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The Inner Beauty of Mesquite
By Regina Ford

he mesquite is a deceiving plant. The most common shrub or small tree of the desert Southwest, mesquite often appears twisted, gnarly and usually thorny on the outside. In fact, some consider it downright ugly.

Some cattlemen regard mesquite as range weeds and many times eradicate the plants.

Native Americans relied on the mesquite pod as a dietary staple from which they made tea, syrup, and a ground meal called "pinole." They also used the bark for basketry, fabrics and medicine.

A favorite of bees and other insects, mesquite flowers produce a fragrant honey.

The taproots, which can be larger than the trunk, are often dug up and used for firewood, and next to ironwood, mesquite is the best-known firewood of the desert because it burns slowly and is smokeless.

The wood is also used for fence posts, tool handles and to create aromatic charcoal for barbecuing.

So impressed with this hardy desert survivor and all mesquite can do, artisan Art Flores (hiding beneath his cowboy hat above) purchased the Tumacacori Mesquite-Sawmill last summer after working for more than 20 years across the border in Mexico for an American-owned maquiladoras.

"I wanted to take a little more control of my destiny, so I began to look for something I was interested in doing," Flores said. "I made many trips to this area and I was always interested in this place."

Flores met several times with Richard Maul, former owner of Tumacacori Mesquite, who started the mesquite business on the site just south of Tubac and 20 miles north of the Mexican border more than 20 years ago.

Maul finally agreed to sell his business last summer to Flores, a Tucson native, and after a few initial changes, the new owner took over Tumacacori Mesquite in August.

"Richard was a true craftsman and enjoyed more working with the wood than he did entertaining or selling to the public," Flores said of the former owner.

"The beauty of it all is that the structures on the property were designed and created by Richard and the five craftsmen he had working for him have all come on board and now work for me."

Robert Flores, Art's brother, now works with him, too.

Flores confessed that he was a novice to the mesquite business and had absolutely "no experience" in the world of wood work, except for a "great appreciation for the beauty of mesquite."

"Until you actually see what things can be made from mesquite and the beauty and richness of the wood, you have no idea that an ugly outside can contain such beauty inside," Flores explained.

"It's sort of a crooked, mysterious tree on the outside." The new owner set about learning all he could about mesquite and his new business.

Mesquite covers about 100 million acres in the Southwestern states and in Mexico. Varieties include: Honey mesquite, honey pod, algarobo, velvet mesquite and common mesquite.

In the desert plains, mesquite is more of a bush, but the shrubs can grow an average of 20 feet tall in other areas. The mesquite tree's root system can grow more than 100 feet down in search of water, making it a hardy survivor in harsh climates.

Flores orders his mesquite wood from Mexico.

"Mesquite is a protected resource in Mexico and the Mexican government issues permits for a certain amount to be sold for businesses like mine," he said.

"Mexican landowners are allowed to cut only so many, so it is controlled. They are starting to become very aware of their eco-system and have started taking precautions to see that it's not in danger."

It's the wood itself that intrigues Flores.

"It's very dense harder than maple or oak, and one of the most stable woods in the world," he said.

Today, many people associate mesquite with barbecuing, but it has numerous other uses such as flooring and staircases where it's ideal due to its durability. It's become a medium for artistic carvings, and is still used as a food source in items such as jellies, honey, liquid smoke and pod flour. It also provides livestock fodder and cover and is food for deer and turkeys.

It's the mesquite furniture, mantels, doors, lamps, arts and crafts, and the lumber itself, that Flores' new business prides itself in stocking and creating.

Flores admits that working with mesquite as a medium, is challenging.

"In order to get straight boards, a miller of mesquite typically discards the outer wood, which comprises up to 50 percent of the tree," he explained. "The exciting range of color, shapes, and grain dramatically present in the outer wood is the basis for our craft items."

The straight, much-sought-after-boards command premium dollars from the custom home builders and cabinet makers who appreciate its stability and incredible character.

Flores said mesquite, teak and mahogany are equally ranked as the most stable hardwoods in the world. The American Hardwood Association classifies mesquite as "replenishable, rare and exotic." "Mesquite is a very stable wood and when it shifts or moves, it doesn't buckle or split," he said.

Long-lasting, it can withstand heavy weight and moisture changes.

"Mesquite cutting boards used in commercial kitchens and washed repeatedly in dishwashers retain their integrity for a lifetime with no checking, splitting, or warping," Flores explained. "No other hardwood offers mesquite's wide range of color and grain. It varies in tone from lemon, honey, and caramel, to burgundy and from straight grain to highly figured including burled, quilted, bird's eye, and fiddle back."

