At the Dust Bowl Theater on Main Street, J.W. Tidwell could watch two movies and a cartoon, eat popcorn and a candy bar and drink a soda for the dollar in his pocket. He even left with a little change.
It was 1962. Interstate 10 was being built but hadn’t yet reached the small community of Eloy. Tidwell was a high school student who worked at a local grocery store. If his shift ended early he walked to the theater, then walked home.
“Back then you didn’t have cars,” Tidwell said. “Anyplace you’d go basically you walked.
The theater seated hundreds, and it was often full during the 1940s and ’50s. After the 1960s, I-10 diverted traffic from Highway 84, Eloy’s busiest road. Businesses suffered. The Dust Bowl closed its doors in 1989 after 50 years, and Eloy for the most part hasn’t had a theater since, although it reopened for a short time. A few years ago the marquee in front of the abandoned building was removed because it was unstable. Today, the sun shines through a hole in the roof and illuminates the long-empty seats.
Tidwell, now an Eloy city councilman, doesn’t think the building will be around much longer. It would cost too much to renovate.
“It’ll probably end up being bulldozed,” he said.
The rise and fall of the Dust Bowl is emblematic of what happened in many small towns throughout the United States after the 50,000-mile spider web of asphalt known as the interstate highway system opened. The highways changed life in profound ways:
* Small communities such as Eloy were fundamentally transformed. Businesses closed and downtown areas lost foot traffic and vibrancy. This happened even when the towns’ populations grew because it became much faster and more convenient for people to commute to bigger towns and cities to shop.
* Population growth patterns shifted based on the location of the interstate and how local leaders reacted to it.
* Family-owned small businesses along the former routes from Phoenix to Tucson, and from Pinal County to Yuma and San Diego, suffered a big drop in business, and many closed. Meanwhile, big-box businesses and shopping malls grew.
* The connection between home and work was broken. It became common for people to live dozens of miles from where they worked.
“The interstate era came in,” said Jim Garrett, owner of Garrett Motors in Coolidge. “The whole United States dramatically changed.”
How it started
Dwight D. Eisenhower was an Army general stationed in Germany during World War II. He was impressed with the network of high-speed roads there known as the Autobahn. If the United States were attacked, such highways would allow for transporting troops and supplies across the country more efficiently. Years later, President Eisenhower signed into law the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. With an original price tag of $25 billion, it was the largest public works project in American history.
When Congress was considering the Interstate Highways bill, small towns in the United States were more self-contained and self-sufficient than they are today. People worked in the town where they lived and didn’t leave often. Almost every town had a bank, a grocery store, a doctor, a pharmacy, a clothing store and a general store typically referred to as the “Five and Dime.” The towns usually had a theater like the Dust Bowl.
“When I was young we could buy anything in Coolidge,” said Tom Shope, owner of Shope’s IGA grocery store and a 1966 graduate of Coolidge High School. “Once we got into the mid-1970s, you had to go to Casa Grande, Phoenix or Tucson.”
In 1960, 22 percent of American households didn’t own a vehicle, and only 22 percent owned more than one, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Fifty years later, only 9 percent didn’t own a vehicle, and the percentage that owned more than one had jumped to 57.
For those who did travel long distances by car in 1960, the trek from Phoenix to Tucson was long. Drivers had two choices. Highways 84/87 went through Coolidge, and Highways 93/84 went through Casa Grande and Eloy. To get from Tucson to Yuma or San Diego, drivers passed through Eloy, Casa Grande and Stanfield on Highway 84.
Downtown shopping areas for local residents were on or next to these main routes. Motels, restaurants and service stations, which largely catered to the out-of-town traffic, especially clustered along these routes.
In Casa Grande, the center of activity was the Five Points intersection where Highways 93, 287 and 84 met. “Oh my, the traffic was horrible,” said Sammie Caywood, who was born in Casa Grande in 1926 and lived on a nearby farm at the time with her husband, Tommy. Snow’s Inn was a popular spot for coffee and a piece of pie. The Kerby-Wilson service stations did a brisk business pumping gas. Sunset Court, just west of Five Points, was a motor lodge that rented cabins to travelers. Mel’s Root Beer was an early fast food restaurant that operated out of a giant barrel replica.
