Patagonian Johnny Urias’ early years were spent like many Arizonans in the 1940s – in the worlds of ranching and mining. His dad, Juan, who came from Sonora to work as a miner in Douglas, lived in several rural communities as he met his future wife and started a family. Juan and Adela met in her home in Klondyke (named, with altered spelling, for the gold rush locale in Canada). Johnny was born in 1939 in Mammoth, north of Oracle, where his dad worked at the Eureka Ranch. In 1943, the Eureka Ranch owner bought the Rail X Ranch just north of Patagonia, and Juan hired on as a ranch hand.
Juan and Adela had two daughters when young Juan came along, and the girls doted on him. He remembers that the rancher supplied the family with a cow for their milk. He learned to milk at an early age, and he got muddy in the nearby springs and creek with a pair of twin boys about his age that lived nearby.
Johnny rode the school bus to Patagonia for first grade (there was no kindergarten then) and the teacher’s first job, he said, was teaching English to most of the class. Soon the family moved to town, where his dad went out on his own as a fence builder. The house on Sonoita Avenue, built in 1914, where two more daughters were born and where they all grew up, is still in the family.
Johnny has vivid memories of small-town life. There was an opera house next door to today’s Red Mountain Foods, built in the 1890s of mud adobe and later covered in wood siding. It served as a center for many community events – traveling shows from Tombstone, celebrations, funerals, and dances every weekend. “All the grownups would dance, but us kids would run around all night. About halfway through the dance, they had a break, and there would be someone selling food – Mexican food, especially tamales. Everyone would eat, then the dance would start up again.
“It was all local musicians. – fiddle and guitar mostly. Part of the evening was square dancing, then other types of dancing. There was a lady who used to call the dances, but as a kid, you know, we just played.”
That venue was closed and boarded up in the late 1940s. Johnny remembers helping the owner dismantle the building in the ‘50s to sell the wood.
When he was 13, Johnny started playing baseball, which became a lifelong passion. “We always had town teams, as well as high school teams. We played all over – Tucson, Guaymas, Nogales, Bisbee. Every Sunday there would be a double header. We could have played somewhere every day of the week.” In the 1958 PUHS yearbook, ‘The Mesquite,’ Johnny Urias “bequeaths and wills his ability to play 2nd base to Henry Moreno.”
Many Patagonians remember playing for Mr. Urias. He worked in Little League for 30 years as an umpire and coach, and coached girls’ softball for 15 years. “I played till I was in my mid-60s. I had never gotten seriously hurt, so I thought I should quit while I was ahead,” he said.
“When we were kids, Sonoita Creek down Blue Haven Road was a big attraction. Crowds of people would picnic and swim and the kids hung out down there. We’d drive past Solero Canyon Road, then follow the Creek to see who was there that we knew. There were local people, but people really came from all over – Tucson, Nogales. Back then, the Creek often flowed year-round.”
Urias remembers playing pool at Lopez Pool Hall for 10 cents for an hour. There was a little store out front that sold milk and bread and soda.
“Mr. Lopez would try to teach us how to play but we’d just be goofing around,” he said. “He’d chase us out of there, so we’d stay away awhile until, when we met him on the street, he said he was just joking. Then we’d go back and plunk down our dimes for another hour of play.”
Johnny graduated from Patagonia High School in 1958. At that time the school was housed in surplus buildings from Fort Huachuca which had been disassembled, trucked over and rebuilt on the site of the current high school.
The graduating class of 1958 had 14 students. According to classmate Ophelia del la Ossa Spence, they have held frequent reunions and kept up with each other over the years. “In 2018, the Class of ‘58 held our 60th reunion. It was a pleasure, as always, to reminisce. Eleven of our classmates were still with us but, sadly, in the ensuing two years, three class members have passed away,” she said.
Though future wife Anna Tapia lived in Harshaw and attended Patagonia Union High School as well, she and Johnny didn’t meet at first in person. Anna was younger than Johnny and, when he went away in the Army after high school, she got to know his sister. Anna asked if she could write to him, as was common for young women in those days to keep up the young soldiers’ spirits.
When he returned after stints in Puerto Rico and Duluth, Minnesota (where he says he got on the plane at 85 degrees, then disembarked to -20 degrees the same day), they took up seeing each other, and married soon after. Johnny and Anna have five children, all of whom live in the area. Their son Juan is known to many as the head of Patagonia’s Waste Water Treatment Department.
Johnny retired after 38 years with the Arizona Department of Transportation, working first with the engineers and ultimately as Highway Maintenance Supervisor.