CASA GRANDE -- Stepping into Grande Central Station is a visit back to early Casa Grande.

Tucked behind the Casa Grande Valley Newspapers Inc. offices, Grande Central Station looks out on the Neon Sign Park, 408 N. Sacaton St.

Don’t let the exterior of the corner, 21st-century-style suite fool you though. One step through the door is all it takes to be transported back more than 100 years.

Dressed in clothing befitting the era of the second decade of the 1900s, Marge Jantz and Marlyn Gallagher eagerly greet visitors as they arrive at the center and take them on a short tour dedicated to the community’s early history.

“We’re trying to present the history in an interesting way,” Jantz said. “It’s kind of a cross between history and story-telling, but also we try to make it a little artsy.”

The suite, which Jantz refers to as an “information center,” is home to a number of displays on the railroad, State Route 84, the Neon Sign Park, the Casa Grande Dispatch and Casa Grande’s first school — Central School.

It may no longer stand, but there are many Casa Grande residents that vividly remember what it was like to attend Central School.

Constructed in 1914, the school was designed to educate students in first to eighth grades. The two-level structure featured four classrooms, a principal’s office and an auditorium designed to seat 300 people on the ground floor. Additional rooms were also located on the lower level.

In its first year, enrollment at the school reached 113. The student body progressively grew in the following years and decades, with the school later expanding to accommodate grades 9-11 until Casa Grande Union High School was built in 1921.

The combination elementary and junior high occupied the site of the current Arizona Plaza at the intersection of Sacaton Street and Florence Boulevard until it was demolished in 1974. Labeled “hygienic” because it featured indoor plumbing, the school was a massive accomplishment for a small community whose total population count was estimated to have been 1,500.

Total funding for the structure amounted to $25,000. Years later, another building was added along with barracks from World War II.

“It was the most exquisite piece of architecture,” Jantz said, noting that the significant funds funneled into the construction of Central School, and subsequently CG Union High School, speaks volumes to the importance Casa Grande residents placed on education at the time.

Along with the Casa Grande Woman’s Club — located directly across the street from the original site of the school — the building was designed by former mayor of Tucson Henry O. Jaastad. Jaastad was a renowned architect, whose firm is credited with the design of more than 500 buildings including the Buena Vista Hotel in Safford and the original Tucson Medical Center.

Only two pieces of Central School remain intact. The school’s bell and the cupola are now housed at The Museum of Casa Grande. Additionally, the olive trees that were part of the campus still stand on the property, now the site of a commercial complex and the Neon Sign Park. The trees were planted early on in the school’s history in memory of Alice Kruse, who died from diphtheria in 1915.

Post-demolition, many local residents made their own efforts to preserve parts of the school, Jantz noted. Some, she said, even incorporated bricks from the original structure into their own homes.

Grande Central Station houses many mementos from Central School, such as a photo of the school’s first Board of Trustees — Thompson Peart, Ramon Cruz Sr. and Judge Charles Bennett — taken outside the school not long after its construction, a painting of the structure created by Paul Modlin and even class pictures of many who attended the school.

Central School, however, is just a part of Casa Grande’s past the new center seeks to memorialize — an effort that all began with the Neon Sign Park.

Though originally from Scottsdale, Jantz became heavily involved in preservation efforts within Casa Grande shortly after moving to the community. She went on to serve as a member of the Historic Preservation Commission for Casa Grande for more than 20 years and oversaw efforts to preserve and revitalize the city’s downtown as the executive director of the Casa Grande Main Street program for eight years.

It was during those years that Jantz began collecting neon signs from past and present establishments around Casa Grande with a vision of one day putting them on display. She obtained the first sign after the Horseshoe Motel was demolished. As the collection grew, she was struck by an idea.

Jantz approached Rina Rien, then executive director of Casa Grande Main Street, with the idea of displaying the signs for public viewing on the property once home to Central School. Purchased in 2000 by the Donovan M. Kramer Sr. family, the site houses a commercial complex with a number of offices including an extension of Kramer Media.

“She (Rien) loved the idea, and she said ‘I’ll do it on one condition: if you talk to the owners of the newspaper, the Kramers, and get permission for the use of their property,’” Jantz said.

They agreed, and a few years later, the dream of a Neon Sign Park in the heart of the city’s downtown became a reality.

