Dick Myers

Dick Myers was a true historian.

ELOY -- Once a year, I’d head east on Jimmie Kerr Boulevard, turn off at Toltec Road. A block or two more and I’d end up at the Old Toltec Elementary School. Dick Myers would be there. He was there most days. Or so it seemed.

The school was built in 1930. I first met Myers there in 2010. He showed me around.

What I saw was an old building — abandoned, cluttered and dusty. Myers saw a school restored as a museum, one that spoke to the history of the area. From Hohokam to early settlers and cotton farming.

Every year, on my return, I saw less of my first impression and more of Myers’ vision. He first restored a smaller wood structure nearby. It was built in 1928 and known as the “colored school,” a relic of Arizona’s segregated past.

The main building, the 1930s school, now houses a museum. Displays of the region’s history line the walls, as do restored blackboards. The Sunland Visitor Center occupies a part of the building.

The work wasn’t a one-person job. Early visitor center members saw a need to restore the school. The Santa Cruz Valley Historic Museum was created to raise tax-exempt funding. Myers was the board president.

Volunteers pitched in.

But nobody pitched in more than Myers. He was always right there, hands-on-getting-it-done. He put in at least 20,000 hours of sweat equity. He stopped counting after that. I went through some of the stories I wrote about him and the school. One had “labor of love” in the headline.

I’m sure that’s true. But “love of history” might be more on point.

I recall standing outside the school. We faced north. Myers spoke about the families who showed up to pick cotton. They had children. And the children would fill the old school to bursting. Once the cotton was picked, the families would leave. And classrooms emptied out.

Myers was tall and, well, homespun. Truly homespun, raised in Eloy and full of stories about it. He spoke plainly, like someone who just happens to know these things. Not a musty academic. But Myers was a true historian. He dug through old newspapers. And historical records. He’d tie all that into his own experiences.

Then he’d tell you a story.

He had a personal attachment to the old school. He didn’t attend it. But his wife, aunt and kids did. He was born in Phoenix. His parents moved to Eloy when he was 4. They ran Eloy’s Greyhound bus station. He recalled a job he had bagging potatoes, stuffing them into burlap bags. Pay was by the pound. I nodded. I had no idea Eloy farmers once grew potatoes.

Myers later worked for El Paso Natural Gas Co. It led to a 30-year career, 15 as a welder in Topock, in northwest Arizona. On retirement, he moved back to Pinal County and became a historian of all things Eloy. He had a regular radio show. He gave talks about Eloy’s history.

I went to one at Dorothy Powell Senior Center in Casa Grande. He spoke of the migrant camps, populated by seasonal farmworkers. The bars lining Frontier Street, then part of the old Tucson Highway. He had a story about a wild sheriff’s deputy, long-since departed. Word had it he shot up his own car.

Then Myers turned to the naming of Eloy. The generally accepted version didn’t hold water, he said. It went something like this: A man stepped off the train, took in the bare desertscape and shouted, “Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani.” A biblical phrase roughly translated as: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me!”

Didn’t happen like that, Myers said. The name arises from an acronym used by Southern Pacific, which built the railroad — going from Yuma to Tucson. Eloy stands for East Line of Yuma, Myers said. He had pored through documents. He interviewed a dozen retired Southern Pacific railroaders, among others. They all backed him up.

Myers the historian was also Myers the tour guide. Once a year, he gave a Tag-A-Long Cotton Tour. Tourgoers would jump in their cars and trucks and follow Myers to B&J Farms. I went along once as well. While a big cotton harvester went up and down the rows, Myers spoke about the life of a cotton farmer. Not an easy one.

He gave tours of Central Arizona Project works as well. I missed that one. Too bad. Probably a good story there.

I didn’t pass up a chance to see his artwork. He specialized in wind chimes. He worked out of his garage. Or wherever it was convenient. He kept something of a scrapyard for the parts. His wind chimes were not all light and pingy. For one set, he welded a beam atop a post and suspended discarded oxygen and CO2 tanks. When the wind blew, they clanged like Big Ben.

He used to take his sculptures and wind chimes to Casa Grande’s Art in the Alley. He sold them to raise money for the Old Toltec School. He also donated his art to an annual dinner-and-dance auction. Proceeds went for the school’s restoration.

Myers’ own yard is something of a sculpture gallery. There are the chimes, of course. Then there’s the mailbox. Art as humor. It’s actually several mailboxes fixed to a 12-foot pole, in ascending order. There’s snail mail. Junk Mail. Email. At the top, airmail.

On my visit, Rosalind, his wife, had made cookies. She was kind and offered me a few. I thought: Dick has it pretty good.

The house is tucked up against the desert. Myers loved to see javelina parade through, especially the babies. He appreciated nature.

He lived just a few blocks from the Arica Road Trailhead at Casa Grande Mountain Park. The mountain had a history, and Myers had stories. He gave me a personal tour, flanking the park in his SUV. He pointed to a rise, known as Chimney Hill.

That’s where Old Bill on the Hill built a fireplace with a chimney, Myers said. Old Bill would drive up there with his Jeep. He’d switch on his portable radio.

“He’d come up there, listen to Paul Harvey, because he couldn’t get a signal because the mountain would block it,” Myers said.

Old Bill’s gone now. And Jeeps aren’t allowed on the mountain trails. But development is planned for desert flats hugging the mountain. Areas now used by hikers. Myers looked into the proposal. Not a good fit, he decided. Not for a place of quiet, solitude and desert beauty.

He was all for free enterprise, he said. Developers were within their rights. Still, he said, not a good fit.

I recall another ride-along. Myers showed me the remnants of old farms. Foundations for houses. Housing for abandoned wells. Mesquite reclaiming a land once plowed for cotton.

He knew who had lived in the houses. Who had raised the crops. He knew just about everything about anything you could see, if you looked around.

He had stories about it all. And he shared them. Now he’s gone. He died April 1. I’ll miss him.

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Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at bccoates@cox.net.

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