The November weather was perfect as 16 hikers from the Mesquite Desert Dames made a long-awaited visit to Lytle Ranch Preserve. It was worth the wait, and many vowed it would not be their last visit to this hidden oasis at the edge of Beaver Dam Wash in southern Utah. The ranch is shaded by massive cottonwoods and native vegetation. Situated at the edge of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Plateau, the ranch is home to hundreds of species of birds, animals and plants, some of which are found only in southern Utah.
A small sign along Highway 91 points to the ranch, but few take the opportunity to follow the arrow that points down a gravel road to the wonders that unfold 11 miles away. The Dames had made plans years ago to visit the ranch, but a serious flood intervened in 2011,
washing away the historic adobe house and ripping through century-old orchards. For a time, the ranch was closed to visitors as Brigham Young University, the preserve operator, picked up the pieces.
Fields and orchards along the banks of the wash are irrigated from ponds and a watering system that dates from the early days when Hannah Leavitt Terry and her six children spent 12 years on the wash, eking a living at this sequestered “motoqua.” The Paiute term, motoqua, described any such place that was “always shady,” and this site is several miles downstream from the other Motoqua settlement upstream that still retains that name.
Hannah was a daughter of Dudley and Mary Leavitt. She was the fourth polygamous wife of Thomas Sirls Terry. Arriving at the wash in 1888, Hannah was hidden away to avoid federal authorities who were prosecuting those engaged in polygamy. In addition to raising hay and
cattle, Hannah and her children planted fruit trees and other crops.
Through the years, two of the Terry sons continued to farm down Beaver Dam Wash. A portion of the Terry property was purchased by John Eardley in 1928. The Eardley family labored to build an adobe ranch house and raised alfalfa, sorghum, melons, and fruits. Vestiges of their orchards still produce yearly crops.
In 1952 Talmadge and Eleanor Marie Lytle purchased the ranch from the Eardley family. The ranch functioned without electricity or telephones until 1985, though heating and refrigeration were later provided by propane. Marie died in 1984, and Talmadge, now in his 70s was not prepared to stay on the ranch alone. He offered the ranch for sale to Brigham Young University because students had used the ranch as a living laboratory since the 1950s. With the assistance of The Nature Conservancy, BYU acquired the ranch in 1985.
The unique qualities of the ranch continue to draw students from all over the world. BYU has employed Heriberto “Eddie” Madrigal as caretaker of the ranch for many years. He and his wife Debbie have seen changes to the ranch as it has withstood the ravages of floods and the passage of time. The Eardley house was damaged beyond repair, and a store of valuable books and study materials were lost to high water that washed away large parts of the fields. A series of stone riprap walls have been built to deflect future floodwaters. A beautiful new bunkhouse and conference room has been built to house student groups that frequent the ranch.
Eddie’s kindly but mischievous nature makes him a gracious host to all who visit the ranch. He loves to recount history of the ranch, and is pleased to cut open a ripe pomegranate with his small pocketknife so all can share the sweet fruit that has thrived here since pioneer days.
A visit to Lytle Ranch Preserve transports one from the starkness of the desert to another place, another time.
Reservations are needed to allow Eddie to make time to welcome guests to this outdoor campus. A small donation to BYU Lytle Ranch Preserve is requested to help to keep this historic treasure open to all. Please see the BYU website, mlbean.byu.edu/lytle/.