how the elements that contribute to creating a community fit together. As Swaback notes, it is a mistake to think of DC Ranch’s design and growth as being all in the past. “A living community is never finished,” he said. Architectural integrity and design, maintenance of roads and security, and developing a sense of connectedness among residents are integral components of the DC Ranch experience. And though these three operational areas are certainly interconnected, they are distinct services that require a range of expertise.  As a result, three governance entities oversee the delivery of the three separate services. All three work toward the same goal: to serve residents and create a community that is beautiful, functions well, and creates a deep sense of belonging.

As Swaback states, “To grow in purpose and relationships will always be the contributing role that only its citizens can provide. May the love and commitment that went into the creation of what already exists forever inspire those who live, work or visit DC Ranch to add their very best to the richness of that which is yet to be.”

The joy of the land: a brief history of DC Ranch by Anne O’Brien (copyright 1996)
10 years of partnership, a Preserve in perpetuity by Anne Driscoll (copyright 2008)
Scottsdale History Hall of Fame to induct DC Ranch visionary by Anne Driscoll (copyright 2008)
DC Ranch visionary’s place in Scottsdale history cemented by Anne Driscoll (copyright 2008)