January 8, 2017

Arizona Pioneers' Home: A Gibraltar of Civic Pride


Whatever happened to the pioneer miners when they got too old to work?

As Prescott began to mature at the beginning of the 20th century, this was hardly a theoretical question. The old pioneer miners were becoming aged, infirm and could no longer toil after years of back-breaking work.

They worked in extraordinarily tough and dangerous conditions, bringing wealth and the very founding of the community and the state. Now, in their sunset years, they needed Arizona to help them.


It was a time before there were retirement homes. Generally, families took care of their elderly. However, a good many of these pioneer miners had no family. Many were never married and childless. They simply had no place to go after contributing so much.

However, their plight turned into an opportunity for Arizona to show the world that this territory took care of her own!  Even before being granted statehood, Arizona built the first ever, government instituted retirement home for these miners. Even to this day the Arizona Pioneers' Home is "one of a kind in the nation." (*1)

"The history of the home is an interesting sidelight on the spirit of humanity prevailing among the early settlers of this state. Although they exhibited a sturdy, independent manner of caring for themselves, they were always ready and willing to lend a hand to those who are victims of misfortunes of age." (*2)


The colorful history of "Fort Misery". The first building in Prescott would become the oldest surviving log cabin in Arizona.


Initially the project suffered a false start. In 1907, (Maj.) AJ Doran introduced a bill to the 24th Territorial Legislature. It was an enabling measure to create a home for the pioneers of the Arizona Territory. So universal was the recognition of the need that the measure passed unanimously in both houses. However, the Governor did not sign the measure since its appropriation would raise taxes beyond the legal limit at the time. (*3)

The bill was reintroduced as House bill #2 the following session. Again it passed without a dissenting vote and on March 11, 1909, Governor Kibbey signed it into law. (*3)

The bill was conditioned upon the donation of a suitable site to build within six months of the date of passage of the (Enabling) act and an appropriation was made of $25,000 for the construction and the furnishing of the building and $30,000 for maintenance of the institution. (*2)

The land was donated by Frank M. Murphy, (another early champion of the project) who signed over the deed to the 4.5 acre plot on July 9, 1909. (*3) (Judge T.G. Norris later donated adjacent land for expansion.)

An architectural competition was announced and WS Elliot, a local Prescott architect won over another man from Los Angeles. (*3)

Maj. Andrew James
(AJ) Doran  c. 1910
Governor Kibbey appointed Maj. AJ Doran (the same man who introduced the first, unsuccessful Enabling Act in 1907,) the first superintendent of the institution. His first duty was overseeing the construction of the building. (*2)

With military precision, Doran made sure that the project was completed ahead of schedule, finishing in January, 1911. A few additional weeks were required to furnish the brand new dwelling.

"The Arizona Pioneers' Home was ready for occupancy on Feb. 1, 1911. In those first years, only miners were admitted, with a capacity for 40 men. (*4)

Immediately it was realized that some pioneer women were just as worthy and in need as the men.

Additions to the Home are clearly
visible from the rear
"Under the terms of the will of W.C. Parsons, a Yavapai county mining man who died in 1914, a trust fund was established for the use of constructing an edition to the Home for the exclusive use of women pioneers. During that year the executors of the estate transferred $20,000 to the board of control, for the purpose of the addition. The building was completed and accepted April 8, 1916. Its total cost was approximately $30,000 and provided a capacity of 20 guests." (*2)

When it was decided that women should be included at the Home, the inevitable was unforeseen. "One couple startled the superintendent by announcing that they wanted to get married. 'There's no place for married couples here,' said the bewildered superintendent and, not knowing what else to do, turned the matter over to the state legislature. After serious debate, (they) turned the request down. The couple was not to be frustrated, however. They eloped and after a two-week honeymoon were back at the home. This time the superintendent relented by giving them a room together." (*5)

Stairway to nowhere.
In 1926, Arizona provided additional funds to construct a hospital wing. (*3) These additions occasionally made for some "mystery house" architecture like this "low-clearance" stairway without a landing.

Today the Pioneers' Home covers a whopping 53,564 square feet set atop a giant cropping of granite. (*1)

"Not just anyone calling himself an Arizona citizen can be admitted (to the Pioneers' Home.) There have always been certain criteria to meet. Initially, you had to be at least 60 years of age, been active in the development of Arizona (and) have lived in Arizona at least 25 years." (*4) Additionally, two separate court appearances were required to prove one's worthiness. In the beginning it was the Governor himself who personally decided who was finally accepted. (*3)

A LIFE magazine article from 1947 related some colorful stories concerning the behavior of these individualistic wilderness men in their sunset years.

"Every week there are at least 2 or 3 old-fashioned brawls, fought sometimes with bare knuckles but more often with walking canes," the magazine related. "Practically all the guests carry canes and, as (then) Superintendent Jack Sills says: "they can swing a cane faster than old Billy the Kid could draw a six-shooter." (*5)

"For years food was dished out family-style, with the result that there was continuous squabbling over who got the best steak or the last helping of pie. In one celebrated incident--which resulted in his being discharged from the home for a fifth time--Dynamite Joe turned a bowl of gravy over the head of Six-shooter Smith in a quarrel over a chicken drumstick. Thereafter meals were served in individual portions." (*5)

Of course, residents today are far less cantankerous and a spirit of hospitality and friendliness abounds throughout.

The view of Prescott from the "Old Sentinel's" front porch.


The Pioneers' Home Today: 
Living at the Pioneers' Home is affordable for everybody. A resident pays a percentage of his monthly income. Disabled miners (or those in poverty) stay free. Residency requirements have increased. Today a person must be at least 70 years-old and a resident of Arizona for at least 50 years. There are other requirements that can be found by clicking here.

At its height, the Home had 200 residents. According to Dale Sams, Administrative Services Officer, there is no long wait time for those who qualify since many on the waiting list are simply waiting for the right time for themselves to enter. Mr. Sams is also available to give presentations. A slide-show tour of the facility is available here.

If you would like to be a part of history and civic pride, the Pioneers' Home is always looking for volunteers. No less than 45 different opportunities are available, most of which surround social activities. You're sure to find one that interests you!


Tourist Tips:
Be sure to sign up for the Arizona Pioneer Home newsletter "Tid Bits." Not only will you keep up with all the doings, but the newsletter also includes interesting articles of Pioneer Home and Prescott history. CLICK HERE & enter your e-mail on the right-hand side of the page!

ALSO AVAILABLE is an excellent DVD celebrating the Pioneer Home's 100th Anniversary in 2011!
CLICK HERE for info on how to obtain one (info is in the middle of the page.)


SOURCES:
(*1) Interview with Dale Sams, Administrative Services Officer, Arizona Pioneers' Home.
(*2) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives; Vertical file: "Pioneers Home." Article titled "Arizona Pioneers'  Home" without a picture of the building on the first page. No date or author is listed.
(*3) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives; Vertical file: "Pioneers Home" Article titled "Arizona Pioneers'  Home" with a picture of the building on the first page. No date or author is listed.
(*4) http://www.dcourier.com/news/2009/jun/06/pioneers-home-history-dates-back-a-century/
(*5) LIFE Magazine, November 3, 1947 Pg. 83 ff

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