The Ghosts of Casa Grande

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COOLIDGE, Ariz. — A pair of Brits, a Vietnam vet, a sullen teen and a dozen or so retirees gathered under the Sonoran Desert sun to try to decipher some of the clues left behind by people who lived here nearly 1,000 years ago.

Who were these Hohokam people who thrived in a compact urban village built around a Great House? They knew astronomy and irrigation and how to construct a four-story building with little more than mud. They played sports on their ball courts, fermented wine from cactus fruit and made sure their walls faced the four cardinal points of the compass.

Casa Grande was the nation’s first archaeological preserve, an earth-colored fortress of wonder set aside in 1892. For years, visitors flocked to this desert monument, as much a part of the culture of our land as anything built by bewigged colonists in Massachusetts. But like most other units of the national park system, Casa Grande Ruins National Monument has been a lonely place of late. Last year, only 76,854 people came here — the lowest number of visitors in 47 years. Over the last decade, the number of people who come to Casa Grande has declined by 50 percent.

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