By J.J. Lamb

Our stories, local history, lore, and special places help us connect to each other, find our way, and understand the people whose lives and intentions shaped the places where we live. With the support of Arizona Humanities, The Vail Voice, and building on the 2018 documentary Voices of Vail documentary film, the Vail Preservation Society works with OVMS students who research and write stories and create illustrations. These middle school students are placemakers: storytellers and artists who share stories of our past that can inform our future.

The Arizona Daily Star documented the building of the new Hughes Electronics Plant in September 1951.

Hi-Tech in the Old Pueblo: A Brief History of Hughes Missile Systems and Raytheon

By Chase Anderson, Old Vail Middle School Student

Hughes Aircraft Company was founded by eccentric millionaire inventor Howard Hughes and became a manufacturing giant during World War II. But by 1947, just two short years after the end of the war, the company was troubled by scandal, and Hughes’ workforce had gone from a war-time high of 80,000 to only 800. Hughes had to think of a new way to do business or face closure. The newly created US Air Force, in desperate need of missile systems for their fighter jets, was the perfect opportunity.

Hughes added a missile-making division to the company and started planning the construction of a new missile manufacturing facility. Worried that the new facility would be vulnerable to Soviet attack if built in near company headquarters in southern California, Hughes ordered his head of construction, Axel Johnson, to find a city far enough from the coast to be safe.

Johnson was brand new to the job, and he had a soft spot for Tucson and southern Arizona. He really wanted the plant to be in Tucson instead of Phoenix. When land prices in Phoenix skyrocketed after realtors learned of Hughes’ plan, it was decided that the plant was moved to Tucson. For a bargain price of $50 an acre, Hughes purchased 2,431 acres from the Tucson Airport Authority, and Johnson broke ground in early 1951. Some of the first things made were radar nose assemblies for the new F-89 Scorpion fighter.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Hughes Missile Systems Division (created in 1966) was contracted to develop and build the AIM-54 air-to-air missile. Built specifically for the Navy’s short-lived F-111B, the AIM-54 project was put on hold when that aircraft was discontinued. But with some very good engineering, the missile system was reworked for the new F-14 Tomcat. The missile system was renamed the AIM-54 Phoenix.

In the late 1960s, Hughes Missile Systems developed the TOW missile, so named because it was tube-launched, optically tracked, and wire-guided. TOW missiles received many awards for efficiency and effectiveness and quickly became used by nations around the world. Since the Vietnam War, they have been used in nearly every war.

In 1985 General Motors bought Hughes Missile Systems for five billion dollars. A year later, Hughes Missile Systems reached an all-time high of 9,000 employees. By the end of the decade, the company had built and delivered 500,000 TOW missiles across the world.

Raytheon purchased Hughes Missile Systems from General Motors in 1997. For over 70 years, the “Old Pueblo” has been at the heart of missile development and manufacturing. Today many Raytheon employees and their families live in Vail.

Cattle from La Posta Quemada Ranch cross Colossal Cave Road just east of present day Walgreen’s. Dailey Collection, Vail Preservation Society

A Rancher’s Paradise

By Max Ellis and Jordan Peglow:

This was Vail Arizona, the middle of the desert. Grasses five feet tall and room for more cattle than you can imagine. Springs and creeks supplied water. There was no drought, and there were good cows all the time. In 425 miles, there were only about 30 ranches.


That was in the early 1900s. Now, all of that is gone. Over time, the grass disappeared, and the cattle did too. People claimed water rights on Cienega Creek and Pantano Wash, keeping cattle from grazing where they please. Now there are more houses than cattle, and the ranching lifestyle is a distant memory for most.


Ranching was a way of life for the Leons. Jimmy Leon was born on August 6, 1929, and he owns the Leon ranch in Vail. Charlotte Leon Kimball was born on November 15, 1936. She grew up in Wyoming before moving to Idaho Falls with her father, Art Jones, in 1952, where he worked as a cowboy and she met her future husband, Jimmy. They were married in 1954. Jones moved his horse training operation to the Rincon Stock Farm in Tucson, Arizona, and Jimmy and Charlotte bought a farm near Del Lago. Years passed and later on Charlotte Leon Kimball died in 2017, and Jimmy Leon in 2018.


Charlotte lived a Little-House-On-the-Prairie life. She had no electricity or running water, so the young couple used an outhouse. They were a perfect example of a ranching family that lived off of the land. They got water from Pantano Wash and Cienega Creek, and during the non-rainy season they got water from Del Lago. In a good year, they would sell 50 to 60 heads of cattle. But when a drought hit, they had to sell their stock.


As more people moved to vail, the cattle ended up overwhelming their environment. Today, we know that you can only put so many cows in an area, but the ranchers of yesteryear didn’t know how a surplus of cattle would affect the land. The cows ate all the grassland, which prevented the ranchers from growing. Land use and ranching can make permanently change land.

(photo-cattle in Colossal Cave Road – Marilyn Dailey photo


Lamb, J.J. r View all posts Guest, et al. “Interview with Charlotte Leon Kimball.”  The Vail Voice, 5 May 2017,


Tucson Daily Citizen from Tucson, Arizona page 13

A Revolutionary Breeding


Vail preservation society


Robin Pinto. Personal Communication. December 16 2019


Lamb, Gerald, director. “Voices of Vail.” 2018.

(Leon Ranch Round-Up watercolor by Brayden Gugelman, OVMS Advanced Art student)

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J.J. Lamb