The town of St. David is the oldest community on the San Pedro river. As you drive along Arizona Highway 80, you pass by horses, cows, and geese cooling off at various ponds. Cottonwood and pecan trees line the road, and elicit images of an oasis in the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona. Primarily a rural community, there are a few businesses along the highway: a cafe or two, some antique and book offerings, a barber shop, and some other services for the local residents. Also on the highway is the LDS (Mormon) church and the St. David school complex.
In 1846, a brigade of about 500 soldiers known as the "Mormon Battalion" passed through the area as a part of President James Polk's attempt to secure territory in the US war with Mexico. These soldiers remembered the lush vegetation and rolling land which lined the San Pedro, and thirty years later Philemon Merrill and a number of Mormon families settled in the area which they originally named Marcus. In 1881, the town was renamed St. David in honor of David Patton, a Mormon leader who died by a Missouri mob in one of the many attacks which the Mormons suffered at the hands of their fellow citizens. Arizona Highway 80 as it passes through St. David is, in fact, called Patton Street in his honor. Several of the streets in St. David are named for those pioneers who first settled along the San Pedro. McRae Street is named after Joseph McRae, whose wife Maria was the first schoolteacher in St. David. By the way, at the end of Sam Barrow Road, near the Western Horizons RV Resort, you will find Geriatric Street and Medicare Street. Someone had a sense of humor!
An earthquake in May of 1897 changed much of the San Pedro River Valley, including St. David. The flow of the San Pedro river was drastically reduced, the marshes west of the town dried up, and artesian wells had to be dug in order to supply the town with water. Much of the timber which was used to build Tombstone was cut by the Mormons of St. David, who traveled to the Huachuca mountains to harvest the lumber. St. David remained a largely Mormon enclave until the late 1930’s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a work camp in the area, and groups from Texas and Oklahoma decided to stay.
Some things of interest you might otherwise pass by in this quiet little town:
- "Grandma Goodman's Market" was started in 1883 when Margaret Goodman's husband passed away, leaving her with nine children. With her last five dollars, she bought some soap and a few small articles and sold them from her home. She gradually added more items, traveling by horse and buggy to Fairbank, Tombstone, and Benson for supplies. Her grandchildren remember that (at one time) the Post Office and the town's only telephone were in one corner of the store. Everything was kept behind counters, and she sold tinned meats, cheese, salt pork, sewing supplies, penny-candy, and small dry-goods such as hankerchiefs, combs, and jewelry. Grandma Goodman's Market, while still standing on Patton Street, closed in 2001 after 118 years of operation.
- Students in St. David's first school in 1878 were summoed to class by a 500 pound bell which was damaged in an earthquake in 1887. In the 1930's the bell was moved to the CCC camp, which became "Golden Bell Park", and is now the Western Horizons RV Park. In 2002, the bell was donated back to the town, and can now be found in a place of honor at the St. David school.
- The Holy Trinity Benedictine Monastery, on the south end of town, was begun in 1974, and is open to the public. There is a chapel, a library, a bookstore and gift shop, a thrift shop, and an art gallery at the Monastery. Adjacent to the grounds, along the San Pedro River, a bird sanctuary trail was developed by the Bureau of Land Management in cooperation with the Monastery.
Today, St. David is still a tightly knit small town, despite its more diverse makeup. The San Pedro Valley Fair (which has been running for more than 75 years) happens each Fall, as well as an annual 1880’s Historic Costume Ball.