A TRUE Story
Ida Mae Wegman Sell was born in Conway, KS, on September 8, 1894. She grew up in Conway and went to school there, graduating from 8th grade. She was active in the Methodist church in her youth. She had one brother, George.
Ida Wegman’s parents, William and Mary Stout Wegman, came to Phoenix about 1913 to visit a cousin, Ethel Muldrow. During their visit, Mr. Wegman saw advertisements for homestead land in The Arizona Republic. He talked with a real estate salesman who took him to view the area south of Toltec. Mr. Wegman was impressed. Tall grasses covered the land in all directions. His head was filled with plans for a dairy in Arizona.
Ida married William Henry Sell on November 27, 1914. When the Wegmans returned to Kansas that year, they convinced the young couple to come to Arizona to homestead, too. Ida knew little about the West. Her images included Indians in war paint and primitive conditions. In September 1915, Mr. Wegman and Bill Sell left Kansas for Toltec. They were surprised to discover that the tall grasses were gone. Apparently 1914 had been a wet year. The land had returned to its desert appearance. Undaunted, the two men began constructing a three room house on the Sell 160 acres. The Sell homestead, which was 3 ½ miles south of the town of Toltec, was on a road graded by the country. A one room house was planned for the Wegman 80 acres.
Ida and baby Lila arrived on the train from Kansas on November 27, 1915. Bill was delayed coming in from the homestead and so Ida and the baby stayed in the Casa Grande Hotel. Ida recalled how frightened she was. The house and well Bill and Ida’s father, William Wegman, had begun during the summer of 1915 was not quite finished. She had seen many Mexican men in the lobby of the Hotel and she believed they were hostile Indians who would kill her and Lila. The wife of hotel owner Bill Courtright assured her she was safe and helped her through those three days.
During those first days, Bill rode a bicycle to and from the homestead. Now that Ida had joined him, he and the Wegmans went into Phoenix to buy a car, leaving Ida and the baby in Casa Grande. The Ford dealer there, however, had none. Fortunately, the Ford dealer from Florence happened to be in Phoenix, and he had one he could sell. The three returned to Florence with the dealer. There Bill paid $490 for a Model A Ford. Bill drove back to Casa Grande across the desert as there were no roads. This car had no gas gauge. Bill would lift the front seat off and measure how much gas remained in the tank. One time when he lifted up the seat, a nest of tiny pink mice was nestled beside it. The car was used to go to church or shopping, usually just once a week.
The family rented the Burgess house in Casa Grande and lived there while the house on the homestead was completed. Everyone worked together clearing the land. By that time the Sells were running short of money so Bill went away to work as a section foreman on the railroad being built near Ajo. He was gone all week long, leaving Ida and Lila on the farm. Lila recalls that her mother kept a bag packed for a quick get away should Pancho Villa, who was on a rampage in southern Arizona, come near. Fortunately, he never did. Donald E. Sell was born in October of 1917.
The two men hand-dug a well and installed a windmill just west of the house. Water was piped to the outside of the house. It wasn’t piped into the kitchen until after the family returned from their trip to California in 1919. Over the years, the well had to be dug deeper a couple of times when it was not producing enough water for the crops. A fuel oil pump was installed. Directly west of the house was the pump. A little north was one chicken coop with a pig pen behind it. The barn was on the south. The house and another chicken coop were sandwiched among all these buildings.
The weir box was fifteen feet square and three feet deep. Besides providing water for the crops, the weir box was the place where the children learned to swim and everyone cooled off in the hot summer. Near the weir box were three very large mulberry trees which shaded the area. Electric power ran past the farm but was never utilized on the farm. There was a wood burning stove for cooking and heating in winter. In later years, a kerosene stove was used in the summer to cook and for heating 'flat irons' to iron clothes.
The Sell house had three rooms, a long one across the front and two bedrooms behind. Lila remembers two pictures on the living room wall, one of women gleaning and one of two horse’s heads, a rug in the living room, curtains at the windows, and wallpaper on the walls. There was big overstuffed furniture and linoleum on the kitchen floor. A table and chairs in the dining—which was part of the big (living?) room. She remembers cupboards to hold the dishes beside the sink, which had drawers underneath it (?) There was a cupboard on rollers with Hoosier bins which held flour, sugar and shortening. It had a pull out board for rolling out biscuits and pie dough. The wood stove was beside the cupboard. The stove had a water reservoir which provided hot water for dishes and baths. Baths were taken in a large #10 tub. The youngest child took the first and was followed by everyone else in the family. There was never a bathroom. Bill always said he just never thought about installing one!