"Defects" such as bark pockets, ring shake and resin pockets are found in larger logs. Occasionally, mesquite wood will show evidence of mineral streaks, ingrown bark, latent bugs and bug blemishes.

"These so-called flaws often add to the character of the rustic furniture we've created from mesquite," Flores said. "We commercially mill our mesquite from logs to lumber and then recycle the scrap from our milling operation to create a range of small craft items including cutting boards, crosses and mesquite boxes from the limbs of the trees."

A visit to Tumacacori Mesquite and its grounds in the heart of the mesquite bosque (forest) region of the Sonoran Desert is worth the trip.

A large showroom greets the visitor where on display are some of the handcrafted mesquite chairs, tables, lamps, cutting boards and crafts - all made right on the premises.

"This building is pretty unique, too," Flores said. "It's all old-fashioned pegged construction and duplicates structures like the Amish used to make barns years ago."

So popular are the Tumacacori Mesquite cutting boards, visitors to Asarco's Mineral Discovery Center near Mission Mine will find them for sale in its exclusive gift shop. Showroom customers can see examples of furniture for sale and also view photos of pieces that can be commissioned.

An exquisite dining room table of solid mesquite takes place of pride in the front of the showroom. The finish allows the richness of the wood to gleam under the natural daylight streaming through he showroom's windows.

Flores uses tongue oil to protect the wood and keep it from drying out. A solid mesquite bar and sofa table as well as unique chairs with wagon wheel adornments are on display. Each piece is different, but all show off the uniqueness of the mesquite.

"The wood pretty much dictates to the craftsman what it is he should produce," Art said. "We feature something called 'bookmatching' in our work. That means that essentially when you cut the log and open it up, you laminate it so that you have a mirror image and it makes the finished piece look uniform."

Custom work is Art's "mainstay," he said.

"Almost everyone who wants something made in mesquite has an idea of what it is they want," he said. "We can work from drawings or sketches or even pictures."

Uncut gray mesquite logs are stacked to the north of the showroom and large machinery used to cut the logs is nearby.

"The weather turns it this gray color but you cut it open and it's just as red as it ever was," Flores said.

Neat stacks of cut mesquite lumber are for sale and the owner admits that he does sell a lot of it.

"We even have Green Valley woodworkers buying wood from us for projects they're working on in their woodworking clubs," he said. "Cabinet makers and woodworkers from all over come to purchase the lumber so they in turn can create their own furniture."

Visitors can not help but notice how neat everything is on the two-acre property.

"I believe in the Japanese state of 'kaisen' whose basic philosophy is housekeeping and keeping things organized," he said.

"You can't get anything done if you are always looking for something or if things are in disarray, and that's why I insist that things are in order, even in my business."

Workshops are located in the center of the property where Flores' craftsmen work on various pieces, all in different stages of completion.

A storage room on the property holds hundreds of mesquite pieces which will later be turned into mantles, furniture lamps and other decorative pieces.

A solid mesquite door, desk and table from Tumacacori Mesquite were recently featured in an art show at the Tubac Center of the Arts and Art and his crew are now working on commissioned pieces for the new owners of the Tubac Golf Resort. In fact, a majestic mesquite lamp now graces the bar in the resort's restaurant.

Flores lives smack in the middle of Tumacacori Mesquite in a house the original owner built for himself in 1987 from mesquite wood, pine, Santa Cruz River rock, pieces of broken Mexican tile and whatever else he could find.

The interior features many wood accents including mesquite kitchen cabinets, a mesquite vanity in the bathroom and mesquite closets in the master bedroom. The original owner created a river rock bench that extends from wall to wall in the living area and a river rock step-in shower area. Highlighted with a brightly painted teal kitchen and rose-walled bathroom, his home is a "conversation starter," Flores notes.

Tumacacori Mesquite-Sawmill is located at 2007 E. Frontage Road, Tumacacori. From Green Valley, travel southbound on Interstate 19, take Tubac exit 34 and then go left to the East Frontage Road. Continue south approximately two miles.

Tumacacori Mesquite is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed on Sunday. The telephone number is (520) 398-9356.

© 2002 Green Valley News & Sun - All Rights Reserved.


Need more information? The most comprehensive Southern Arizona website for information about Dining, Shopping, Golfing, and Events, along with historical, weather, time of day, sunrise/sunset information and more is VisitTubac.com. VisitTubac.com

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