Local businesses hurt
Construction of Pinal County’s interstate highways continued through the 1960s. I-10 opened between what’s now Pinal Airpark and Picacho in 1962, from Picacho to Highway 287 in 1967, and from there to Chandler in 1968. I-8 opened between I-10 and Stanfield in the summer of 1970. The system was complete in Pinal County, but the fallout was just starting. Traffic through Casa Grande slowed around 1967-68, and then again in 1970.
“I-10 didn’t hurt Casa Grande as much as it did when they built I-8,” said Gene Lehman, who owned several businesses over the years in Casa Grande. “I-8 cut out all the traffic through town.” To the west, “Stanfield became a ghost town,” Lehman said.
Pedestrians and local drivers enjoyed the lack of congestion, and business owners not dependent on out-of-towners didn’t notice much difference. Motels, restaurants and service stations were hit hard. Some closed for good.
“I remember truck drivers who traveled the country who I knew by name,” Chuck Kerby, who worked at a family-owned Kerby-Wilson service station, told the Tri-Valley Dispatch in 1994. “They would come in once every two or so weeks and I got to know them a little. Then suddenly we didn’t see them anymore.”
Snow’s Inn also suffered. For a while it “was able to survive but not at the same magnitude it was before,” Kerby said.
Sunset Court stayed open for years afterward but, like Snow’s Inn and the Kerby-Wilson stations, eventually closed. Today it’s abandoned and crumbling, surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Mel’s Root Beer closed after I-8 opened. Lehman and his business partner, John Cress, bought it. “We just thought there was enough business in town to survive,” Lehman said. There wasn’t. Lehman sold it to a new owner, who dismantled the iconic barrel and relocated it to Yuma, Lehman said.
“There were some stores and businesses that went out of business because of it,” Jimmie Kerr, mayor of Casa Grande at the time, told the Tri-Valley Dispatch in 1994. “I don’t remember how long it took, but there was a period of adjustment when people had to cope with the new highway and people not driving through town anymore.”
Coolidge and Eloy, even more so than Casa Grande, were cotton farming towns. The mechanical picker was invented in the late 1930s and came to Eloy in the late 1940s or early ’50s. That decreased the need for agricultural workers. In the 1970s Monsanto introduced weed-killing chemicals farmers could spray in their cotton fields. That further reduced workers.
While these developments hurt business in Coolidge and Eloy, the interstate was also a major factor.
“There was no reason for people to get off the freeway to the service stations,” said Dick Myers, president of the Santa Cruz Valley Historic Museum, of Eloy. “Traffic on the old highway was almost nil. It just kind of went downhill from there. The freeway put a nail in the coffin.”
Bob’s Food-a-Rama grocery store, where Tidwell worked as a senior in high school, is long gone. A handful of grocery stores were in Eloy then, but today options are more limited.
“People in Eloy would drive to Casa Grande to do their shopping,” Myers said.
In Coolidge, the clothing stores and mercantile stores closed when their owners reached retirement age and their children didn’t want to run the stores. “People could see the writing on the wall,” said Shope, former mayor of Coolidge.
Lehman and Cress owned Gene & John’s Discount Center appliance store in Casa Grande. Many of their customers in the 1970s were from Coolidge, Lehman said, so in 1981 they opened a new Gene & John’s Discount Center in Coolidge. With people now in the habit of driving longer distances to shop, Gene & John’s in Coolidge closed in just three years. The Casa Grande store remained open. In 1995, Lehman told the Casa Grande Dispatch his store was the only new appliance store in Casa Grande, but there had been 14 such stores in the 1950s when the city was one-quarter the size.
Big-box stores Target, Kmart and Walmart were all born in the early 1960s when the interstates were being built. That’s not a coincidence.
“One of the prerequisites for the big-box was the car. Everybody had to have a car because the big-box was sitting out in a parking lot somewhere,” author Marc Levinson, who wrote “The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America,” told NPR in 2012. “The big-box made shopping into a family experience. Mom and dad and the kids all piled into the car, they went out to this big store, and they could spend several hours there because there was, by the standards of the day, an enormous amount of merchandise.”
Said Garrett, a 1977 graduate of Coolidge High School, “Mom-and-pop businesses became more antiquated. The United States has changed in a lot of different ways, and a lot of it goes to small business.”
In the late 1970s five stores in Coolidge still sold new cars. Today, although Coolidge’s population has grown, only one is left — Garrett Motors. “There was a dealership in every little town,” Garrett said. “Now you just put the dealerships on the interstate. It’s definitely changed the car business.”