During the summer, everyone had an iron cot in the yard. After the sun went down, each member of the family placed a mattress on his or her cot and slept there where it was cool. If a dust storm came up, each person rolled up their mattress and bedding and ran for the closed up house. Everyone had to stay inside until the rain was over. It was often stifling in the house if the dust storm and the rain lasted very long.
Ida was shown how to make a desert cooler using a box with burlap tacked on all sides. A flat pan filled with water was placed on top. Burlap strips of cloth hung with one end in the water and the other end on the sides of the box. The contents of the box, such as butter and milk, were cooled by any breeze blowing through the damp cloth. An olla was hung under the large mulberry tree in the yard so that the children and the workers to have a drink at any time.
A very large garden was planted each spring. Ida canned many jars of food for winter. The family kept a hive of bees to help with pollination of the garden and to provide honey for the family. Under a portion of the house was a cellar which had shelves to hold the jars of food Ida canned to store potatoes for winter. Mary and Lila both remember that there was plenty of food for the family. The first year the family homesteaded they planted fruit trees—apricot, pear, peach, plum and apple--as well as shade trees. All the trees flourished except the apple tree. It wasn’t until some years later that the family learned that they needed to plant two apple trees in order for them to thrive. There was a row of blackberry bushes that did well until a small bug infested the plants. The blackberries were soon pulled up.
Ida’s parents proved up an 80 acre homestead adjacent to Bill and Ida. They built a small one room cabin and lived there four years until the land was theirs. Most of this land wasn’t cleared until after the Wegman’s returned to Kansas. Grandpa Wegman had beautiful white hair and a big mustache. He was a quiet man. Grandma Mary Stout Wegman wore dresses in the fashion of earlier days, long and in blues and greys with small flowers. Ida and Mary looked a lot alike. The genetic trait ran through to Mary’s daughter Genevieve, Aunt Viney Stout Bixby and niece Mildred Muldrow who all shared that look. Lila remembers going to her grandparents’ house to eat fried mush for breakfast in the mornings. If she wasn’t able to walk to her grandparents’ house, Grandpa Wegman would wrap a piece of the mush in newspaper and bring it over to the Sells for her. It was a treat Lila loved. But Mary Wegman wasn’t well. She couldn’t walk over to visit at the Sell house. In 1919 the couple returned to Conway, Kansas where they had a large wheat farm. Shortly thereafter Mary died.
Grandpa Wegman decided not to return to Arizona. The lumber from his little house was used to build porches on the north and west sides of Bill and Ida’s house. Each porch was constructed of wood that went up three feet, then screen that continued to the roof. Canvas flaps were attached to keep the cold out and rain off the porches. They were used as bedrooms. And it was cooler there than in the house in summer. Henry recalled that the only time the children slept in the house was if it rained hard. Mary said she thought that, although the children had various allergies, they slept well outside. Lila does remember that she was cautioned that, if she saw bright lights in the distance, she should not go outside alone. It is likely that the lights were from the prison at Florence. She was also told not to go outside if she woke and thought she heard a baby crying. It would probably only be a coyote. Lila says she heard lots of coyotes, but they never sounded like babies to her.
When Lila and Don were little, the family dumped cans and boxes in the wash across the road from the house. The children didn’t have many store bought toys and played with whatever they found. They would find suitable boxes and cans, make a house in the bushes, and make mud pies and play house. Ida could see them across the road, so she didn’t worry about them getting into too much trouble. They were close enough to reach them quickly in an emergency. Lila internalized the importance of doing what she was told quickly and without question. When she was raising her own family, she employed the same strategy with her children.
Mr. McMilland, a neighbor on a nearby farm, drove into Toltec each morning to get The Arizona Republic. He had struck it rich in the Alaska gold rush when he was young. As he drove back to his farm, he’d stop at the Sells to read the continuing adventures of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox that were published in the newspaper to Lila and Don. He’d also read them the funnies. As it came nearer to Christmas, he’d have Ida make a list of gifts for the children. Lila remembers a doll. Don received a train. His generosity brightened the holidays for the family.
Off to California
Many families came to Pinal country for free land. Homesteading was very difficult. Some families only stayed the four years required to prove up the land, often without clearing the land or planting any crops. Friendships built during those difficult days sustained the young families. Some of Bill and Ida’s friends were the Benefields who came from San Francisco, CA, the Taylors from Los Angeles, CA, and the Benedicts who were from Long Beach, CA. The friends would meet after church and Sunday school to picnic under a mesquite tree or come back to the Sell farm to swim in the large cement weir box. All three of these couples returned to their California homes in 1919. Bill and Ida decided to go to California, too. The old Model T took them across the desert to Los Angeles where Bill found work in a shipyard. The Ayalas, a Mexican man and wife, came to live in the house and take care of the crops, garden and animals. These homesteading friendships, reinforced by letters and visits, endured for many years.
