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Phoenix in the Roaring '20s

From ‘Wild West’ Town to Modern City - By Douglas Towne

The Roaring ‘20s accomplished for Phoenix what Henry Higgins did for Eliza Doolittle—this dapper decade transformed the small, farming-based community and cultural backwater into a semi-sophisticated city. The makeover included high-rise buildings, paved streets buzzing with automobiles, and a growing reputation as a fashionable winter tourist destination.

A diversified economy, enhanced transportation links, and additional water supplies energized the budding metropolis. The Heard Museum, Phoenix Little Theatre, Brophy Preparatory School, and Phoenix Junior College were just some of the local institutions founded in the 1920s to challenge Tucson’s claim as the “Athens of Arizona.” Across the Salt River, Tempe Normal School moved a step closer to big-time status when it became Arizona State Teachers College.

“In the 1920s, Phoenix laid the groundwork for its metropolitan explosion during World War II and beyond,” says Oklahoma State University history professor Michael F. Logan, author of Desert Cities: The Environmental History of Phoenix and Tucson.

Phoenix entered the 1920s, having just surpassed Tucson as the largest city in the state, with 29,000 people – roughly the same population as Kingman is today. The city, comprised of low-slung brick buildings, was so small that neighborhoods now considered part of central Phoenix, such as Encanto- Palmcroft and Willo were being planned on the “outskirts” of town.

While Phoenix back then might appear somewhat underwhelming, it was the county seat, state capital, and a virtual metropolis compared to the nearby farm towns of Tempe, Mesa, Glendale, Scottsdale, Peoria, and Chandler. Most economic activities were related to the abundant crops produced in the Valley, the leading agricultural region in the Southwest.

Farming had flourished with the completion of Theodore Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River northeast of Phoenix in 1911, which provided a dependable source of irrigation water.

Phoenix’s Trolley System

An essential facet of Phoenix’s transformation during the 1920s was the Phoenix Railway Company’s improved trolley service. More than a century before Valley residents hopped aboard for their first ride, passengers could catch mule-driven streetcars sauntering up and down Washington Street in 1887. But within a handful of years, the system’s owner, General Moses Hazeltine Sherman, had added additional routes, some with electric streetcars that tripled Ostensibly for public transportation, the trolley lines were also built to promote real estate ventures and influence where residential development would occur north of Downtown. The streetcar system eventually extended to Glendale in the only inter-urban electric trolley line constructed in Arizona.

By the mid-1920s, however, the system was badly in need of repairs because of shoddy construction. Regulators did not allow Sherman to abandon unprofitable lines or raise rates, so he announced in April 1925 that streetcar service would end in October, according to Ride A Mile and Smile the While: A History of the Phoenix Street Railway by Lawrence Fleming. The city eventually purchased the system at its junk value of $20,000 . A public bond issue quickly passed to rehabilitate the railways and purchase new streetcars. Profitability returned as the system grossed $298,000 in 1929, carrying 6.6 million passengers at 5 cents each.

Cotton Craze

At the start of the decade, Phoenix had a booming economy fueled by the demand for cotton caused by World War I. Euphoria about the easy wealth to be made by growing the fluffy white fiber was as rampant and unrestrained as that associated with the area’s more modern housing booms. Prices for a pound of cotton, which were at $0.28 only a few years earlier, were forecast to reach an unheard-of $1.50. In comparison, prices for a pound of cotton were as low as 50 cents as recently as 2009.

Tempted by these escalating prices, farmers sowed cottonseed in every available field and borrowed heavily to buy additional farmland. In the Salt River Valley, about 7,300 acres were planted in 1916; in 1920, the acreage increased to 180,000. To harvest the bumper crop, cotton growers and railroad interests recruited 35,000 Mexican farmworkers to temporarily relocate to Phoenix, a number that exceeded the city's population. “The high cotton prices also lured people who had no farming experience into trying to grow the crop,” says local historian Donna Reiner. “Of course, most lost their shirts.”

High cotton prices were caused by the huge demand brought on by World War I. When the conflict ended in 1918, lower peacetime needs coupled with large amounts of imported Egyptian cotton caused prices to plummet in the fall of 1920 unexpectedly. Many farmers abandoned their fields, leaving row upon row of cotton bolls to rot. Mexican laborers were turned away from the cotton crops despite having contracts with the growers. The “cotton bust” caused a run on banks and an economic downturn in the Valley during the early 1920s. Many farmers went bankrupt, business declined, and Mexican farmworkers lived in poverty. Although the Valley continued as the Southwest’s leading agricultural region, “King Cotton” would never again so dominate local farming.

Sunshine Tourism

Visitors to Phoenix before the 1920s had been mostly poor people with health problems hoping the desert’s warm, dry air would help cure their tuberculosis or asthma. Not wanting to be known as an infirmary, city officials launched new promotions to attract well-heeled tourists. The desert’s clean air, brilliant sunshine, and a burgeoning reputation as the “winter playground of the Southwest” proved an easy sell.

