Higley strives to hold on to heritage - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Higley strives to hold on to heritage

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Posted: Friday, January 9, 2009 5:52 pm | Updated: 2:31 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

At the intersection of Higley and Williams Field roads in Gilbert, old meets new where west meets east.

Longtime business says goodbye

The northwest and southwest corners, respectively, are occupied by the headquarters of an irrigation district and a strip of commercial buildings that are anywhere from 30 to 100 years old. These helped form the core of the farming community of Higley, which had its own school district and ZIP code but never became a municipality.

"It was never a government, so it's always been more of a people's place," said Leslie LeRoux, whose mother owns a concrete business on the southwest corner of the intersection.

The northeast and southeast corners of Higley and Williams Field have a Circle K and a Walgreens, respectively.

Two years from now, new will meet new at that intersection, after Gilbert widens the intersection to three lanes traveling in all four directions. The 99-year-old building on the corner that was Higley's general store will be torn down, as well as the house next to it, which was built by pioneer Stephen W. Higley in 1930.

Most of the buildings on the Roosevelt Water Conservation District grounds will have to be moved or torn down, and the landmark water tower probably won't survive the project either.

"This road-widening project will remove the last vestiges of what Higley was when I was growing up," said RWCD associate general manager Shane Leonard, a fourth-generation employee of the district. He suspects the district's offices, there since 1920, will have to be relocated when all is said and done.

He can remember when the east-west street he now works on was an ideal place for impromptu neighborhood games, "except for shift changes at Williams Air Force Base and when the Dobson family would run their sheep. Other than that, Williams Field was a great place to play."

That was 15 or 20 years ago.

But while change did come quickly as Gilbert annexations and development engulfed Higley, it's been a constant theme, as it is most places.

Luveda Fincher, 93, moved to a farm near Williams Field and Greenfield roads in 1936, and said the first sonic waves of change came when the Air Force base opened up a few miles to the east, in 1942.

"It drove the cows crazy when the planes would go over at 5 p.m. when they were all back in the corral," she remembers. "But that was just something we'd have to learn to live with."

The airfield today is Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.

She stayed at the farm for more than 50 years. She did most of her shopping at the corner of Higley and Williams Field, and appreciates that the building is still there. "I'll feel bad if and when the store closes," she said. "We farmed a mile and a half away from it. It was more of a general store, a place you could run down to to get some bread, or milk, or a spool of thread."

Today it houses Musica Latina, a convenience store that offers a large selection of Spanish-language music. Built in 1910, it sits too close to the street to coexist with the widened intersection.

Plans call for the building to be torn down, but Gilbert officials are still in negotiations with owner Lidia Torres on how to redevelop the site, as well as with the RWCD on how much land will be acquired, and for how much.

Still, the $14.8 million construction project is set to begin this spring and take 12 to 16 months to complete, town spokesman Garin Groff said. Funding is coming from municipal bonds approved by voters in 2007.

Town Manager George Pettit said the project has been in the town's capital improvement plan since its inception seven years ago, and is necessary to alleviate congestion created by the hourglass-shaped Higley Road, which shrinks from three lanes down to one when it crosses Williams Field, then back out to three within half a mile.

A longtime Gilbert resident and employee, Pettit said he understands the sadness many may feel at the disappearance of the area's smaller-town feel, but widening the road is essential to traffic flow in the community.

"To preserve it means you've got people driving on dirt roads or two-lane county roads, and nobody goes anywhere," he said.

As annexation and development engulfed Higley, it created a much bigger pool of people to lament the loss of the area's rural feel than there was who actually lived that lifestyle.

Leonard said that during the 2004 debate over a proposed merger between the Higley and Gilbert unified school districts, which voters ultimately rejected, many Higley voters bemoaned the loss of Higley's old identity, "but you lost it the moment there was more than one elementary school and there were more than 100 kids."

Today, there are seven elementary schools, two high schools, and a little more than 10,000 kids. The original Higley School building, built in 1912 near Higley and Vest roads is gone, along with the cotton gin at that corner, the demise of which Leonard said was what showed him that the Higley he grew up in was on the way out.

Fincher left her farm in 2002. It is now a housing development, one she can't remember the name of, and she lives elsewhere on Higley Road. She wasn't happy when Higley lost its ZIP code in 2007, but said it's still a good life, if different.

"Instead of moving to town, the town moved to me," she said. "But I guess people needed someplace to live."

LeRoux, the holder of an anthropology degree and the mother of a 2-year-old, started culling library and museum archives for newspaper articles, photographs and other artifacts of life in Higley six months ago, intrigued because "it's always been somewhat elusive in terms of where it is, and who occupies it."

She has posted some articles and historical photos on her "Make Higley Historic" Web site (makehigleyhistoric.blogspot.com) and hopes it will become a nexus for everything Higley. She's also created a "Honk if you love Higley" bumper sticker, available through the San Tan Historical Society Museum in Queen Creek.

She hopes to use all of the stories she accumulates to apply to the federal government for a "Preserve America" status for Higley, which could bring White House recognition, road signs, grants and other benefits to Higley and its legacy.

All of this will still have meaning after the old general store and Higley house are gone, LeRoux said, because of people's memories and Higley's status as "the original gateway to the whole San Tan area."

"It's not about a building going away," she said.

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