Lila, who was four years old in 1919, remembers the house the family rented in Los Angeles near a park with a wading pool. She was allowed to go there with an older black girl who was" hired" to hold her hand and keep her safe. The house next door caught on fire while the men were at work. Ida, fearful that her house would burn too, pulled all the furniture outside onto the lawn. Bill saw the smoke and ran home just in time to get the Model A out of the garage. Only he had the key. Lila recalls that she and Don played in the house’s fenced yard. She would sometimes try to scale the fence to go to the park but baby Don would set up a howl, alerting his mother. After six months, Don developed bronchitis and the doctor suggested they return to Arizona for the warm, dry climate.
The day the family arrived back at the homestead, the Ayalas packed up and moved into a home of their own nearby. Mrs. Ayala had left a tortilla in the breadbox and Lila recalls that she was given the entire tortilla to eat. How good it tasted! Lila remembers how very kind Mr. Ayala was. When he rode his horse to the ranch, he’d always say “Buenos dias, Mija.” She didn’t realize until much later that that was a term of endearment. The Ayalas weren’t the only neighbors. At one time, there was an Armenta family about a half mile away. The Art Housers also lived nearby. They had two children, Bill, who was called “Huck,” and Marion. How Huck disliked his name!
In 1920-1921 Toltec had a school, a hotel, a real estate agent, a gas station, and a mini grocery. 1921-1922 was fine school year with many children on the homesteads attending. Lila and Don would walk with the other children in the area to school. The school room was often cold when the children arrived. It was a plain room with a door at one end and a wood stove at the other. Chalkboards lined one wall and windows let in light. The rows of desks were bolted to the floor. Books and papers were kept inside the desks under their hinged tops. Each desk had an inkwell and pen. The yard was dirt and there was a swing set and basketball hoop. The children played hopscotch and basketball, marbles and tag. The boys were full of fun. Lila recalls that the Houser boys and Don rounded up some desert burros and the kids rode them to and from school. The one Lila rode was called “Old Granny.” One day she ran away with Lila and tried to scrape her off on some bushes. Lila was rescued by the boys.
Classes were loosely structured with children of all ages and sizes. The children traced patterns and colored them in when their work was completed. They sang. One teacher used a guitar to accompany them. Another teacher brought a box of bran flakes and banana to school. She peeled the banana and dipped it into the flakes before she ate it. Lila thought that very strange! A teacher named Mr. Henderson served as the preacher in the town of Rittenhouse near Florence. He had a car, which impressed the children, and was a very large person. Lila said she thought that was a good thing because some of the children were as big as he was.
By 1922-1923, many of the families had proved up their land and left, taking the students with them. There were no longer enough children to keep the Toltec School open, so it was placed on a skid the pulled to a new location. Lila and Don had to be driven to school in the Model A. In February 1923, Mary Katheryn Sell was born in the Florence Hospital. When she was brought home, there was no crib so a dresser drawer with a pillow in the bottom became her bed. The family arranged for Lila to live with the teacher and her husband in Picacho from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon. The Parrins lived in the back of the telegraph office and the outhouse was locked to keep the bums who followed the railroad out.
Mr. Parrin was the first trick operator for the railroad. The term “trick” was used by telegraph operators to describe each eight hour period in a day. The first trick operator worked from midnight until 8 a.m. The Parrin’s had come to Picacho from their home and apple orchard near Austin, TX. Lila slept in their daughter’s room. She was away at college. It was very loud in Lila’s bedroom when a train came through. Lila tells the story of Mr. Parrin, who liked to tease her, on an evening drive in his Buick touring car. It was a moonlit night. They drove past Red Rock toward Picacho Peak. Mr. Parrin said, “Just look at those perky quail scampering up on that mountain.” Try as she might, little Lila couldn’t see the quail. She remembers it being a great time.
There were many children in the school in Picacho. Most of them were children of the railroad workers. All eight grades occupied one room. Lila completed both 2nd and 3rd grade during that school year. She had one friend her own age and they played together. Lila recalls dressing as a princess in light clothing one cold November day and catching cold. She was put to bed. Her friend came to the house with a cup of Eagle Brand milk “for the princess”. Lila said it was good and sweet.
In 1924, the one room frame building that was Toltec School was moved south half way to the Sell farm. This made it only a mile and a half to walk between home and school. With the new location there were enough students, including Mexican children, to hold school. It was a rule that only English was to be spoken while at school. This policy worked in the reverse. The English speaking students learned Spanish! The Pinal County School Superintendent, Lola Le Baron, lived in Florence. She came to visit Toltec School once or twice a year. She couldn't speak Spanish so Lila would interpret for her when she came to check on students.