Although the moniker “Valley of the Sun” wouldn’t be coined by a local advertising agency for another decade, Phoenix began aggressively touting itself as a winter tourist destination. The Phoenix-Arizona Club’s promotions, created in 1919 and partially funded by the railroads, were a major driving force in attracting visitors. “Tourism took off, with new resorts that catered to the affluent and pleasure seekers rather than to the tuberculosis sufferers and other convalescents,” Logan says.

The increasing tourist trade resulted in a flurry of hotel construction Downtown. In 1928, the San Carlos Hotel and Hotel Westward Ho opened, and the Hotel Adams, considered the power hub of the city, underwent extensive renovation and expansion, becoming “cooled by refrigeration.”

Perhaps the most noteworthy hotel to appear was the Arizona Biltmore, which opened eight miles northeast of the city in February 1929. Earlier resort hotels, including the Ingleside Inn in 1919 and the Jokake Inn in 1924, had also popped up outside of the city. Still, the elegant Biltmore, with its polo fields, spacious grounds, and adjoining golf course, proved to be a magnet for luring tourists away from the more traditional Downtown accommodations.

Charles and Warren McArthur, brothers who operated a Dodge dealership in Phoenix, were the catalysts behind the Biltmore’s construction. A popular misconception associated with the hotel is the architect was Frank Lloyd Wright. The hotel’s architect was the McArthur older brother, Albert, who once worked for Wright and reportedly consulted him on the project, according to Phoenix Then and Now by Paul Scharbach and John H. Akers. The stunning, luxurious hotel soon enticed chewing gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs, William Wrigley, Jr. to buy a nearby residential lot and invest in the hotel, which enabled it to survive the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Fun and Frivolity

The Roaring ‘20s also was renowned for its excitements and excess. Phoenix residents indulged in a roller-skating craze, mastered yo-yo tricks, listened to the first radio broadcasts, and danced the Charleston to live bands in open-air venues such as the Riverside Ballroom, located on Central Avenue and the Salt River. Opulent movie palaces such as the Orpheum Theatre featured talking motion pictures. Vaudeville and burlesque shows were popular theater events, as were amateur nights where residents could show off their talents.

The decade saw the birth of what became the city’s most prominent social event for almost 30 years: The Masque of the Yellow Moon. The pageant, which fused American Indian and pioneer mythology with music and drama to celebrate Arizona’s heritage, drew favorable comparisons to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade. The extravaganza was held annually at the 10,500-seat Montgomery Stadium built on the campus of Phoenix Union High School on the northeast corner of Seventh Street and Van Buren. The envy of school districts across the Southwest, the stadium would also host a variety of notable events during the 1920s, including Major League Baseball exhibition games.

Another popular attraction was the World Series “viewed” at the Columbia Theater in Downtown Phoenix in 1920. Crowds “watched” the only triple play and the first grand slam in World Series history as the Cleveland Indians beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games to two in a best of nine series. This spectator miracle happened when The Arizona Republican newspaper connected its telegraph wires to an electronic scoreboard mounted on the theater. Called the “Wonderboard,” it depicted every move of the baseball players in the game. The World Series Wonderboard tradition would continue in Phoenix until nationwide radio broadcasts of games began in the mid-1930s.

Even many of the decade’s misdeeds were related to seeking perhaps too much pleasure. “The 1920s was mostly known for vice, not violent crimes,” says ASU history faculty associate Heidi Osselaer. Otherwise respectable Phoenix citizens began toting hip flasks in response to Prohibition, which outlawed the manufacture or sale of liquor. Prohibition had other unintended effects, such as popularizing cocktails and bringing the genders together to socialize in underground drinking establishments called speakeasies that sold bootlegged liquor.

Future Challenges

Despite the advancements made during the decade, Phoenix still faced critical challenges in its aspiration to become a modern, progressive city. Living with blistering hot temperatures was a challenge. Residents who couldn’t leave town for the summer slept on porches draped with wet sheets that helped chill nighttime breezes. Evaporative coolers were still in their infancy. Frank Harmonson built a custom cooler for his F.Q. Story home that became the city’s first air-conditioned residence in 1928.

By 1930, the city’s population increased to more than 48,000, but financial resources for continued growth became scarce after the October 1929 stock market crash. Phoenix would endure the Great Depression better than many areas and be revitalized by World War II. Starting in the mid-1940s, Phoenix expanded rapidly, thanks to abundant land, an enviable climate, and air-conditioning, and eventually, it became the nation’s fifth-largest city with a population of 1.7 million.

There was, however, a vital casualty that came with creating a modern and forward-thinking metropolis. Despite the city’s upgrading of the trolley system and a record number of passengers, cars and buses became increasingly popular. By 1929, there were 86 miles of paved roads throughout the Valley. Although the streetcar system would survive until 1948, the automobile became the preferred mode of transportation.

Douglas Towne

Writer, historian, hydrologist, artist

and editor of Arizona Contractor & Community Magazine

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