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A.O. Kime Articles:

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This Way Once

Doris Sturges

An account by Doris Sturges about her 1935 move to Arizona and first experiences

This Way Once
by Doris Sturges (1911-2002)

Memories that bless and burn

Our trek west combined a delight and a promise… no backward glances. Only intoxicating visions of what life in the Old West might offer. Even I never dreamed of just how much it could offer, the dramatic changes that led to Washington on behalf of an Apache Indian tribe, the cowboys complete with guitars that we came to know, editing a small town newspaper. We had found our Old West!

Only now in twilight years do we afford ourselves the luxury of remembrances both sweet and sorrowful. And find it hard to be objective in the telling, as I had to be in writing about others for the newspapers.

The decision to leave our home in Indiana, and family in Ohio and Michigan, came as a result of John’s ill health. We needed sun country and in Feb, 1935, towing a cute new plywood house trailer behind our new Willys sedan we embarked… not really knowing much about Arizona and with no certainty of a job when we arrived. Did we worry? Not a bit. This was high adventure! Besides, we had a roof over our heads didn’t we? We parked the trailer (no creature comforts) near the Congress Street bridge in Tucson at the river crossing. No trailer park facilities then.

Since our breadwinner had held a job with Sears in Indianapolis it became a relatively easy matter to find employment with the store in Tucson. Our arrival had coincided with the big rodeo, the first we had ever seen. And remember well the wild bulls and golden horses (palominos) and also the standing ovation paid to General John Pershing, who was also in attendance. And wondered then, and now, why the men (if any were there) who had served under him were not also honored.

We found a darling new adobe house 17 miles out in the desert to rent. Two rooms with a porch across the front, it was at the end of the world. A big squeaky windmill pumped lots of water for the house and flower beds and for stock tanks nearby. Pure enchantment… shared by a mocking bird who would serenade us from the height of a saguaro cactus (our furniture consisted of two camp cots).

Daughter, Joanne, 4, and a fox terrier pup and I whiled away the hours in this idyllic setting… but not entirely alone due to desert denizens including range cattle. A real estate lady had had the house built for herself and named it La Solita… this following a divorce. Yet finding aloneness too hard to bear had shot herself.

“Never buy a horse you can’t ride”, a saying that became painfully clear after we bought a fractious steed from a local Mexican rancher who no doubt was delighted to find such trusting easterners. To our complaints he kept saying “You my friends”… then to demonstrate how good a deal we had, he brought another ‘gringo’ with him to hold the horse’s head down while he saddled and mounted… keeping a very close rein. Still this looked too much for greenhorns and in persisting we got our money back from our ‘friend’.

At that time the area was dotted with little Mexican rancheros and winding desert trails which snaked through the cacti and mesquite. Also here and there were abandoned frame homes, derelicts of the desert, with canvases flapping from their screened porches… places where tubercular patients had sought a cure in the Arizona sun. We were to get to know one who did recover and who lived outdoors while building a good home near the base of the road to Mount Lemmon… then still under construction.

This then was our introduction to this new, to us, land. Did we worry about the rattlesnakes, gila monsters, scorpions and other denizens of this desert? We were ignorant but wary.

I had left behind an ailing father whose last words were, “You won’t see me again”. We didn’t and this added a shade of grey to our rainbow. Also left behind was our beloved Clark Lake, Michigan. In storm or in serenity, the ethereal beauty of moonlight on ice, the scarlet sunset… its many moods were a constant joy. Close to its shore was the little two-room brick schoolhouse. Our teacher was a jewel who we took for granted but had a big influence on my life. She encouraged artistic bent, buying supplies for me to paint designs on silken scarves and handkerchiefs, a fabric art then in vogue. I also designed and painted Christmas cards for her. She also introduced the girls in my 10th grade class, three of us, to stage shows in Jackson. Seemingly living for her pupils she was a spinster. The parties she held at her farm home were a delight, especially when she allowed us to spend the night.

Prophetically she appointed me editor of a school news sheet, one of very short duration attracting little mention anywhere… that I know of. So, I was expected to amount to something evidently she hoped. After editing the Payson newspaper in later years I wrote to her but this missive was returned marked ‘deceased’. I often wonder how many others of her long ago students had delayed too long to give appreciation. Perhaps none had moved so far away.

The first party I had attended at her place I was escorted by a young man. I can’t remember how this happened at age fourteen, since my mother had issued an ultimatum that this was not to happen until I had reached eighteen. Anyhow it was a little unnerving when another girl showed up with tear swollen eyes… seems my date had been her boyfriend. I hadn’t known and she and I became very close friends later.