The family attended the First Presbyterian Church in Casa Grande. Ida prepared Sunday dinner on Saturday. She laid the children’s clothes out early so that the family would make it to Casa Grande on time. The church was located on the south side of the railroad tracks. There was a small wooden building plus a tent that had a wooden floor and sides. The children had Sunday school in the tent and sat on little red chairs around a table for the lesson. Gladys Albrecht, who was Sunday school superintendent at the time, told Lila that the chairs were made by church members and cost 25 cents each. Lila also remembers allowing Don, age three, to wear a string of beads to Sunday school only because he fussed so much about her wearing them that their mother intervened.
One Sunday in the early fall, it began raining during church. By the time the family started home, water was running in the bar ditches on both sides of the road from Casa Grande to Toltec. Turning south and crossing the railroad tracks, the desert looked like a river: parts of the graded dirt road were visible, but most was under water. Bill tried to guess where the road should be but it wasn’t far until the car became lodged in a washed out place. They were stuck! Bill walked three miles home, got the team and wagon, and came back with some apples for his hungry brood. The family was more than ready for supper when they finally reached home late in the afternoon. Each day Bill went out and moved the car a few yards closer to the house. It took him more than a week to bring the car all the way back home.
One Sunday after church, when the family pulled into the yard, Bill exclaimed, “There’s a badger at the barn.” They could see piles of dirt everywhere and everyone knew how destructive badgers can be. The children went into the house and changed their clothes. They gathered up the buckets, boiler and tubs that Ida used to wash clothes and filled them with water. They poured the water into the holes beginning at the stable. The water flowed under the granary and came up outside the garage. Ida served as sentry at one hole while Bill waited with the pitch fork at another. The boys and girls continued pouring water. Finally, the badger came up, saw all the people, and went back underground. When he couldn’t take the water any longer, Bill got him with the pitch fork.
Sunday school and church were highlights of the week. One fall, the men of the church hunted quail, cleaned and dressed them, and the quail were put in ice cream containers at Richardson’s Drug Store and frozen until enough were collected for a celebration. On the big day, the women of the church came out to the Sell farm where they prepared the feast. Everyone in the church enjoyed a delicious dinner.
Bill recalls helping to build the rock church that now houses The Casa Grande Valley Historical Society. Ida taught Sunday school and later served as the Sunday school superintendent even though she was quite a shy person. There was always a picture to go along with the lessons. Lila remembers Mary singing Jesus Loves Me accompanied by Charles Benedict—on whom she had a crush--when Mary was about five years old. Mary received her first Bible as a gift from Grandfather Wegman for memorizing the most Bible verses, with her mother’s help, for a Sunday school contest. The Bible disappeared years later when the suitcase in which Mary had packed it for a bus trip to Wisconsin was lost. The bus company compensated her with $25, not nearly enough for the treasure that was gone.
Charles Albert Sell was born February 25, 1925. He was a handsome little boy. December 1926 was a cold and wet month. Many people caught the flu. The flu often became pneumonia. Several in the Sell family were ill. Charles, age 22 months, was very ill and died. Because Ida and the other children were ill, only Bill was able to attend his funeral. Charles is buried in the old section of the Casa Grande Cemetery. His grave has a copper marker.
Making Ends Meet
In 1927 there was a big cabbage crop to be harvested. The cabbages were placed in burlap bags for market. There was enough profit to pay the hospital bill when Henry Wegman Sell was born on July 16, 1927 at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix. Lila remembers that she and Don had to help with the bagging of the cabbages. It was hot and the bags were heavy. Among Lila’s duties after school was bringing the cow in for milking. On one occasion, Lila was so hungry that she got a cup, filled it with corn flakes, and covered them with thick cream straight from the cow. It made her so sick that it was a long time before she could face eating corn flakes again. When lettuce was a good crop, Bill would build his own crates for shipping. All the materials were delivered to the farm. The ends of each crate were metal frames that held wood strips to the bottom and sides. Later, a lettuce packing shed was built in Toltec. Other crops raised and sold on the farm were wheat, barley and cotton.
By 1929, when Mary was six, she attended the one room school with her brother, Don and sister, Lila. One teacher taught all the grades. If one wanted to listen to other children's lessons a good deal of information could be learned. The three children walked to school most of the time. Mary doesn't remember the hard work Lila and Don did to help on the farm. Mary loved the farm. She remembers climbing a shade tree with a book and reading away a hot afternoon. She loved to read. Ida doled out newspapers and magazines that were picked up in town once a week. Mary received The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, a popular children’s book, for her birthday one year. She wanted to read it all the way through immediately, but Ida would only allow her to read one chapter a day. She read the book so many times, she felt she could tell the story verbatim.
