By Amy Silverman
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Dwight Heard's home stood just behind where the C&W Rainbow Market stands, at the intersection of Broadway and 24th Street. The area is presided over today by a group of cheerful fellows who introduce themselves as winos and will give the casual visitor a guided tour in return for pocket change. "It used to look like a big motel," one offers helpfully, spurred by the suggestion that there may once have been a building standing on the spot, and he may have a recollection of it.
"It's an old Indian burial ground," another ventures, topping his pal's response to visitor interest.
An older gentleman with glasses, one Chester, has loitered on the corner of Broadway and 24th for 40 years and leads the tour to the old mansion site.
"I used to live under these trees," he explains, as he walks between the rows of palms that line the entrance drive to the Heards' house. More palms, arranged in a rough rectangle, indicate where the mansion used to stand, on a lot now overgrown with weeds and littered with broken glass. A woman staggers under the trees of Chester's old homestead.
The trees are pretty much of the leafless variety, indistinguishable from telephone poles. Palm trees look particularly pathetic when all their fronds fall out.
Chester is glad to have been of help.
@body:Since Phoenix is now largely covered with golf courses, it's surprising to discover palm trees once made the Valley one of the premier date-growing areas of the United States.
A footnote in the history of Arizona agriculture, dates never rivaled cotton, copper, cattle or citrus, since most Americans probably average one-half of a date every year, during the annual holiday visit to Aunt Mildred's house. The other half of the date is generally slipped quietly into the napkin.
In the late 19th century, however, hopes were high. Seedlings were planted here in the Salt River Valley, as well as around Yuma, in California's Coachella Valley and in New Mexico. By the 1920s, 500 acres of dates were under cultivation around Phoenix. There was a grove at 51st Avenue and Northern. There were groves in Mesa and Tempe. There was a grove at 47th Street and Lafayette. That's where the Sphinx Date Ranch got started. Although the ranch once had acreage under cultivation in the city, Sphinx's groves are now in places less tempting to golf-course developers, like Buckeye and Yuma. Its local presence has been reduced to a gift shop offering boxes of dates and the inevitable cactus jelly, while doing most of its business at Christmas. The Sphinx Date Ranch's retail outlet smacks of yesteryear in that it still looks like a roadside attraction, although the road it's beside is Scottsdale Road, and its neighbors are minimalls.
The Sphinx Date Ranch is presided over these days by a refugee from Minnesota named Rich Heetland, who has curly hair, blue eyes and a complete inability to give voice to any negative thoughts about the future of the date business. He will go so far as to say date milk shakes are "addicting."
Heetland has much of the information about Phoenix dates in his head, and the rest in newspaper clippings hung on his wall. The date business in Phoenix was excellent through World War II, which cut off foreign competition. Then the bottom fell out. The postwar boom made possible by air conditioning turned date groves into housing developments. The grove at Lafayette and 47th Street became the Arcadia neighborhood, for instance, and places like the Sphinx Date Ranch became colorful remnants. Heetland can suggest another colorful remnant in the person of Harry Polk, the only man who harvests dates commercially in Phoenix.
A former philosophy major at ASU, a former hippie living in the desert and a former member of an ashram, Polk is a round-faced chap who spends his life climbing up palm trees on a large ladder.
If you live in Arcadia, you probably know him and the deal he offers, which is either $50 to $100 cash per tree for the privilege of harvesting your crop, or 10 to 15 pounds of dates. Most folks take the cash. No one outside of the Saudi Arabian royal family eats ten pounds of dates a year. Harvesting dates involves more than just picking the fruit when it's ripe. It also involves assisting the trees in fertilization, a process which palm trees perform both lackadaisically and incompletely when depending only on wind, time and chance. During April, when Polk is collecting pollen from male trees and shaking it all over female trees, a hay-fever sufferer can get an attack just by looking at him.
Holding a machete and a green plastic garbage sack, Polk hauls himself up a tree and balances himself 20 feet above the ground on two insubstantial-looking but apparently quite muscular fronds. With the machete, he trims away about half the female flowers, which grow in big bunches. That's so the ripening dates will have plenty of room to get fat and juicy. Then he tosses a bunch of male pollen over the remaining flowers.
"Yeah. No foreplay," he says with a laugh.