Article and photos by Cindy Duell, Tucson
Everyone knows the accomplishments of the “big names” in presidential history (things like writing the Declaration of Independence, leading the Revolutionaries to a big win against the Redcoats, and helping to bring down the Soviet Union), but who knows something great about President Benjamin Harrison?
President Harrison may get overshadowed by the achievements of other presidents, but Arizonans should proclaim one particular accomplishment of his. In 1892—twenty years before Arizona became a state—he established the nation’s first archaeological preserve at a site in the desert southeast of Phoenix.
That protected site was the ruins of Casa Grande, and today it is a national monument prized by Americans and tourists from around the globe. It has stood in the desert near Coolidge for over 600 years, as long as some of the great castles and cathedrals of Europe. In the spring my kids and I studied the Renaissance, covering the same years as the time of Casa Grande’s construction, so it made sense to visit Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (although we didn’t get around to it until July).
We first stopped at the front desk to get a Junior Ranger Program Exploration Notebook. Its activities get children to notice and engage with the interpretive displays and the site itself. My younger daughter learned that if she completed a suggested number of pages in the book (based on her age), then she would earn a Junior Ranger badge. The quest was underway! Her search for answers and information drew the interest of my older kids, too. Score!
Naturally, the main attraction is the Casa Grande (“Great House”) itself. Walk right up to the building to observe and appreciate its size, its construction, and the relation to nearby pithouses and other structures. There are even some reinforced doorways you can step into to look inside several of the rooms. We were bemused by historical graffiti visible on some of the walls, etched into the surface in the years before its protection by the government.
The magnificent building is shielded from sun and rain by an enormous metal roof built in 1932, and on this July morning we appreciated the shade. (The roof also shelters a resident Great Horned Owl, so visitors should be sure to look for that modern inhabitant!) Archaeologists have discovered some notable things about Casa Grande and the settlement that surrounded it, such as astronomical features of the building, the system of canals that enabled the people there to farm extensively and which became the basis for many present-day canals, and trade patterns and relationships that spanned hundreds of miles.
Back in the visitor center we enjoyed the Touch Table, which contained natural items and replica artifacts that are meant to be touched and examined up close. Clear maps and displays of items obtained through trade emphasized how this society interacted with other peoples. My older children recognized some names and places in the displays, which gave some context for what we were learning that day. This homeschool mom particularly loved observing their “aha!” moments.
As we took in what Casa Grande had to teach us, we discussed geography, navigation, astronomy, religious beliefs, technology, rivers and farming, contemporaneous European history, assumptions about modern versus ancient knowledge and intelligence, architecture, Arizona history, and archaeology—and, of course, gratitude to President Benjamin Harrison and the National Park Service!
My daughter did receive her Junior Ranger badge, my son acquired a new National Park medallion for his walking stick (because, gift shop!), and we were all blessed to take a short break together from our routine surroundings and immerse ourselves in the culture and history of Arizona. We emerged with greater understanding, humility, and an appetite to learn more.
Learn more about Casa Grande National Monument and plan your visit.
Cindy Duell has homeschooled in Arizona since 2000. She is blessed to be married to Shawn, and she currently (December 2017) homeschools the three youngest of their six fabulous children. Many places in Arizona remain on her field trip wish list, which will last her at least until she finishes teaching in 2028!