The children never forgot an accident their mother had while helping work on the windmill. The pipes which had to be pulled up out of the well were held by a chain. As Ida worked, the chain slipped and the pipes and pump came crashing down. Ida’s right thumb was cut through at the first joint. Only a thread of skin kept it in place. Holding her thumb in her left hand, Ida was helped into the house where she put on a clean dress. Then everyone piled into the car and off they drove to Dr. Hoffman in Casa Grande. The doctor looked at Ida’s thumb and decided it was in place. He coated it with layers of carbolated Vaseline, bandaged it, and sent her home. Every couple of days, she returned to have it dressed. Amazingly, the only permanent damage was a malformed nail.
One year, Bill planted wheat and barley. After it ripened, it was cut and the stalks were bound up in bales. In order to do custom baling for neighboring farmers, Bill purchased a stationary hay baler. The farmer placed the material to be baled into a hopper. Blocks were inserted and wire tied the bales together. Unfortunately, Bill and some of his neighbors got into an argument. The trouble persisted. One morning Bill couldn’t get the engine of the baler to start. He worked and worked on it. Finally, the engine coughed and out of the exhaust flew three sticks of dynamite. Because the sticks were too thick, they blocked the air and the engine couldn’t start. If only one stick had been left by the fractious neighbor, it would have exploded. Lila believes the good Lord was looking out for them.
James D. Sell was born on April 20, 1930 when the family was living on the Harry Mandell place in Casa Grande. He was premature and weighed just 3 ½ pounds. Ida placed him in a shoebox lined with cotton and placed him on the warming shelf of the wood stove. Lila remembers holding Jimmy on a pillow to prevent him from crying. Ida was afraid he would rupture his insides if he cried very long or hard. Lila sewed her first quilt during that summer. Jimmy took extra time to crawl and walk but he grew up to be very smart.
In September 1930, Lila married Doyle Nichols. She and her husband moved to Carlsbad, New Mexico. On May 3, 1931, their daughter Wilma Jean Nichols was born. It was hard for Ida to have Lila and her first grandchild so far away, so they were encouraged to return to Arizona. They moved to Eloy where Doyle farmed for a man named Wagner who lived in California. The Nichols’s lived in a small adobe house on the property. Mr. Wagner occasionally came to stay in the big house. In 1933, Barbara Nichols was born in Casa Grande.
The Great Depression
Although Bill farmed both his 160 acres and the Wegman 80 acres, there were times when the farm didn't make enough to keep the family going, Bill would take outside jobs to supplement the family’s income. Bill would go to one of the farming areas in California and get a job as foreman. He could speak Spanish and was able to talk to the Mexican workers. Some years Bill packed lettuce in Brawley, CA. Once he was a boss for railroad construction in Yuma.
During this period, Bill had to take jobs away from the farm in order for the family to survive. The farm would be rented to someone else. Ida and the children lived in Casa Grande. Mary remembers a birthday when her only gift was a new pair of shoelaces. She was delighted because her old laces were in tatters. The birthday dinner was always special complete with a cake with candles. With a big garden and chickens to fry there was always a great meal. Mary continued her schooling through high school in town. She was valedictorian of the Class of 1940. Those years in the one room school really paid off for her.
The family, except for Mary who was attending school in town, moved back to the farm in 1933. They only stayed a year. Bill put in a cotton crop. When it was time to pick, all the children and some hired workers were brought in to pick. Mary recalls that Ida, who wanted her daughters to have pretty white skin and to be ladies, made her wear long sleeved shirts and a broad brimmed hat. The stickers on the cotton boles pricked your fingers until they got very sore. It was not a job one wanted to do when she grew up. Jim remembers a time when he was three or four year old and he, Wilma Jean, and Ida made frosted graham crackers as dessert for the workers in the cotton fields. The two children set off to take lunch out to them in their little wagon. “It must have been a long way,” Jim says, “because by the time they reached the men, all the frosted graham crackers had been eaten. There was no dessert left.”
The family returned to Casa Grande. Hazel was born January 19, 1934, the day the family moved from the farm into a house on Main Street which, at that time, was south of the railroad. She was born at home. It was the final time the family moved from the farm into town. Jim remembers that Henry and he would sit on the picket fence and put their legs through the spaces. When a train would come through, they’d hoot and holler and wave at the engineer. Naturally, the engineer would blow the whistle all through town. The children thought he was blowing the whistle just for them.
