By Pat Kilkenny
Since moving to Prescott, I have thought many times of my family's first time in Arizona in 1931, and the different events that we experienced then. Starting in 1929, my father, James Nicholson, was employed by the "Radio Division" of the Bureau of Lighthouses and, surprisingly, this division had nothing to do with the sea or lighthouses, but was formed to handle aviation matters, specifically commercial aviation.
Starting in 1930, the need for navigation aids became more pressing as commercial aviation grew, and this led to the creation of "Radio Range Stations" whereby commercial pilots could use radio signals for navigation rather than railroad maps! Even daring though it sounded, they could, with this new method, fly at night! Father was in charge of construction and installation for the southwestern route running from Amarillo, Texas to California. Mother, Lavina, and I left Washington, D.C. and returned to Maine when dad went out west. After finishing the school year in June of 1931, mother and I prepared to leave Portland, Maine and rejoin dad in Albuquerque. We set out in our Roadmaster with its canvas top, and isinglass curtains that snapped snugly into place until used a couple of times! After a few uses they gapped strategically so driver and passenger would be either wet or frozen, depending on the weather. Now, my mother was, and is, no amazonian figure of a woman, rather a petite, serious, and at that time only 30 years old. In anticipation of the trip, she took both of us to the barber, and we emerged shorn into what was then called "Boyish Bobs", practical, but hardly attractive!
After leaving Maine, we eventually found ourselves following Route 66 and my first memory of it was going through Oklahoma City. By then I was fairly proficient in map reading and although I checked the map several times, I couldn't understand a town (large print) that seemed to consist of nothing but oil derricks! The atmosphere also held a lingering and distinctive aroma that took miles to dispel. Our stop in Amarillo was delayed until the young man dad had dispatched to assist mother showed up. The delay meant that we approached Albuquerque on unpaved Route 66 in the dead of night. We climbed an endless mountain before we reached a pass and opening up before us was a spectacular scene. Way down in a bowl were the few lights of Albuquerque and the surrounding mountains, all bathed in the light of a full moon. Truly a magical sight! However, winding down the unpaved highway took quite a bit of the magic out of the scene! When we pulled into the hotel, we found dad anxiously waiting for us, complete with 10-gallon hat! Wow, I was in Tom Mix Land! After a brief stay, and my introduction to "lemon soap", the water was so mineral-laden that lemon soap gave a brave few bubbles, and virtually no lather we headed west on Central Avenue going to Gallup. Central Avenue was also unpaved with miles of motor courts, diners, shops and enormous garish signs that helped take the eyes and attention off the bumps and ruts.
In Gallup, we equipped the roadster for our next stop in Winslow. Gates on the running boards held back camp cots, bedding, lengths of rope, axes, shovels, tire mending kits, spare tire tubes, containers of water for car and humans, and mother's portable kitchen consisting of two iron skillets, butcher knife, wooden spoon, and a paring knife.
The most impressive first sight in Arizona were the license plates, COPPER, and I thought that was about the classiest thing that I had ever seen! I still do!
In Winslow, we moved into a Tourist Camp as dad was still working on the range station. Each morning as the crew and dad arrived on the site, they would have to kill a couple of rattlers before starting work. This led to my rather extensive collection of rattles, although mother did take exception to my keeping them in her sewing basket. Frankly, I thought that was the perfect repository for something so valuable. Mother also discovered in Winslow that high crowned 'dobe roads could be tricky. One day in a fit of wifely zeal, she drove out to the site to pick dad up and, en route, slid slowly and inexorably off the road into a deep ditch. It took a team and hawser to get the car out, and no doubt, a while for mother to "cool off".
But the best part of our time in Winslow came at Clear Creek, an honest to gosh swimmin' hole, a lifesaver in 110 degree heat. We went to rodeos held at irregular intervals, no grandstands, but splinter laden fences to balance on. I learned to watch for "dust devils" and loathed alfalfa flavored milk. Of course, it was a treat to go out to the airport and watch the occasional airliner come in. In 1932, air congestion was not a problem, but rather an event calling for an audience. TWA then was known as The Western Airline, no fancy nonsense about titles in those days. And American Airways was the other line using the airport. Finances permitting, we would go to the Fred Harvey restaurant at the railroad station for dinner which was a real treat!
It actually rained one day and the neighborhood kids and I whooped into bathing suits and after short runs would slide on our heels as far as we could, braking being achieved by a loud thump as our backsides hit the ground. Mother still claims that it took ages before the 'dobe flecks were out of my rear end!
So, despite the stereotype of a pioneer woman, I consider my mother to be a true pioneer! Imagine a young woman and child driving across the country in the primitive conditions of the early 1930's. That to me is the stuff of a Pioneer!
Pat Kilkenny is a Facilitator at Yavapai College's Learning Institute.