Mesa Replaced Farms With Charm To Become Arizona’s Third Largest City
Like most cities in the Phoenix metropolitan area, Mesa profited from an agriculturally based economy until after World War Two. But military bases established nearby during the war stimulated a shift toward manufacturing in the east valley. In 1959, for the first time manufacturing employment in Mesa exceeded agricultural employment. By 1975, factory jobs outnumbered farm jobs 12 to one. Mesa’s history illustrates the transformation experienced nearly everywhere in the Salt River Valley.
The location of Fort McDowell on the Verde River in the northeast valley in 1865 suppressed Native American opposition to white settlement. Anglo farmers were then free to reconstruct ancient Indian canals and plant crops in the fertile alluvial soil stretching from the confluence of the Verde and the Salt to where the Salt River joined the Gila. The town of Maryville was established north of the Salt in the east valley in 1865 and then abandoned for the Phoenix settlement created downstream in 1868.
In 1877 and 1878 two parties of Mormon settlers arrived from Utah at a crossing on the south side of the Salt River opposite the site of Maryville. Enjoying the protection of the military and finding no prior legal claims, the land was theirs for the taking. The first party established a United Order commune, engineered an irrigation ditch from the river and laid out on paper the town of Utahville, also known as Fort Utah, later Jonesville (1880) and Lehi (1884). The second party chose their own site on higher tableland about a mile and a half south of Utahville. Rather than a communal village, a more enterprising “Mesa City” was created out of Section 22, with 132-foot wide streets separating 10-acre blocks. And a longer Mesa Canal brought Salt River water to the mesa top.
Early Mesa pictured about 1883 shows the A. F. Macdonald home and gardens at lower left and at right the “relief society hall” (bishops storehouse? with flat roof), a hotel and store (on corner) and new city hall and jail (pitched roof). Macdonald, Mormon Stake President and first mayor, was sent to Mesa from Utah to iron out difficulties. He left in January 1885 to establish a colony in Mexico.
Bringing the abundant supply of Salt River irrigation water to the top of the mesa transformed the desert into an oasis, providing a source of agricultural wealth. Within a few years, Salt River Valley farms could feed all of Arizona and export a surplus to the rest of the nation. This unidentified canal is pictured about 1908.
Two more immigrant parties from Utah arrived and residents began building institutions to perpetuate their values. They placed importance on education, musical and performing arts and the “pioneering spirit,” by which they meant hard work to overcome hardship and make a better life in a harsh environment. Like Lehi, Mesa also valued common wealth for the common good. An adobe schoolhouse was built in 1882 and The Zenos Cooperative Mercantile and Manufacturing Institution store by 1884. The 300 residents incorporated a city government in 1883. Due to a naming conflict, US Post Office regulations first sent Mesa City mail to a post office named “Hayden” (at Hayden’s Ferry or Tempe) six miles to the west. In 1886 a Post Office still located in Tempe named “Zenos” (one of the names originally suggested for Mesa) received mail for Mesa. The “Mesa Post Office” was finally established in Mesa in 1889. By then the population had doubled.
Commercial life centered around the intersection of Main and Macdonald, seen here about 1908, looking west. On the SW corner (at left) is the Mesa City Bank, which later became Mesa Drug Company. The next building west is LeSueur, Gibbons & Co. mercantile, established in 1905. It later became LeSueur-Botkin Co. and finally sold to Bayless mercantile of Phoenix in 1926. The building was then replaced by the Nile Theater.
Beyond the accumulation of wealth through land sales and agriculture, one of the goals of settlement in the Salt River Valley was to provide a comfortable Anglo lifestyle as typified by this Mesa home pictured about 1908 surrounded by shade trees, palms and oleanders. A hundred years later lifestyle seemed the most important function of the community.
Churches and schools were valued centers of social life in early Mesa. Pictured on two vertical postcards from about 1909 are the LDS Tabernacle (1896) on SE corner of 1st Avenue and Morris, Methodist Church (1893) also on 1st Avenue just east of Center, First Baptist Church (1895) on 1st Avenue at Macdonald, South Grammar School (1890) at 2nd Avenue and Center, Mesa High School (1908) also at 2nd Avenue and Center and old North Grammar School (1899) on Center and 2nd Street. All of these buildings are gone now.