It is thought that the farm sold fairly soon after the family moved to town. Conjecture has it that the water table had dropped again and Bill was going to be required to dig the well deeper and perhaps buy a new pump. This was likely to be very expensive. Perhaps he tried to obtain bank financing for the project. It may be that he didn’t want to go into debt. In either case, the farm was sold. Bill didn’t receive much for the land. Ida, however, was as capable as ever. She could make almost anything she needed or wanted out of materials on hand. Hazel remembers a Christmas when she received a doll bed and dresser her mother had made out of scrap lumber. The drawers were cigar boxes of two sizes. One beautiful dress Ida made for Hazel was of silky material with blue and red flowers on a white ground. It was the second time around for that material.
When Lila’s children were two and four years old, the family moved to Nogales to farm. Mary recalls one trip to visit the Nichols’s when there was such a thunder storm it flooded two streams and isolated the farmhouse. The ranch was very large, with a house on every section so the workers were spread out across the entire farm. There were huge trees and rolling hills with grassland for cattle and horses. There was an orchard of cling peaches and the women canned many quarts of spiced peaches. A communal acreage was planted as a garden for all the workers and grew enough vegetables for everyone.
One of Lila’s neighbors was a Black family. They had three little girls and the woman was pregnant with another child. The boss’s wife, Cora, and Lila tried to look out for the mother, making sure the doctor arrived in time for the delivery. A son was born. When it came time for the child to be circumcised, Lila and Cora took the baby to the doctor’s office while the new mother stayed at home with the girls. After the procedure, they wrapped the baby up and placed him in the back seat of the coupe they were driving. The top was down and, when they pulled into the gas station for gas, Cora picked up the baby for the attendant to see and said, “Isn’t this a sweet baby? Don’t you think he looks just like me?” “Noooo,” he said, “but it sure does look like the other lady!” They laughed and laughed.
Every family remembers events that strike fear into them. There are three snake stories in the Sell’s recollections.
In order to enlarge the house Lila and Doyle Nichols lived in on the farm in Eloy, a framework was constructed for a porch. Wilma Jean and Barbara were sleeping on a cot while Lila washed clothes. When Lila came back from hanging the clothes on the line, a big snake came out of one of the many mouse holes in the walls of the house. It turned into the open door of the house. Lila picked up her children and put them into the wash tub for safety. Then she went into the house to find the snake. She couldn’t find it. She left the door open and took the children to the boss’s house until her husband came home that evening. Although they searched everywhere, the snake was never found.
Jim remembers when his niece, Wilma Jean, was visiting the ranch. “We were playing in the yard and looking through a pipe that went under the road. After a while, we tired of doing that and went into the house to have ice cream. A short time later, one of the family spotted a rattlesnake crawling out of the pipe. Wow, were we lucky!”
Lila recalls a time when a snake got into the house in Nogales. Lila looked inside as a shaft of sunlight illuminated a bedroom off the kitchen. Under the bed was a coiled snake. She got out the 22 rifle and laid it on the bed. Hoping she was aiming correctly, she pulled the trigger. She got it! She swept the carcass out of the house with a broom.
Living and Working at Casa Grande Union High School
In 1934, Bill got a job with Casa Grande Union High School. The family moved to a house on the school grounds. It had a large tamarack tree in the yard and was located north of the tennis courts. Hazel remembers sitting on the post holding the tennis net up and watching her sister Mary and Keith Carlton play tennis. “Keith hit a very hard ball that struck me in the eye and knocked me off the post! I had a black eye!” The children played cars under the tamarack tree after a rain. “You could make good roads in the damp earth,” said Hazel. She especially recalls the terrible dust storms and pounding rains that followed.
Henry says he doesn’t remember much about the ranch or when their Dad was hired as custodian at the Casa Grande Union High School, but he knows there was more work than one man could do. He was soon recruited to help after school sweeping and emptying waste baskets on the top floor while his father would take care of the middle floor and the basement. The auditorium was seldom used but when it was the two would sweep it out after the program so it was clean for the next day. One of Bill’s other duties was to light the huge heaters in the gym before basketball games or dances. He would go over a couple of hours before anything started and light the natural gas heaters. One night when he came home after lighting them, the family saw his singed face. He had no eyebrows and the hair on his head was shorter in front! “I guess it lit before he was ready!” said Henry, “but, like all things, it didn't seem to bother him very much.”
Hazel remembers living in the house at the high school. “Barbara and Wilma Jean came to live with us and it snowed. All the high school students were let out to play in it. I tried to save a large snow ball on the front porch and cried when it melted.” When it was very cold, Ida would make the girls wear heavy brown stockings held up with a garter belt. As a first grader in Miss Castle’s class Hazel found these very uncomfortable. When it was warm enough, she would roll them down to anklet size. Later Ida ordered white socks from the Sears catalog for Hazel to wear. “I had many colds and sore throats during my first three grades. I finally had my tonsils out when I was 8 and was better.”
