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Tubac Fireworks in Spanish Colonial Times

 In this photograph a boy is shown cutting carrizo  into open ended tubes for cohete powder cases.

In this photograph a boy is shown cutting carrizo into open ended tubes for cohete powder cases.

For centuries, sky rockets, fire-crackers and noise makers have enlivened both religious and secular life in the small towns of colonial New Spain. Tubac was no exception. Particularly in smaller, outlying towns and pueblos, people were extremely fond of noisy, evil-smelling rockets, squibs and firearms. When fireworks were not available, the soldiers fired their muskets at their own expense, or loaded the small cannon and boomed away to everyone’s delight.


Lighting the fuse in this photo

Lighting the fuse in this photo

Fiestas, royal birthdays, military victories, the arrival of a new viceroy in Mexico City, all of these and more were occasions to celebrate by burning gun powder.  Even during phases of the mass, men standing on the roof or outside along the walls of the church, exploded cohetas (sky rockets), triquitraques (firecrackers), and morteretes or camaras (small mortars).  The sky filled with small fleecy puffs of smoke and the air became alive with scores of sharp explosions. How ancient this practice is, it is difficult to say. Perhaps Jesuit priests, returning from China in times long past, brought this custom with them. The Chinese used fireworks to frighten away evil spirits during festivals and religious ceremonies.


Photo of cane castillo framework and basic figures of the gigantes under an open shed in a small Mexican town, ready to be refurnished for the next fiesta.

Photo of cane castillo framework and basic figures of the gigantes under an open shed in a small Mexican town, ready to be refurnished for the next fiesta.

One of our stalwart volunteers found the makings of a mini-exhibit when she was working in the museum last week. Originally, the exhibit occupied a case with 17 firework rockets attached to the wall and laid out on the floor. An entry on the inventory says, “Deaccessioned & destroyed on 12/30/93 on orders of Park Manager & SafetyOfficer due to dangerous & unstable qualities/condition of the explosives.” We include these 1950s era photographs showing the artisanal nature of Mexican fireworks manufacture, and they are great. We will display them on the big table in air conditioned Otero Hall on July 4th.


Some interesting information is contained in these photos:

Castillos are large cane frames covered with a variety of pyrotechnics and brilliant flares. They can cost between 20,000 to 250,000 pesos depending on size and complexity. Other cane frameworks are called Gigantes, large figures that are most often made to honor patron saints or Mexico’s patriot heroes. The cane is variously called carrizo or arundo.


Another cane work frame with the papier-mache shape of a bull is called a torito, (little bull). Generally painted a bright red and trimmed with green or yellow, these can be carried. During festivals, a man or boy holds the shell over his head and shoulders by the legs of the frame, and runs through the streets. Covered with small rockets, fire crackers and “busca pies” (foot seekers) the fireworks dart like fiery snakes from the torito and scoot along the ground or pavement with whistling sounds.

In this photo, another cane work frame with the papier mache shape of a bull called a torito, (little bull).

In this photo, another cane work frame with the papier mache shape of a bull called a torito, (little bull).


When hung over the door or fastened to a wall, they denote a firework maker’s house.  The fireworks industry was (and remains) artisanal, with production concentrated in family-owned workshops and small factories.


The home manufacture of all sorts of fireworks provides many workers with a means of livelihood, dangerous though it may be.  As with many Mexican crafts, much of the work is done in private homes by men and boys, who, in the course of years, become quite skilled.  Paper being scarce in the hinterlands, many of the cases for the rockets and crackers are small tubes cut from the ever present arundo, carrizo, or cane, which is then wrapped with tough twine and covered with pitch.


Join us on July 4th when admission is free from 10am to noon and step into Otero Hall to check out this mini-exhibit, but don’t stay too long or you’ll miss the free hotdogs and nachos, the lemonade and watermelon, and the various games and activities for the youngsters. A fun, safe and happy holiday to all of our readers!



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Edward Cross and Arizona’s First Newspaper

     Edward Cross, born in Lancaster, New Hampshire in 1832, began working as a printer for his local paper, the Coos Democrat, when he was 15 years old.  He then moved on to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked as a printer for the Cincinnati Times. Demonstrating writing skills, he served for a time as the paper’s Washington Correspondent.  He became involved with directors of the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company and moved west in 1857.  He settled in Tubac, Arizona Territory, where he invested in the company’s  mines and established the territory’s first newspaper,  The Weekly Arizonian.  The Washington printing press was brought to Tubac by Cross and his associate, William Wrightson, via the “Jackass Mail”, as the mule teams were called, and was used to print the first issue on March 3, 1859.


     Cross, serving as editor of the paper, had strong convictions.  He took exception to a number of articles written by Sylvester Mowry of Tucson that were published in Eastern newspapers. He criticized them for inflating the size of the local population and the magnitude of local mining operations.  Mowry challenged Cross to a duel, which took place on July 8, 1859. Using Burnside rifles, four shots were fired before Mowry’s gun failed, entitling him to another shot.  Cross stood waiting unarmed.  Mowry refused to fire at an unarmed man, thus ending the duel.  Both men exchanged apologies in person and in the Arizonian. The paper was sold a few weeks later, ironically to Mowry.  He moved the press to Tucson where it was used to print the first issue of the Citizen  and possibly the Star.  Later it printed the Tombstone Nugget.  In 1910, the press was donated to the Arizona Historical Society.  The press ultimately returned to Tubac after an absence of 120 years in 1980, where it was installed in the period print shop at the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park Museum.

The Washington Press comes home to Tubac 1980

     In addition to his writing and mining interests, Cross joined the U.S. Army scouts in their efforts against the Apaches.  In 1860, he crossed the border into Mexico to command a Sonoran army garrison supporting the insurgency of Benito Juarez.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, Cross returned to New Hampshire where he accepted a commission as colonel of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteer Regiment. 

     Cross was reportedly an impulsive and colorful officer, occasionally striking non-commissioned officers with the flat of his sword when angry.  He was known to wear a red bandana on his head instead of the traditional officer’s hat. This was his way of making himself easier to spot on the battlefield by his men.  However, on July 2, 1863 Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock noticed that his bandana was black rather than red.  Cross indicated that he had foreseen his own death and that black was more appropriate.  Cross fought in the Battle of Gettysburg that day and was mortally wounded while helping to stabilize the left flank as it entered the Wheatfield.  He fell near Rose Woods and died the next day at a field hospital.  His body was shipped home to Lancaster and laid to rest in the town’s cemetery.

Material for this article was taken from Images of America:  Tubac by Shaw Kinsley and Wikipedia.

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