The Course of Empire

The fall and rise of an Arizona ranch

Carol Boice Barleycorn stands in a badly weathered doorway, squinting into the gloom. "This is where the cowboys ate," she says wistfully. "I remember there was this huge table. They were always coming in, talking about what they did, what they saw. As a kid, it was very exciting."

The scene is difficult to picture. The rambling house an hour's drive south of Tucson had once been the headquarters of the Empire Ranch, a legendary spread that in its heyday covered an area more than one and a half times the size of Rhode Island. More important to Barleycorn, it had also been her home. Her family ran the ranch until the mid-1970s. The room she stares into is empty, deserted, part of a tattered set of buildings and corrals that feels like a ghost ranch on this cloudless morning beneath a vast sky tacked down on three sides by the tan mountains of southern Arizona.

But the story of the Empire Ranch is exactly the opposite. Far from being abandoned, these buildings have become the rallying point for a grassroots group, the Empire Ranch Foundation. Working with the Bureau of Land Management, which now owns the property, the foundation is developing a western heritage and education center at the compound. The ranch headquarters is the centerpiece of a preservation effort that seeks to tell a tale of not only the old West, but the new West as well. The saga of the Empire's survival is a capsule history of modern-day development and the reaction to it. "When you think of all the bullets this place has dodged," says Barleycorn, "it's really amazing."

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