The house was on the northwest side of the high school property across the road from the football field. There were hedges to play in and clover that felt cool as the children lay in it on summer afternoons. Hank and Jim--along with Hazel and nieces, Barbara and Wilma Jean who lived with the Sells part of the time--were asked to keep the field free of sticker weeds and other things that didn't belong. Henry and Jim were chopping weeds and the girls were racking them up and using a pitchfork to pile them up. “I must have been tormenting Wilma about using the pitchfork and having a nice job while Hank and I were sweating like mad,” said Jim. “She got angry and stuck one of the pitchfork tines in my leg. Naturally, it bled so I ran crying into Mom who cleaned it off with kerosene, placed a bandaid on it and sent me out to finish the job.”
Bill was well known to the students at the high school. In those days, there used to be wrestling matches in the National Guard Armory. Henry tells this story of one interaction between Bill and the boys. “In Dad's past he had been a wrestler and one day at school Doyle “Doy” Stiles and Billy Eastman were feeling their oats. At the noon recess, all in fun, these two boys told Dad he was getting old and that they could throw him over the hedge in front of the natatorium. Well, it didn't take Dad very long to pin them both. The entire student body had a great time. As you can guess, he wasn't challenged ever again. I don't think there were any repercussions from this incident for Dad.” Henry says his father used to volunteer to be one of the adults to drive players to out of town basketball, baseball and football games. Bill had a ‘36 Ford with overdrive that would go about 90 miles an hour. Sometimes he would show his charges just how fast the car would go. On football trips, Doy Stiles and Billy Eastman always rode with Bill.
Baby Hazel was treated kindly by all of Mary’s friends. Even after they went off to college, they’d send birthday cards to Hazel. Her big brother Hank watched over her. Once, when she was just two, Jimmy saved her from drowning in the irrigation canal when she slipped from the bank into the water. He caught hold of her dress and yelled for their mother. When Hank fell out of a tree house the children built onto the bank of the canal, Mother had had enough. After that experience, none of the children were allowed to play near the canal. But it wasn’t just a one way street. When Hank was working for his cooking badge for Boy Scouts, Hazel agreed to be his “taster.” The two rode his bike to a desert area near home and Hank built a small fire. He placed a large tin of pork and beans with corn in it on the fire. When it had cooked awhile, the children ate it. Hazel verified that the succotash was great. Hank got his badge.
Grandpa Wegman sometimes visited the family, sitting on the settee in a shady part of the yard. One year Mary remembers the family traveling to Kansas to visit relatives and bringing Grandpa Wegman back with them. He sat in front with Bill and one of the little children while Ida sat in back with Mary and the others. As they were driving through New Mexico, Bill asked Ida to take over driving while he rested. The two lane road was busy and Ida had to keep pulling out to check to see if it was safe to pass a tanker truck she was following. She over corrected and caught the right fender on the back of the truck. The car was thrown into a ditch. Everyone was frightened but only Grandpa Wegman was hurt. He had a scratch on his arm from hitting the window. Ida cried and cried. She felt she could have killed the entire family. She swore she would never drive again—and she didn’t! Bill, his usual calm self, got in the car and drove everyone home.
Mary says that Grandpa Wegman died in 1939 as the family was preparing for church and a picnic one Sunday. Bill, who was driving the car, went with Grandpa to pick up Marie Stein. When he returned to the car with her, Grandpa Wegman was sitting in the passenger seat dead. Mrs. Ward stayed with the children when the Sells took Grandpa’s body back to Kansas so he could be buried with his wife. Little Hazel, who was afraid of the dominating Mrs. Ward, recalls sleeping under the covers at the bottom of the bed the whole time her parents were gone.
It was a good walk to Central School from the high school. The little children would walk, as did most kids in town. After 2nd grade, Jim recalls helping the janitor at the school sweep the floors and clean the blackboards. This continued through 8th grade. When he was 12 he had saved enough to buy himself a shiny new bike. By the time they reached 6th through 8th grades the boys were riding their bicycles to South School. “I would stop at the drug store for a milkshake then go on to The Casa Grande Dispatch to glue on nametags for the mailings on Thursdays as the paper only came out on Fridays.” Jim reports. “This would tide me over until I got home around 8:30 p.m. Don Hammer also helped out at The Dispatch.”
Each weekend, the Sell boys had the job of draining the swimming pool in the natatorium. The drained water was used to water the lawns and the football field. As the water was being drawn down, Henry and Jim would use brooms to clean the sides and the sloping floor of the pool of all the dirt. By the time it was half down, the water was very dirty. “We had a water hose to wash the sides that we had scrubbed. Yes, after cleaning, the pool was refilled and we got to be the first ones in the new water.” Jim reports.
