The Circle Z Ranch, which started as a sheep-herding operation in the 1880’s, was developed as a dude ranch in the 1920’s. It is the oldest continuously operating dude ranch in Arizona.
Topographical details often act as magnets that draw people and events to a specific location. If there is one such item in the area of the Circle Z, it is most certainly Sonoita Creek. This is one of the few streams in Arizona which flows through-out the entire year. In the southwest, water has always been one of the most prized resources.
Across the creek from the present ranch complex rises another landmark, Sanford Butte, known to ranch guests as Circle Z Mountain. Distinguishable from a fair distance in most directions, it serves as a guide for riders seeking the ranch huddled at its base. This butte has probably always served as a guiding sentinel since the days of the earliest Indians. High upon its southern flank is a small cave dating prior to any recorded history of the area. Ancient potshards and arrowheads have been found in the refuse on its floor. Evidence of prehistoric farming and pottery making settlements is found along the creek; the cave’s origin most likely spans to that prehistoric period. Today it is only inhabited by an occasional javelina or gila monster. A hike to the top of Circle Z Mountain will provide the climber with a panoramic view of the Santa Rita Mountains to the north, the Santa Cruz Valley to the west, the Patagonia Mountains to the east, and Mexico to the south. A register is on the very top of the mountain, where your climbing effort is not left unrecorded, as many before you have undoubtedly been.
In 1874, Denton Gregory Sanford, a native of New York, arrived on Sonoita Creek. He homesteaded on what is now the Circle Z Ranch, a courageous endeavor considering that the Apaches were still raiding and robbing at that time. His four-room adobe, plus auxiliary buildings made it “the finest hacienda in the southwest.” An impressive set of the Sanford adobe ruins remain today across Sonoita Creek from the Circle Z complex.
A number of Sanford’s relatives followed his lead, soon claiming hundreds of acres and controlling the water supply of a ten-mile strip of land. Cattle thieves were a constant problem in the area, but swift justice was meted out to rustlers, who soon learned to leave Sanford’s stock alone. John Cady was foreman on the Sanford Rancho in 1881 when they closed out their cattle stock and set 13,000 head of sheep grazing on the range. The sheep were only run until 1884 and proved quite profitable. Scarcer than cattle, they brought a better price.
In 1881, the New Mexico & Arizona Railroad constructed a railroad from Benson to Nogales. Known as “The Burro,” it was designed to tie in with the Sonora Railroad line to the Gulf of California at Guaymas. In 1929, a storm washed out bridges and the rail line was abandoned south of Patagonia. The empty roadbed still traverses the ranch and serves as a trail for present day riders, hikers, and birders.
It was not until 1925 that the old Sanford Ranch passed out of the hands of the Sanfords. In that year, the Zinsmeister family of Louisville, KY, purchased the 5,000-acre spread from Sanford’s daughter for the location of the present Circle Z Ranch. They immediately began to develop one of the finest guest ranches in the state. It was the golden age of dude ranching and the Dude Rancher’s Association was just forming. The facilities were opened in 1926 with a capacity of 24 guests. Over the next few years, it was increased to accommodate 70. The average length of stay for a guest was one month and some families remained the entire season. Private railway cars of some guests remained in town on a siding by the Patagonia station. The flat land under Sanford Butte and west of the corrals served as the Circle Z polo field.
By 1929, the annual Fourth of July picnic and barbecue at the Circle Z was one of Santa Cruz County’s biggest attractions. Upwards of 2,000 people would attend this event; arriving by train and private car, they were served pit barbecue with all the trimmings. Guests enjoyed band concerts, a rodeo including calf roping, wild horse and mule riding, bronco riding and a cigar race. A dance at Patagonia concluded the day.
Then the Depression arrived, as did the drought, and the picnics were discontinued in 1934. Today, we scratch our heads in wonder about how all of it was accomplished without today’s conveniences.
In the 1930’s Circle Z was the home of El Sultan, the Spanish stallion owned by the ranch. He was a Cartuja Spanish sire with the unique distinction of being the only one of his breed in the U.S. Established in 1500, it is one of the oldest breeds in the world. He started as a gift from the Royal Spanish house, before its abdication, and reached the U.S. via Cuba. There were only 6 such stallions outside of Spain. In Spain the breed is known as “Caballo Santo” (the saintly horse) because it was originated by the church and has an extremely gentle disposition. The Spanish Remount has used the breed for centuries to produce cavalry horses. To this day, the Circle Z is noted for its fine horses. They are bred, raised and trained on the ranch.
World War II put a crimp in the resort and travel business, and the Circle Z ended up changing hands several times. In 1949 Fred Fendig came from Chicago and purchased the Circle Z. He was the owner-manager for the next 25 years. In 1952 the centrally located main ranch house with its two beautiful living rooms and large dining room burned to the ground. The Zinsmeister house was taken over and became the lodge in that year.
Hollywood has visited the ranch many times. Such movies as Broken Lance with Spencer Tracy and Monte Walsh with Lee Marvin have been filmed here. Scenes from El Dorado, with John Wayne, and the final episode of Gunsmoke were filmed on ranch property as well. In 1969, after considerable battling pro and con, the government dammed up Sonoita Creek several miles below the Circle Z. This formed Lake Patagonia, a narrow body of water three miles long, to be used for public fishing, boating and water supply. The high bluffs and tall cottonwoods seen in John Wayne’s movie El Dorado lay beneath this water. The TV Series Young Riders chose the ranch for locations, and the ranch tack house was used as the background for part of a nationally circulated Chevy truck advertisement. Arizona Highways magazine has frequently visited the ranch for photographs and feature articles.
When Fred Fendig decided to retire and sell the ranch in 1974, there were rumors it would be acquired by a corporation and turned into a land development or tennis ranch. Mr. And Mrs. Preston Nash of Novelty, Ohio, purchased the spread and decided to operate it in keeping with its honored tradition. Their avowed aim has been to run a warm and traditional family-style ranch with an emphasis on good riding, good food and congenial guests. Their deep interest stems from Mrs. Nash’s many visits to the ranch as a child, with her family, dating back to Zinsmeister’s ownership.
Mrs. Nash’s visits to the ranch during her young and formative years helped in developing a lifelong passion for conservation and preservation of vital habitats. These values were a driving force in her visions for the ranch, spanning over four decades of land stewardship. Over the decades she has bestowed life changing gifts of nature on thousands of guests. And as an accomplished equestrian with an abounding passion for horses, she has guided the ranch into becoming the best in Arizona, emphasizing excellent horses and phenomenal horseback riding opportunities. Through her visions and guidance, the ranch has not lost sight of it’s mission.
Following a stroke in 2009, Mrs. Nash is no longer able to spend time at her beloved ranch. She still lives in her home of 70 years in the countryside outside of Cleveland, OH. In 2013, her family finalized her dream of placing into a perpetual conservation easement most of her acreage in Arizona, giving future generations the gifts of nature, the beauty of the desert, and the magic that is Circle Z. Her son, Rick, and daughter in law Diana, now spend most of the guest season at the ranch.