Big-box stores came to several Pinal communities. The Outlets at Casa Grande opened in 1992 about a mile north of the intersection of I-8 and I-10 (in recent years the mall has been abandoned). The Promenade opened three miles to the north in 2007. As cities and towns grew, some of the small, family businesses that closed were replaced by national chains.
When businesses left the smaller towns, jobs left. Workers followed, driving the highways longer distances to their new jobs. According to a report this year by the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute, 52 percent of workers who live in Pinal County drive alone to work more than 30 minutes one way. That was unthinkable when the asphalt was still wet on I-10.
“Transportation became more readily available to working class people,” said former Florence Mayor Tom Rankin, who as a young man worked on the survey crew for the construction of I-10 between the Gila River Bridge and State Route 287.
In much of the United States, the rise of the automobile and the interstates allowed people to move from the big city to the suburbs. In Arizona the big city — Phoenix — kept growing, and people instead moved from outside the state to the city and the suburbs. Once Tempe, Chandler, Mesa and Scottsdale grew together, the tide of humanity overran Gilbert and Queen Creek and spilled into Pinal County. San Tan Valley didn’t exist 20 years ago. Today it’s the most populous community in the county with more than 80,000 residents. When Phoenix and Chandler grew to the edge of the Gila River Indian Community, the people leaped over reservation land (and the county line) into Maricopa. Maricopa grew from 1,040 people in 2000 to 43,482 in 2010.
The mushrooming of San Tan Valley and Maricopa was an accidental byproduct of the interstates (Maricopa is at least 20 miles from I-10, San Tan Valley even farther). The highways had a more direct effect on growth in old Pinal County.
Casa Grande had about 49,000 residents and Coolidge 12,000 in the 2010 U.S. Census. If I-10 would have been built a few miles to the east, on the other side of Signal Peak, those numbers would be much different. At least that’s what former Coolidge Mayor Bill Flores told the Tri-Valley Dispatch in 1994.
“(Coolidge) would have busted out of proportion,” he said. “Everything in central Arizona would have revolved around Coolidge. I bet Coolidge would be bigger than Casa Grande.”
While I-10 and I-8 initially hurt business, Casa Grande used its proximity to the highways for tremendous growth. From 8,311 in 1960, the population was 48,571 in 2010 and is now estimated at more than 55,000. The interstates’ ease in allowing semi-trucks full of product in and out brought national employers such as a Walmart Distribution Center, Frito-Lay, Abbott Nutrition and Tractor Supply Co.
“The freeway ended up being a big advantage for getting industry,” Kerr told Pinal Ways.
Downtown suffered but businesses and malls grew east along Florence Boulevard toward I-10. Housing developments gobbled up land to the north and east toward the interstate. Little growth was seen south or west.
Eloy’s population was 4,899 in 1960. Fifty years later it was 16,631, but likely around half of those were living in one of the city’s detention centers. Discounting prisoners, Eloy’s population less than doubled, while Casa Grande’s grew by almost six times. With Eloy just a mile from I-10 off exit 208, why didn’t it grow like Casa Grande? According to Myers and Tidwell, city leaders didn’t pursue industry and outside investment.
“We were about 20 years behind Casa Grande,” said Myers, who moved to Eloy in 1944 and graduated from Santa Cruz Valley Union High School in 1958. “Most of our council members were farmers, and they thought cotton was going to be king forever.”
In the East and Midwest, communities shriveled up, like grapes pulled from the vine, when bypassed by interstates. Arizona communities such as Eloy and Coolidge benefitted from Americans relocating to the Southwest in huge numbers. From 1960 to 2010, Arizona’s population increased five-fold and Pinal County’s six-fold.
Coolidge, a dozen miles from I-10, grew from 4,990 to 11,825 in that 50-year period, a little over double.
Florence wasn’t directly on the path from Phoenix to Tucson in the 1950s. The highway through Florence connected the county with Tucson to the south and the main highway from Phoenix to New Mexico to the north. I-10 hurt Florence’s growth less than Coolidge’s. Florence’s population grew from 2,143 to 25,536, although many of the new residents live in the prisons that were built after the ’60s. The nonprison population was likely less than 10,000 in 2010.
“I-10 helped develop Casa Grande over everything,” Rankin said. “Florence and Coolidge were kind of left on the outside of it.” | PW