SUMMARY: Pete Peters is a man who arrived in Arizona before it became a state and participated in and observed the efforts necessary to bring water to a thirsty land in order to farm. Starting in 1935, Mr. Peters farmed cotton near the small town of Casa Grande. He was active in The Farm Bureau in the tumultuous 30s and 40s, maintained his land during the war years, and worked under the new government regulations instituted during the Eisenhower administration. His observations of his family and his neighbors alone make this a story worth reading.
Date of Interview: June 8, 1993
Interviewer: Sally Zink
Transcriber: Merrilyn S. Ridgeway, October 24, 2006
Begin Tape 1, Side 1
Peters Family Emigrates from Germany 1860-1877
Interviewer: When did you come to Arizona?
Peters: My father’s parents came to America in 1865 from Germany. My mother’s family came to America in 1877 from the northern part of Germany from Themarn, an island in the North Sea. Her father was an overseer of a large farm on the island. The two married and had four boys and one girl.
My father went to homestead in South Dakota as a young man. He went back to Iowa and brought my mother there. My mother was an inside person. She never should have married my dad. She had never been outside of her small town, which now is about the same size it was then—about 500 people. Her mother died when she was young and she was raised by an older sister. When she was old enough, she went to stay with her dad and keep house for him and her older brother. They had a grocery store in Shelby in western Iowa. It was 40 below zero on the day I was born.
My dad was 6’1 ½” and my mother was 4’10 ½”. They lived into their 70’s. The Peters family came to Arizona in 1910 when I was not quite two years old. They came here for my mother’s health after trying Pasadena and Tucson. Dad rented some land north of “A” mountain. The house was typical of homes for tubercular people—a tent with a wood frame. My baby brother died while we lived there.
Arizona Statehood Day Recalled – 1912
I recall when I was about four years old a celebration with people blasting dynamite, shooting off guns, having a barbeque and beer, and speeches and bands. Long after I figured out that it was Statehood Day in 1912. But we didn’t have enough land in Tucson. Dad heard that they were going to put a dam on the Gila River, so we came here. Dad came on a what they called “an immigrant car”, a freight car with the animals in one end and a car and household belongings in the other. My mother, sister and I came from Tucson on a passenger train.
We bought a farm (later the Trekell farm). The first two years I went to school on a donkey. We had three. Jack’s job was the pump the water. He walked around and around for hour after hour. All we had to do was speak to him and he would resume walking. He was on the outside of the wheel and on the inside was the crank that pumped the water. We were on that farm until 1917. By then, the country was at war.
What caused us to move was that there were a couple of young men who came out from Kansas. They were draft dodgers and cowboys and they had guns. They’d shoot those guns off day and night. My mother had a nervous breakdown. (Pointing out the window of his house.) See the first house on the left just after the corner on South Florence Street? There’s a tin house. It was about the size of this room, but it was two rooms. You can see where they’ve added a porch. That’s where we lived and where my mother died in June 1917.
Where the Water Flows
My father had bought a place, 20 acres, and was planning to move there. The house that he built was torn down in 1960. Here’s the place on the map at the corner of Florence Street and Chui Chu Road. I think it was cleared. This half of the section here, number 3166, is 160 acres that belongs to me and we have another sixty here (pointing to a map). The water came down from Picacho Reservoir. It went down west of Casa Grande and just short of Bianco Road. Originally the water came across the fields. The Santa Cruz River stopped right there (pointing) and spread across the valley. You know where the bridge is?
Florence Boulevard had dips in it. They had all these places where they channelled the river across. In 1925, Glenn McMurray took a contract with the county and left all these dips. Colonel Green had big holdings in Cananea, Mexico, a cattle company. They had a lot of property in the area of Arizona City, southwest of there. They built a canal from about ten miles south of Picacho. Green’s reservoir can still be seen there. Now they plan to put the water around the Sawtooth Mountains to Tat Mamelikat.
That whole area, to about 50 miles south of the reservation, was cattle ranches—the Curry’s, the Crebaums (?), the Runners, the Kinney’s. Mr. Kinney and his wife went to Cananea and he came back with some Brahma bulls. His wife came back with the bulls and he came by passenger car. Here these bulls were in the corral. He brought fourteen cowboys and a chuck wagon and everything. Mrs. Kinney told the men how to handle the bulls. “Just open the gate,” she said, “and take your horse and ride around in the corral until they get used to you. They’re gentle and they’ll follow you after that.”
This (pointing) is O’odam, the area I’m talking about. It wasn’t nearly this big then. There were cattle ranches all around here. In 1925, they made it all reservation. Can you imagine how many mine and cowboy jobs they took away? They created this huge ghetto out there. In South Dakota, where we came from, there were homesteads and put the Indians there. It was the same there.
Interviewer: When you moved out to the original place, did you wait for the water to come from the Tat?
Peters: That canal crossed just south of Peters Road, to the corner of the farm. When we first put it in, it was about 2/3rd of the upper 40. The rest didn’t go into crops until 1926 when we began to get water. We didn’t have pump water. The Trekell Ranch had a pump with a diesel engine. Most of the deep well pumps weren’t there. About 1920 there was a homestead out three miles east of Central Arizona College. A man by the name of Henke, who later married into the Coxmire (?) family, came there. The old German families settled here.