By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Mesa had acquired a small ethnic minority population of Hispanics and African Americans. Moreover, many Pima and Maricopa Indians worked in Mesa and lived on a reservation north of the Salt River established in 1879. Following a statewide trend, Mesa elementary schools became strictly segregated in 1910. A separate grade school was built for Hispanic children (1910) and another for Blacks (1920). Highly assimilated minority children could attend the single high school established in 1899, with its own building constructed in 1908. Chinese, Japanese and Lebanese families opened businesses in Mesa during those years. With the start of World War Two some Japanese in Mesa were sent to concentration camps while others were allowed to remain in Lehi but were forbidden to venture south of Main Street, into a military exclusion zone. Hispanic students were integrated in 1940 and Blacks were allowed to attend the first Junior High in 1952. The 1954 US Supreme Court ruling ordered an end to school segregation everywhere.
The Phoenix & Eastern Railroad reached Mesa from Tempe in 1895 and the Southern Pacific eventually put Mesa on its mainline to Phoenix in 1926. The city got electric lights in 1898 and telephones in 1902. Building the Apache Trail (1904) and Roosevelt Dam (1905-1910) boosted Mesa’s business community. In 1914, the University of Arizona established an experimental farm west of Mesa that lasted until 1983. The city hosted the annual Arizona Citrus Show 1931-1959.
Citrus and Egyptian cotton became the leading crops 1907-1920, then cotton prices plummeted after the First World War leaving Mesa in a brief but severe depression. Soon after good times returned the city was again hit hard by the Great Depression after 1929. Suffering ten years of depression, property values in 1940 were only half that of 1920. But Arizona’s mining towns fared even worse. Beginning in 1940, Mesa almost doubled its population with each new census. That year it was the fourth largest city in the state, just behind Douglas. Prosperity returned with the industrial buildup for World War Two. Two airbases were sited nearby in 1941, Falcon Field and Williams Field. Falcon Field was turned over to the city at the end of the war, but Williams Air Force Base continued operations until 1993.
To provide narrow store fronts with the most customer parking automobiles parked head-in at both curbs and in the center of Main Street when this postcard was issued about 1927 (the autos at left are in the middle of the street). The view is looking east toward the intersection with Macdonald. The green sign marks Everybody’s Drugs on the corner with the lamppost. At right is the Nile Theater. Built in 1928, it closed as a theater in 1951. Recently it has been a church and is now called Mesa Underground, a venue for rock music.
This is the intersection of Main & Macdonald about 1939, looking northwest toward Everybody’s Drugs in a rebuilt remnant of Chandler Court (1908). Dr. A. J. Chandler designed and had constructed a horseshoe-shaped, single-story office complex with the first big evaporative cooling system in the Valley. The remaining half seen here was restored in 1984, though nothing like the original building. Established in 1906, Everybody’s Drugs closed in the late 1990s. Parking in the middle of the street was eliminated about 1935. Carrying highways 60, 70, 80, 89 and 93 until the 1970s, Main Street funneled all transcontinental highway traffic from the east into the Valley, giving Mesa the nickname “The Gateway City.”
Mesa’s Main Street began a long line of services for travelers: filling stations, cafes and motels, that stretched all the way through Tempe, beginning again on East Van Buren Street in Phoenix. By 1960 the strip development had extended farther east to Apache Junction. This postcard of the Winter Garden Motor Court, located at 131 East Main, was mailed in 1951.
After World War Two, Mesa became a popular destination for tourists and families looking for jobs and a southwestern suburban lifestyle. The 1950 census found Mesa the third largest city in Arizona, a position it has retained ever since. Annexations of agricultural land helped. The city limit doubled the original square mile in 1930 and increased to six square miles in 1950 then 125 square miles by 2000. Promoted as “The Charm City,” by 1952 tourism had become Mesa’s largest industry. Winter visitors parked trailers by the thousands in dozens of mobile home “villages.” Air conditioning, car-friendly streets and suburban shopping attracted permanent residents. Aerospace factories provided high paying jobs, a rocket engine research facility in 1957, Talley Defense Systems in 1960, Motorola in 1966 and Hughes Helicopter in 1982. And there was a payoff. Agricultural land became more valuable when developed for commercial, industrial or residential use.
