Patti Kerr remembers sitting on the school bus one afternoon as it pulled up near her house in Arivaca in the 1960s.
From a distance she could see what appeared to be snow-white rags hanging from the clothesline on the five-acre property. All she could think was, “What in the world...”
She ran into the house and found her mom and grandmother boiling and plucking a mountain of chickens. Turns out, a truck hauling chickens had overturned near The Cow Palace in Amado and Kerr was looking at the spoils.
“We had chicken for I don’t know how long,” she said with a laugh.
Kerr — Patti Casey growing up — was among about a dozen people telling their stories of “Growin’ Up Canoa,” an oral history project spearheaded by longtime former teacher Nancy Williams for the Friends of Canoa Heritage Foundation.
With a goal to preserve the area’s history, support local businesses and serve as a bridge between the new and the old, the project is part of a larger mission to keep the stories of the Canoa Heritage Area alive.
Williams, who worked for Sahuarita High School for more than 30 years, said since she moved to the Elephant Head area in 1981 she’s been able to immerse herself in the Canoa Heritage Area, which sits between the Santa Rita and Baboquivari mountains, including San Xavier, Three Points and rural communities down to Nogales and Sasabe.
“I really have such a passion and love for the character and quality of families who have been here for generations,” she said. “The values they live by... people who will do the right thing. Values really matter to me and that’s the quality of people I’ve known here.”
Williams said the mission to keep the spirit of the Canoa Heritage Area alive began in 1994, when development and golf courses were looming.
“We started opposing that development to preserve what was here, and the Friends of Canoa Heritage Foundation moved toward preserving the history of the area,” she said. “We’ve been trying to preserve its history and educate on the area and support small businesses. We’re really trying to promote the area.”
Williams co-founded the Friends of Canoa Heritage Foundation in 1994, and the nonprofit has been working to preserve the area since. They are separate from the Historic Canoa Ranch, which is owned and operated by Pima County.
Dawn Morley, communications and outreach volunteer for the foundation, said it has already done several oral history projects on the region, and Growin’ Up Canoa just made sense.
“This was a perfect fit for Nancy because she taught at the school for 31 years and she got kids from the whole area,” she said. “It couldn’t have been more perfect. She got almost every generation.”
Williams was in her early 20s when she started teaching at Sahuarita and had a number of students who were only a few years younger.
Morley wrote the grant for the project as well as others. Growin’ Up Canoa received a $5,000 grant from Arizona Humanities to complete the project.
They worked with local filmmaker Daniel Buckley, Williams’ husband, for the filming and editing, and found volunteers to help on the day of shooting.
Morley said the foundation’s board is cause-driven and she helps to facilitate projects like this one.
“The board, Nancy and this group have stayed pure to their mission from day one and there’s never been any greed or politics,” she said. “They preserve the land and the stories.”
Williams said she spent hours working to find former students to share stories to be video-recorded at her home.
“My first thought was, ‘This is crazy,’ but I was so full of joy because I’ve had thousands of students,” she said. “I’m hoping by honoring the people I did, it honors them all. It’s the best I can do because you can’t just look someone up in a phonebook anymore.”
On Saturday, about a dozen people she scheduled for interviews met at her home to reminisce about the way life used to be in the area.
Kerr, a Class of ‘72 SHS graduate, remembered having no indoor plumbing.
“That was normal to us, that was life,” she said.
The closest phone was at The Cow Palace 25 miles away and the original Sopori School was 13 miles from home.
“Nobody came to our house who was a stranger,” she said. “You were a stranger maybe two minutes, then you were family.”
She’d fly kites on a nearby hill and the entire school learned basket weaving from a student (she can still weave to this day).
“Television was pretty much non-existent,” she said, because there weren’t many channels, good reception and just too much else to do.
Kerr said sharing her experiences Saturday was fun and it was nice reconnecting with Williams. They promised to stay in touch.
“The people I met there were Sahuarita grads who were way above me but I remember their names. I was able to say my older sister may have been in your class,” she said. “It was fun to reminisce. In Arivaca, there were about 100 people that lived there when I was growing up. It was small-town America.”
Williams said many of the interviewees spoke to the peace and quiet of rural life.
“As they were thinking back, they identified a lot of joy. Many of these people grew up quite poor, it was agriculture and they did not have a lot of things. But the joy they expressed in what they had…” she said. “I heard repeatedly about coming home, traveling and working in different places and the feeling they had flying into the Tucson airport.”
Interviewees were asked about their families, what it was like growing up, what they liked to do, favorite memories and even things they wanted newcomers to the area to know. Williams said most could have spoken for hours.
For Williams, it was something special seeing her former students all grown up, living their lives and still holding the memories of their growing up Canoa experiences close to their hearts.
“Seeing them as adults, moving beyond challenges… as a teacher it’s your goal to help them overcome obstacles,” she said. “I got to see the depth and character of these people.”
“I’m hoping it’s as valuable to them as me, reconnecting with their roots and values,” she said.
Williams said she hopes the project continues and that people who couldn’t make the recording can still record their own videos for the project.
The final film will debut at the Longhorn Grill and Saloon in Amado on Oct. 23, and is open to the public. Buckley will be recording video of the premier as well.
Ultimately, the project is a labor of love that shows the uniqueness of the Canoa Heritage Area.
“As you watch growth in a lot of communities they all look the same way, it’s Anytown, USA,” Williams said. “We want to make sure there’s not a gap between people who come here as new residents of the desert and do not have any connection to the place they’re coming to, what the environment is, what the character is. This is not Anytown, USA.”