The railroad tracks came down from Phoenix and Tempe to Kyrene and then to Maricopa. Baseline Road is called that because it is the line that separates northern from southern Arizona. Where the Gila and the Salt Rivers run together there’s a line drawn that separates north and south.
Crops and Cattle in the Early Years -- 1920s
Interviewer: What sort of crops did you grow here early on.
Peters: My father had 160 acres near Eleven Mile Corner and a section of land between Coolidge and Central Arizona College. We grew alfalfa and barley. We harvested alfalfa for hay and brought it in. By 1920-1922, we had a baler in the yard. You had a big wide fork with a horse on each side, 6-8 feet apart. The horses had to move at the same speed or you went around in circles. They’d bring the hay up to the baler and we’d pitch it into the baler. It’d come out the back. We’d rake it together and a horse would lift the hay on a tall telephone pole and drop it on top. When we got ready to use it, we’d take a knife and cut the hay—the kind with two handles.
Interviewer: Did you run cattle?
Peters: Oh, yes, we had cattle. We had a dairy all the time. Dad also started beef cattle. Up until 1921 or 1922, we milked cattle in the corral. We had a tank there and an engine to pump the water. It was the lower one for the cattle to drink out of. Interviewer: How many head did you have?
Peters: Let’s see. In 1923, I left here and went back to Tennessee for my second year of college. I’d been out a year and a half after high school. I took one year of college, then went back home for three and a half years. When I went back I had more than 54 head of cows. I could only milk four at a time. We were feeding the separator out of 10 gallon cans that weighed about a hundred pounds. I went back to school and, when I came home again at Easter, the cows were all gone. Until then we’d had a dairy and hogs and cattle. We didn’t have goats; goats tore everything up. We had a slaughter house and we’d furnish beef for the two butcher shops in town.
Help on the Farm
Interviewer: Did you do this all yourselves or did you have employees?
Peters: After we got started, the mines gave out. That was about 1928. My sister and brother-in-law, my step-sister and her husband, they all went up to Superior. By that time the step-children’s father had come back here and was mining there. I was the only one on the farm. They were all up there. When they came back down again, several of them lived here on the farm.
We had employees. There was always a lady on the farm. A few came and took the name Peters, women from Blackwater who came and stayed. They brought their animals and settled in. We had Indians who camped out on the farm. Kisto and Thomas were two of them. During the time when we needed help, like bringing in the hay, they’d help us.
Interviewer: Did you have cotton during the war years? Did you ever use the P.O.W.s?
Peters: We used P.O.W.s at the farm out east of CAC. They brought them in. My job during the harvest season was to haul everything, from here to Coolidge and back. I’d haul the cotton from about the time it got light. I’d pull out the handmade trailers made out of trucks or cars. We had a couple of four bale trailers and some two bale. A three bale trailer would haul about two tons. We’d park the trailer at the end of the field and they’d pick the cotton and bring it in. We had a tripod or a stick at the end of the trailer with a scale. It would weigh up to 150 pounds. We seldom had anyone bring in a sack that was larger than 100 pounds. If you had a family, they would dump the littler sacks into the father or big boy’s larger sack. When they got about half way through the field, he’d drag it up to be weighed. We’d write it down in the book and he’d go up the ladder and dump the cotton.
A cotton sack is like a tube. You’d tie a rope around the end. On the other end there was a bib and a strap so you could put it on. They’d bring it up and we’d put their weights in the book. All the weights would be there at the end of the day. You’d have subtracted four pounds for the weight of the sack each time. Then you’d add all the weights up and multiply that by 85 cents per hundred pounds. When you came up with the figure for the week you’d have as much as maybe $200. You’d have columns for $20 bills, $10 bills, $5 bills, and $1 bills and make up the payroll. There was about 15 cents for hauling--the gas and the truck. I’d lock the doors on the truck and go into the bank to get the money. It was a lot of money, but you were careful with it. You paid off on Saturday morning. You’d have fifteen or twenty people to pay at each place. Interviewer: The Coolidge place was just a little place that you farmed as well. Peters: It was run by a man the name of Evel Henke. He started moonshining. My Dad staked him for his homestead. I drove out there two or three times a week. They were digging and leveling the land. Every other day I’d go those 25 miles. Sometimes you’d be coming back late in the day and they horses would have stopped ‘cause I’d nodded off.
Cotton Farming and Water – 1935
Interviewer: When did you start farming cotton?
Peters: The first cotton we had on the farm was 160 acres. Peter Schimmits (?), whose family still lives in the Coolidge area, in about 1932 he had it. In 1935 I believe we started. We didn’t have any horse equipment for harvesting. My brother-in-law bought a John Deere and a cultivator and planter. I think first we planted with horses and cultivated with them, too. I stayed home from school in the fall of 1935 in order to help with the crop. We farmed almost 500 acres with those two tractors.
End of side 1.
