Still on the Turquoise Trail, walking around La Pilita’s grounds is a photo exhibit that reminds us that this space was once a playground of sorts for the people of Tucson. There was shade and water. People came to play baseball, picnic and socialize.
In the 1870s, Don Leopoldo Carrillo, an early Tucson business person, constructed Tucson’s first public park. Named Carrillo Gardens, this oasis was an eight-acre garden on South Main Avenue. According to Paul Allen of the Tucson Citizen, the space was landscaped with 500 peach trees, 2,000 grape vines, 200 quince, 60 pomegranate trees, and nine apricot trees. Carrillo’s sons, dressed as sailors, would row visitors around “lakes,” which were actually ponds over natural springs.
The gardens had a race track with ponies ridden by monkeys, a shooting gallery, 12 bath houses, a saloon, restaurant, dance hall, zoo, and circus. Everything was in one place for the hardworking people of Tucson to come and have some much needed relief from the very real difficulties inherent in living in the wild west.
Carrillo had a mule-drawn wagon “bus” that would bring visitors to the gardens which were six blocks from downtown. The cost for the ride was a nickel. There was even an ice cream parlor. Can you imagine keeping that cool in the summer heat?
After Don Carrillo died in 1890, Emanuel Drachman, father of the late Roy P. Drachman, with partner Nat Hawkes purchased 13 acres of the Carrillo property north of Simpson Street and west of Main Street, now Main Avenue. Improvements included a place to show moving pictures, seating for up to 600 people, the baseball field and an enclosed skating rink. The Greeks were invoked when the park was named Elysian Grove.
Theodore Roosevelt, stopped by in 1912 while campaigning for president throughout the West.
During its heyday, Elysian Grove attracted quality entertainers. A Paris-born singer, Millie Royers, performed there. She became the elder Drachman’s wife and mother of Roy Drachman.
Tucson’s first aerial demonstration occurred in 1910, when Charles Hamilton brought his biplane to the Old Pueblo by rail, assembled it and flew over the amusement park.
By 1915, the writing was on the wall for the Grove. The park had seen better times. A group called Tucson Amusement Co. bought the property and tried to keep it operating. But in 1930, the property was sold to the city. A site was set aside for what now is Carrillo Intermediate School, and the remainder subdivided into residential lots.
All that is left of the ponds today is a large depression. And you have to look for that. The only tangible remnant is Elysian Grove Market, earlier called Elysian Grove Grocery. José Trujillo built a small adobe structure for the store at 400 S. Samaniego Ave., near West Simpson Street, in about 1930, serving the needs of the neighborhood. The Trujillo family operated it until the 1950s. Today it serves as a private home.
With the closing of La Pilita museum, you must walk the area, look at the exhibits, and imagine, just for a moment, what life was like for people in Tucson at the turn of the century. They worked hard and they played hard. Does the past call to you? Walk through this area, and discover for yourself by viewing the photo exhibit, how those who came before us lived and enjoyed life.