History of Arizona Date Farming and The Sphinx Date Ranch
Sphinx Date Co. first became a vision of our founders when Roy Franklin discovered a Black Sphinx seedling in a Phoenix neighborhood in 1928. Franklin discovered the tree in someone’s front yard, and recognized it as a new or unknown variety, grown from a seedling rather than an off-shoot. Date palms from seedlings, common in Mexico or Baja California, do not produce good quality dates. Franklin interested Ellen Amelia Goodbody Brophy, a prominent Old West landowner and philanthropist, in the idea; 47 acres was planted on her property in the Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix to become the original Sphinx Date Ranch. Ellen died in 1934, and her son Frank Cullen Brophy and Ed Peterson took over date operation with Roy Franklin in an effort to grow dates commercially. Frank Cullen Brophy thought up the name “Sphinx” because of its mystery origins. Date trees were initially imported into Arizona from the Middle East in the early 1900s.
Throughout the 1940s various tactics were employed to bring awareness to the new date variety. Sugar rationing had begun in 1942 during World War II and dates were growing in popularity as a deliciously sweet alternative to candy, boosting Arizona’s date industry. Sphinx Date Ranch began wholesaling to Harry and David and offered screening packages specially labeled for their 10 best customers. An attempt to can the dates at a Mormon co-op canning factory in Tempe was unsuccessful; however, batches did sell because of the novelty. Eventually we experimented with date candy, bread, citrus rind candy and finally the date shop and a luncheon patio business was opened in the early 1950s.
With the opening of the shop on the Ranch, the business thrived as a unique Arizona experience for high society serving many famous celebrities and families. Ladies staying at Elizabeth Arden’s Maine Chance often came to the Sphinx Date Ranch patio for luncheons, including celebrities like Lillian Gish. In 1957, date gift packs were sent to President Ike Eisenhower and members of the U.S. Congress.
In the late 1950s the cost to maintain the date groves had brought the business into considerable debt, owners made the decision to divide the property into residential lots, named Montgrove Arcadia. The packing plant and store were demolished to make way for condominiums, moving the store to merge with a neighboring date farm on Camelback Road across from the Royal Palms Resort in the late 1960s. Sphinx Date Ranch continued sending date gifts all over the country via mail order and a catalog brochure. At this time, many of the date farms in Arizona were dividing groves to make way for residential properties. Further, too much rain in the Valley was causing spoilage. Farming operations began moving away from the city towards Yuma and California where there were better growing conditions.
Around the same time, a new variety imported from Morocco was quickly becoming the farmer and fan favorite. The Medjool date is of large size, attractive appearance and ripens so that a relatively few pickings would be necessary to obtain high quality. New Sphinx business owners, the Luckeys, continued on as an exclusive vendor at various local resorts. Almost 90% of the business at this time was mail order with operations closing during the summer. The Luckeys now brought in Medjool dates from the Yuma area and still offered Black Sphinx dates from the original property. Some of the famous customers said to frequently order from Sphinx included Bing Crosby, a princess from Yugoslavia, Lady Bird Johnson and the Johnson & Johnson family. The Luckeys found themselves needing more space than the current farm stand and moved the store to a larger location in Scottsdale in the late 1970s.
Rick and Penny Heetland, who had owned an ice cream shop next to the Sphinx Date Ranch purchased the Sphinx Date Ranch shop from the Luckeys in 1979. Opening up multiple more stores in the area, the Heetlands acquired Southwest Fruits and Nut Distributors from San Jose, Ca and relocated the main operation to Scottsdale. Very active in giving back to the community, Rick was president of the Scottsdale Boys & Girls Club, Scottsdale Jaycees, and a member of the Scottsdale Charros. Throughout the 1980s, Penny continued to sell at local resorts and to celebrity clientele said to include Joan Kennedy, Lillian Hellman, the Goldwaters, the Rockefellers, the Mars candy family, Harvey Mackay, Barbara Bush and Fay Wray. The Heetlands continued to expand the brick and mortar aspect of the business, also releasing the Date Recipes cookbook in 1986 and investing in their own Medjool date farms.
After growing the business for over 20 years, Rick became ill with ALS passing in 2005. His son Jason, who had been running the store during his illness, continued the family business along with his wife Emily. Jason expanded the selection of items to include Arizona made wine and craft beers (a new industry growing in the state), reinforcing our tradition of offering “a gift in good taste since 1951”.
Mother-daughter team Sharyn and Rebecca Seitz became proprietors in 2012. We are excited to continue the tradition of a longstanding family business and support our personal philosophy of shopping local. As longtime Scottsdale residents, we joined the business charged with sharing the Sphinx Date Ranch heritage and history of date farming in Scottsdale. With our predecessors’ entrepreneurial spirit in mind, we have continued to promote local made delicacies, adding a large selection of locally made items in addition to continuing the legacy of fresh date gifting. We love working with local producers, hearing the story behind their products, and passing that on to our customers. We have amazing customers, some of whom have been gifting with us for over 20 years.
To this day, we still hand sort all of the Medjools we receive from our independent family farmers in Yuma, Arizona. We've created a new Date Jam and a line of Date Salsas on a mission to show the world all you can do with dates! Our goal is to educate our neighborhood and America about their benefits, with a guiding mission to increase awareness of all Arizona made and native grown foods.