By J.J. Lamb

Jimmy and Oscar Leon anxiously waited for their mother, Carmen, to have everything ready for their long walk from their home along the Pantano to the Vail Depot. Once a month they went to town (Tucson) to shop and visit family and friends. They stayed overnight in town with family. For Oscar and Jimmy this was the best part—they would get to play with cousins. They didn’t want to miss the train!

With everything finally in order, they set off walking southeast down the dirt road toward Vail. It wasn’t long before they passed by the pond created from channeled flood waters of the Pantano Wash by their grandfather, Santiago Santos Leon. One of Jimmy and Oscar’s jobs was to collect water, strain out tadpoles and other wriggly water creatures, then funnel it into burlap-wrapped clay ollas. These were hung outside in the shade where desert breezes cooled the family’s drinking water. Water was precious, not a drop was wasted.

Mariana Leon (seated), (standing L to R) Louisa, Rita, Ygnacia and Soccoro at their homestead. Leon Collection, Vail Preservation Society

To pass the time, the boys started a game of ‘kick the can’ as they raced ahead of their mother. Several truckloads of produce from the farms and orchards at La Cienega Ranch (Rancho del Lago) passed them headed in the opposite direction on the roughly two-and-a-half-mile walk to Vail. The road passed by the cemetery. The Leon Cemetery was a part of their family’s homestead and everyday life. Most people who called Vail home lived far apart from each other on their homesteads where they worked the land to make a life. They had gardens or small farms and raised livestock and ranched. Many had a mining claim—or two—and cowboyed for the larger ranches. Some also worked for the Southern Pacific railroad. The Leon Cemetery was a place where all those disparate Vail stories intertwined. The Leon Cemetery brought Vail’s families together, to grieve, to celebrate, to pass on traditions and to work together.

There were many relatives buried there. The boys had heard the story of Carmelita, one of the first to be laid to rest in the Leon Cemetery. Carmelita had a beautiful voice, she loved to laugh, sing, and play the guitar. She was only 15 when she was accidentally shot by her cousin one afternoon. The sad incident was recorded in the September 25, 1913 issue of the Tucson Daily Citizen, “Sing me a song on your guitar.” Cried young Rafael Romero to Carmelita Leon, as he played with a rifle. She laughed, thinking that he was playfully threatening her with it. The rifle was discharged both say accidentally.”

Santiago Bravo Leon c1920. Leon Collection, Vail Preservation Society

Carmelita’s parents, Santiago S. and Mariana Leon, rushed her from Vail to St. Mary’s Hospital. Her intestines were perforated by the shot. Carmelita is quoted in the newspaper as saying, “I think he did it in fun.” Carmelita was sure the fatal shot was an accident. She died at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday, September 24, 1913.

Sometimes Jimmy and Oscar would wake up in the morning to find that overnight a relative who had died had been brought to their home. With little fanfare their mother and relatives would prepare the body for burial while their father, uncles, and relatives worked to dig the grave. On All Saints Day a priest would perform a special blessing and the families; Leon’s, Romero’s, Bravo’s, Haro’s, Figueroa’s, Estrada’s and others gathered to remember Carmelita and the many other family members buried there.

Jimmy and Oscar raced ahead of their mother on the dusty dirt road as it followed the Pantano wash towards the Vail Depot. The road passed the Monthan brother’s homes at La Cienega. In 1930s everyone called the dusty road the Monthan Ranch Road even though the ranch was really a farm. Jimmy and Oscar, young as they were, understood this because their father worked for the Monthan’s. But there was no time to stop for a visit today. The boys and their mother had about an hour to make the walk and catch the Sunset Limited train #9 as it passed through Vail so there was no time to waste!

After the green fields and orchards of La Cienega it was a race up the hill to the Vail Depot. Tell-tale puffs of smoke on the eastern horizon meant they didn’t have long! With their 39¢ fares clutched in their hands, Jimmy, Oscar, and Carmon arrived just in time to flag down the train.

The rest of the trip to Tucson was viewed from the window seat of the Sunset Express. The desert landscape speeding by gradually changed to clusters of homes, paved roads, businesses, cattle feedlots, and finally the Tucson Depot. Soon the boys would be enjoying the company of their cousins!

The first time Santiago S. Leon laid eyes on his Vail homestead he had no way of knowing that the dusty dirt path he traveled on would come to bare his family’s name: Leon Ranch Road.

Santiago Santos Leon became a naturalized citizen on March 19, 1896. Santiago Santos Leon, his wife Mariana, and their children are listed in Vail’s 1900 census. Santiago registered to vote in 1898. His home was listed as Vail. Santiago S. Leon proved up on his homestead along the Pantano River in 1912. The proving up process had specific requirements and milestones and generally took five years. That same year he received water rights to the waters of the Pantano. He had 30-40 acres under cultivation, raised some cattle, and worked for the Monthan family at La Cienega Ranch (known today as Rancho del Lago). Both the Monthan’s and the Leon’s—and many others—used the dirt road to Tucson. The road had branches that led to the Rincon Valley, Esmond and Rita Stations.

Santiago Santos Leon died in 1931. His son Santiago Bravo Leon and wife Carmen took over the family homestead and its operations until his passing 1972. At this time, each child received 20 acres. Some of the original homestead lands proved up on by Santiago S. Leon in 1912 began to be sold to other families. Over time the road became known as the Leon Ranch Road. Leon family members continue to make their home on a portion of the original homestead. They care for the historic Leon Cemetery, the final resting place for many of Vail’s founding Mexican American residents.

J.J. Lamb is President & CEO of Vail Preservation Society. A U of A graduate, her family has lived in Vail since 1971. She was named an Arizona Culturekeeper in 2011 and an Arizona Friend of the Humanities in 2020.

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J.J. Lamb