The same block on Main pictured above is seen here about 1953. Stapley’s Hardware (at right) opened in 1895, profited by providing supplies for Roosevelt Dam construction and eventually added 11 locations across the Valley. Owner, O. S. Stapley was a member of the Arizona constitutional convention in 1910 and then served as state senator. Great grandson Don is a county supervisor.
Residents enjoyed the shade in the Citrus Grove Trailer Park at 1007 W. Main in the 1950s. After the allure of trailer life faded subdivisions were built over cotton fields, with wide ranch style homes at first, but finally townhouse styles with narrow facades. (I have colorized the original black & white postcard image.)
Looking south on Macdonald in the first block below Main about 1956, the Pioneer Hotel began in 1894 as the Alhambra, finest in Mesa. It burned in 1921, was reconstructed the following year and received a large addition in 1951. It survives as a public hotel operated by Transitional Living Communities. Pat’s Bicycle Shop was next door from 1947 to 1957, when it moved to 929 East Main. The still family owned business moved to Gilbert Gateway Towne Center near the airport at the end of 2009.
From 1950 until the present Great Recession Mesa’s economy grew at a spectacular rate. Dobson Ranch, the first master-planned subdivision, opened in 1973 and the Superstition Freeway in 1977. Forty-two new grade schools were built 1950-1990, by which time Mesa Unified School District No. 4 was the largest in the state. Population increased 89% between 1980 and 1990. At the same time, some of the best farmland on the planet was lost to development. One million cartons of citrus were shipped from Mesa in 1995, but only 220,000 last year. At the same time, many square miles of Sonoran desert were bulldozed for development. In recent years, some of those structures built over the desert or in place of crops have themselves fallen to the wrecking ball.
Rendezvous Park, Mesa’s first municipal park, was located at 2nd Street and Center. That’s 2nd at lower left, with Center running left to right across the top of the postcard and University across the upper left. The round building, Rendezvous Recreation Center, was built in 1925. Major improvements were made in 1938. This aerial view from the mid-1960s shows a major league spring training game in progress. The Chicago Cubs practiced here 1952-1965 whereupon they moved to Scottsdale. The Oakland Athletics came in 1969. Most of the park was razed in 1976 to become the site of Mesa Community Center. The Athletics continued spring training at the new Hohokam Park until 1978. The following year, the Cubs returned to Mesa.
The seventh operating temple of the LDS Church was dedicated in Mesa October 23, 1927. It’s still an unusual design, inspired by Solomon’s temple, without a spire. This view is to the northeast, with Main Street running across the top of the postcard and the intersection of East 1st Avenue with South Lesueur at lower left. Landscaping has changed since this photo was taken in the 1960s and there is a new visitor center on the north side.
Looking northwest above downtown Mesa about 1969, the 5-story Valley National Bank (1959), on the NE corner of Main and McDonald, is the tallest building. In the next block north on McDonald is City Hall (now the Arizona Museum of Natural History), with Queen of Peace Catholic Church (red roof) across the street to the north. At lower right, on Main, the El Portal Hotel (1928) was demolished in 1972 and Mesa City Plaza occupies the site. Valley Bank sold to Bank One in 1993, which was then acquired by Chase. A $6 million renovation completed in 2005 turned the bank building into One Macdonald Center offices, with a US Bank on the ground floor. This part of Mesa used to be the commercial center of the original square-mile city limit bounded by University and Broadway, Country Club and Mesa Drive.
Mesa’s first strip-mall shopping center anchored by a locally owned Wright’s grocery opened in 1954 on Broadway and Mesa Drive. The first indoor mall opened in 1968 on west Main at Dobson, close to Tempe. Tri-City Mall offered 55 shops anchored by J. C. Penney’s, six multiplex screens, and several restaurants. It closed in 1998 and was largely demolished, replaced by Tri-City Pavilions strip-mall. That’s Webster Elementary School, 202 N. Sycamore, behind the mall.
Lisa A. Anderson, Alice C. Jung, Jared A. Smith & Thomas H. Wilson, Mesa (2008) Images of America Series
Mesa Public Schools, Our Town (1991)
D. L. Turner & Catherine H. Ellis, Latter-Day Saints in Mesa (2009) Images of America Series