My Dad had bought a crawler tractor before that. Then he bought a big John Deere. It was too big. You couldn’t turn it and you couldn’t plow. Turning around the corner you’d just tear up the ditches. If I’d known what I know now, I’d have put a draw bar on it. We had cotton then and were just about out of the cattle business.
Interviewer: Now the ditches you had, they were dirt ditches?
Interviewer: You were using ports?
Peters: Yes. Most of the time we used 30 foot borders, which is an acre. Later on we used 50 foot. We used two ports about 25 feet apart. They would run about eight rows of cotton. You’d turn on the water and slow it down. Mostly you put them down so they were all level.
Interviewer: You had to level all that?
Peters: This was all level to start with. There were a few places where there were trees, but for the most part we didn’t have too much dirt to move. There was a piece of equipment that was about five feet wide with a Johnson bar on the end of it and two slides, one on each side.
Interviewer: What did you pull that with?
Peters: Horses. We had four mules. We had an old tank for watering the cattle while they were pastured. We had a big crew one time during the Depression. They worked ten hours a day, seven days a week. They got the big sum of $8.40—10 cents an hour. And they were glad to get it. There were people who came here during the Dust Bowl. That was what made it possible to have cotton. Some of the Indians came in to pick cotton but we didn’t have enough people to pick cotton. There was good and bad to the Dust Bowl. Many of the people who came here from the South stayed.
The Farm Bureau – 1930s – 1940s
Interviewer: Your father did a lot with the Farm Bureau.
Peters: He was one of the starters of the Farm Bureau.
Interviewer: Was that to get more lobbying for farm needs?
Peters: No, I don’t think so at all. I think the Farm Bureau in those days was mostly a social thing. There were dinners. I never had anything to do with anything like that. K.K. Henness came here with the Extension Bureau in the early 30s and hired me to work with him. I remember going up to the upper San Pedro. We didn’t do any slaughtering. People were starving but they killed the poor animals. There were people around here who couldn’t get enough to eat.
Later on I went to work for the Department about 1942. I went to the Old Timers’ Picnic here yesterday. I talked to many of the old hands from around here. I remember Felton Hadnot called me once. He said, “Hey, what you doin’?” I said, “Waiting for the cotton to open up so we can start picking.” In those days we picked when we could. You might only pick 1/4th of the crop off a row first, then ½ by mid-October. By the time you got to December, you’d picked it all.
Well, he called me and said “I need some help.” I had a Chevrolet but I drove back to see my girl at Easter and left the car there. When school was out, I went back and we got married. We came home by way of San Francisco. In between, I didn’t have a car so I bought an old Model A Ford pick-up which I modified. I fixed it up. So we took the boys out and a few of them would work here, then I’d go on and work at the next place. After a while we had worked it out. Jerry Storey was one of the boys, Tommy Caywood was another, Alvin Johnson was one and there was another fellow.
The State Department came down with a certificate to teach four hours a week. We went to the high school and we did welding, mending equipment, problem solving, things like that. Bring in the worst problem you have and let’s look at it. One of them brought in a half mile or rows and needed help to figure out how to get it hoed. We’d figure out how to do it and, in 15 minutes, we’d have a solution. I became the administrator’s assistant around 1948-1950. J.R. Storey was my boss. Parke Gilbert didn’t last long, just one year.
Farming During the War Years --1940s
Interviewer: What about during the World War II years?
Peters: We had wheat, cattle and alfalfa.
Interviewer: Did you get a contract for the cattle?
Peters: We shipped them to Los Angeles to market. In the summertime, I took freight car loads of cattle and hogs over. We’d go to the stockyards, which weren’t too far from downtown, and we’d see some shows for a few days before we came back. Then it was back to the depot and come home. It was a lot of fun. You’d run into some characters, too.
Interviewer: In those days before air conditioning, what did you do to keep your water cool?
Peters: You’d wrap your canteen with a wet sack and the evaporation would cool it. We had ojas, too, that would hold three or four gallons around the house. The horses went out there and stayed five or six hours. They needed lots of cool water.
Working Under Government Regulation in the 1950s
In 1950, we were going back into cotton. We’d pre-measure to determine the allotment. You’d take a percentage of that. Well, the state wasn’t happy with it. So we went back and did it again, and again, and again. When I met the chairman of the board. He was in cahoots with some fellows in Eloy and Stanfield. He said, “The state isn’t happy. They want you out.” “Then find somebody to replace me,” I said. Seven years later I was working for Chickashay and some suits came. FBI. They wanted to talk to me. They told me what had happened. How would you do that? they asked me. “Well,” I said, “you have to have an administrative assistant to set it up and the other guy authorizes it. You see, you have a farm here. You sell your allotment for $115 an acre. You have a hundred acres. Then you’d find somebody who needs it. He’d pay $115 for ten acres. But they not only gave him the money, this guy sold the ten acres twice. The chairman of the board planted it himself after he’d sold it. He had 40% of 180 acre allotment and he had 400 acres of cotton.
Interviewer: Well, that’s something. Thank you, Mr. Peters, for taking the time to do this with me.