Only one of the 14 historical signs located at the park originates from a city other than Casa Grande. The iconic Dairy Queen lips came from Holbrook, Arizona.

Other features unique to the park include Paul, the Waver — a historical replica of the waver signs traditionally found at motels across America in the 1950s, including the Horseshoe Motel.

Often used to indicate when a motel had vacancies, Wavers typically featured lights on the waving arm to signify availability. When a motel was full, the lights were then turned off.

Paul is a close replica to the Waver sign that stood next to the iconic neon sign at the entrance of the Horseshoe Motel on Jimmie Kerr Boulevard in the 1950s. He can be seen waving in the park around the same time the lights are turned on in the evenings.

Strolling through the park, visitors might even catch a glimpse of the Burma-Shave signs created to celebrate the downtown preservation effort or even Buzz the buzzard, the effort’s mascot that is located on several structures in the park and downtown.

Eleven of the featured signs were restored as part of the preservation efforts. The first restoration — completed on the Western Trading Post sign — was made possible through a fundraiser, while the other 10 were covered through a $144,000 grant awarded to the project by the American Express Partners in Preservation program.

The project came in second in the nation among all the proposals submitted in the grant money contest run by American Express.

Since that time, the Neon Sign Park has been the recipient of three distinguished awards, including the Arizona Great Place award presented by the Arizona Chapter of the American Planning Association. The project even earned the top spot in the Arizona Preservation Foundation Governor’s Heritage Honor Awards.

A self-described preservationist at heart, Jantz believes that the effort has gone a long way in keeping Casa Grande’s history alive.

“Preserving those signs is saving our history,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many people I met (during the construction) that were delighted to see what was happening because it’s nostalgia. These are unique. They tell their own story just by looking at them.”

Since its establishment, however, the sign park has proved versatile — attracting tourists, history buffs and geocachers alike.

A fun outdoor activity, geocaching allows individuals from all over the world to stash items such as logbooks, coins and other trinkets at various sites, ranging from somewhere on a bustling city street to popular attractions, for others to find.

Participants often use websites dedicated to the game to locate caches and log the ones they’ve found.

The activity occasionally draws people from different parts of the country to the sign park, Gallagher noted — just one of a few places in CG’s downtown where people often find, or hide, caches.

Though welcome, the phenomenon is not one anyone ever anticipated when planning the park, Jantz said. Gallagher has also created a free scavenger hunt for park goers via the Actionbound mobile app. The hunt was beta tested by students at Mission Heights Preparatory High School.

In the months after the park’s grand opening, her collaboration with the Kramer family eventually led Jantz to develop Grande Central Station.

“The sign park was my vision, but Kara Cooper has always had a real soft spot for Central School,” she said. “She’s had a vision to display and memorialize Central School.”

Cooper, co-publisher of the Casa Grande Dispatch, said she believed that the sign park needed somewhere visitors could gather information about it. With fond memories of Central School as well, she also thought it was important to have a place dedicated to the school.

“Many people that visit have great stories about attending Central School or living in Casa Grande. Marge and Marlyn have taken an idea and created a real showplace the community can be proud of,” Cooper said. “My sister and I attended Central School and have many memories of classmates, teachers and the school. By having the information center on the school site, Central School is featured like no other place in Casa Grande. The Museum of Casa Grande has been very helpful in loaning items, pictures and information. And since the newspaper has been owned by our family since 1962, it is a perfect opportunity to promote the Dispatch’s original owner and our family’s publishing journey.”

From there, several other historically significant sites equally worthy of recognition came to light, such as the Casa Grande railroad depot, the railroad and Highway 84. Grande Central Station is home to displays on each, with many of the items featured on loan from the nearby museum.

The station even houses a display in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Casa Grande Dispatch and the paper’s founder, Angela Hutchinson Hammer.

Though it might be limited to four walls, as Gallagher points out, Grande Central Station is “full of stories.” They range from how Hammer’s son managed to get the first Central School diplomas printed to the tale of a Southern Pacific repairman nicknamed “Red” Black whose railroad lantern now adorns the wall at Central Station.

Preservation efforts like Central Station, Gallagher noted, also give younger generations a way to connect with the generations that came before.

“There’s just a story for everybody,” she said.

To learn more about Grande Central Station and the Neon Sign Park, visit neonsignpark.com, call 520-423-8688 or email grandecentralstationaz@gmail.com. PW

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