But it wasn’t all work and no play as Jim describes. “Every now and then, a group came in to play baseball. They had burros, so when a batter hit a ball he had to jump on a burro and try to reach first base before the ball reached the first base. The burro only had a halter on, no saddle, so the batter had to stay on as best he could. Naturally, the player on each base had to be agile, as the player on the burro found it hard to stop. If the player was safe, he could go on around the bases. The game was played on the football field, which was the baseball field as the seasons progressed. Following the game, a bunch of us guys--like my brother Hank, Rod Goff and Vernon Hancock--all got to ride the burros back to their camp on the vacant lot north of the field. As the burro was eager to get back to camp for water and food, they took off like they had not been running on the field. I for one did not stay on the back of the burro for long!”
The Last Sell Children Grow Up
Casa Grande was a still a small town. The family shopped at the Pioneer Market, the B & L, and Serrano’s Dry Goods Store. Martin’s was the family’s drug store. The kids remember Saturday serials and the cowboy movie at the Paramount Theater.
Hazel loved school. She had classmates who continued with her throughout all her years of school: some were Sharon Peart, Mary Helen Serrano, Don Cannon, Warren Goff and Cleo Carlton. She excelled through 8th grade where she was valedictorian of her class. 1942 was also the year that Bill left his job at the high school. He established a house painting business and Ida continued to care for the family. He moved the family to a home on 10th Street and Park. Bill retired in 1955. Ida died May 23, 1977. Bill died May 17, 1981.
Mary married Peter L. Jensen on October 10, 1942. The couple had three children: Peter, August 18, 1943; William Christian, October 11, 1947; and Robin, May 23, 1958.
Henry graduated from high school in 1944 and attended Arizona State University for a year before joining the Navy. He served on the aircraft carrier Midway and came back to Casa Grande. In order to save money, he hitchhiked home when his tour of duty was over. He joined his father in the painting business. Henry married Connie Conrad on August 9, 1949. They had three children: Helen, born in 1950; Bruce, born in 1951; and Diane, born in 1952.
Jim was an Eagle Scout in high school, then attended Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO, and earned a degree in geology. He served in the U.S. Army in Korea. Following his service he worked for a mining company in Superior, Arizona. Jim married Margaret “Marne” Smith on December 27, 1956. They have three children: Mark, born in 1957; Katherine, “Cappie,” born in 1959; and Tom, born in 1962.
When Hazel went to high school she was sophomore class President. As a junior and senior she served as Student Body Secretary. “As part of the Student Council,” she says, “I was invited to the Junior Senior Prom for three years.” Hazel was the annual editor her senior year and graduated in 1952 as the Salutatorian. “That annual won a national prize!” she recalls.
Hazel met her future husband, Joe Bonebrake, as a freshman. The two dated all through high school years. Joe’s family came to Casa Grande in 1936 because he suffered from asthma. The Bonebrakes had several restaurants in Casa Grande. Even after his mother, Hazel, retired the ball players at the Francisco Grande would come to town to get her to cook for them.
“Joe and I married in April of 1953 and have been married for 51 years.” says Hazel. Joe worked for Frazey Noe’s appliance company after the two were married. Hazel was the activities secretary for the high school for seven years with Barbara Garrett Ross, Superintendent Loren Curtis's secretary. After Joe’s and Hazel’s first child, David R.
Bonebrake, was born February 1, 1960, Hazel left the high school. Their second child, Leslie, was born February 26, 1963. The two Bonebrake children were raised in Casa Grande.
When Leslie was three, Hazel went to Arizona State University to study to be a teacher. She completed her BA in Education in three years and was given a job teaching 3rd grade at Central School in Casa Grande. She and two other teachers began work on their Masters in Education at the University of Arizona while teaching. By attending classes at night and summer school each year, they finished the program in three years.
Like their mother, the two children did well in school. Both attended The University of Arizona. Leslie later completed her BA at Arizona State University. Leslie and her husband, Craig George, still live in Casa Grande. After working for the Casa Grande Elementary School District as an art teacher, Leslie home schools their four children, Thomas, Julianne, Aaron and Margaret “Meg” Suzanne. Craig works for Ross-Abbott Laboratories. David lives in Pinetop with his wife Tami Lopes and their two boys, Tanner J. and Conner G. Bonebrake.
All of the Sell children except Donald, who died in 1986, are alive and well in Arizona. Henry and Lila live in Glendale while Jim lives in Tucson. Mary now lives in the San Diego, CA area. Joe worked for Arizona Public Service for 32 years. After teaching for 24 years, Hazel is now retired.