As it turned out I eloped and married your father, John, after high school graduation at age seventeen, and by eighteen had our first baby. At twenty two he was the handsome lifeguard at Ocean Beach and I the proverbial bathing beauty. I won such a contest at the lake and then billed as Miss Adrian, Ohio, where I’d never been. Anyhow I represented that town in the state finals in Detroit… something the people in Adrian must have wondered about.

So… the lake lover became a desert aficionado. Its more muted moods were nonetheless enthralling as we learned to ride. We definitely had developed horse fever as we donned chaps and boots.

As fall approached we found a place closer to town and school. It was located in a little valley just north of River Road. Now it’s a golf course. But then the tract was owned by Herman Schultz, a widower raising his teenaged son and daughter. It was young Herman Jr. who taught me to ride. He joined the air force in WWII and was shot down in the South Pacific.

Early days in Tucson, the old pueblo

A friendly realtor in Tucson negotiated a deal in which we found ourselves owner of an 80 acre tract east of town bordering the Saguaro National Forest. We sold our almost new car to manage the down payment… John throwing in his violin to clinch the deal. We acquired a little (very old) Ford truck for transportation and to haul building supplies. The old weather-beaten shack on the property was torn down and provided most of the lumber for the new adobe house we were to build.

We hired an Indian to make the adobes, made from the clay soil mixed with straw. This mixture he shoveled into a ladder-like frame and left in the hot June sun to dry. He then laid the finished product into the walls. Cost of this backbreaking labor, as I recall, was just $40 per 100 adobes.

As soon as we had put the roof on we moved to our new location, spending the first miserable night in the old chicken coop on camp cots. The July rains had come and the roof on this structure left a lot to be desired. But our elation at having our own home was seemingly short-lived. A couple of surveyors came by one day with the earth shattering news that our house was not on our 80 acres. Saddling old Jerry, our faithful blue roan, I rode to our nearest neighbor a couple miles away to impart this awesome news. This set off a chain reaction as John went to the realtor, who in turn contacted the Mexicans who had sold us the property. Since the tract had been represented as having the house on it they deeded an additional 15 acres to us. Something I’m sure would never ever happen again but at that time land was cheap or we would never have been able to purchase it in the first place.

The school bus to the Tanque Verde School came by our place to pick up Joanne. Her classmates were mostly of Mexican descent. We made good friends at school meetings, especially Elmer Staggs who had three boys in school. Then there was the annual New Years Day barbeque and horse races, a community affair which eventually had to be canceled due to too many outsiders.

As our house had been finished John turned his attention elsewhere and acquired a ranch near Sahuarita south of Tucson, which he leased out as range for another’s cattle. About this time the well went dry and the sound of thirsty cattle filled our days and nights until the well was deepened. I can’t remember the details of this transaction, if I ever knew. John it seems was always in charge and I had other things to attend to. Dorene was born at this time following a hurry up trip to the Storks Nest in Tucson… leaving a cowboy down in the well. Fortunately, for all of us, Dorene didn’t waste a bit of time being born.

There was something special about this old ranch, it was haunted! One night a cowboy working in the tack house heard a rider come up, heard the jingle of his spurs as he dismounted… only to go outside and find no one there. As to my own experience, one afternoon I was resting in a room near the kitchen, with the baby in her crib across from my bed, when a cowboy walked through toward the kitchen, gazed first at me and then the baby with kind of a disdainful “what is this ranch coming to” expression. Was I dreaming? I don’t think so. I can still see him in his well-worn leather chaps, boots and yes, spurs. He walked as if he at one time had been the owner of the spread.

We became past owners as well and moved back, happily, to our own adobe which was truly ours, all 95 acres.

With eyes to buying Mexican steers to ship to Mississippi’s Black Belt, we sold our property at a large profit and the cattle were shipped. We then moved to our new locale in Columbus, Ohio during a miserably hot steamy summer. Since there were no reorders for the cattle, as John had hoped, we headed back to Arizona, only this time no home to go to. Anyhow it was so wonderful to come back to Arizona.

(picture taken in the 1960s at Woods Canyon Lake on the Mogollon Rim 30 miles east of Payson, Arizona)

Also see An account by Doris Sturges about her 1943 move to Naco, Arizona and first experiences
See our tribute to Doris Sturges

Last modified: 10/25/13