It's been over a month, and the shuttering of Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery continues to reverberate. The 12-year-old eatery and watering hole, on 50th Street just south of Ray Road, was the latest in a series of retail closings in and around the Ahwatukee Foothills area.
With it we have now come full-circle - at least where the southeast corner of 48th Street and Ray Road is concerned. It wasn't long ago that 48th Street was a dusty country lane, 50th Street was a gleam in the city of Phoenix's eye and the land on the south side of Ray Road stretching from 48th Street to the freeway was owned by one family. Indeed, as recently as 1995 firewood was being sold on the corner of the not-yet-busy intersection.
For the genesis of today's bustling retail power center, we travel all the way back to the end of World War I. The year 1918 saw the Tempe arrival of Texan Eli Fount Gates. Growing cotton near the eventual 56th Street and Ray Road, Gates purchased 80 acres of desert on what would become the southeast corner of 48th Street and Ray Road for his son, Herb, a 1919 Tempe High School graduate.
The Highline Canal, part of the water-delivery-system created with the advent of Roosevelt Dam in 1911, diagonally bisected the property. For the princely sum of $1,000 a two-bedroom house was constructed adjacent to the canal, where Herb Gates raised his family.
He cleared his land, purchased a few cows and slowly carved out a dairy farm. By the early 1950s both the acreage and Gates' Desertland Farms had grown into the second largest dairy in the state of Arizona (after Laveen's Cheatham Dairy).
A mile to the east Herb's son, Eli, named for Herb's father, farmed his own 120 acres. South of the dairy, near today's Thistle Landing, son Bill farmed another 80. The lure of broken machinery became a siren call for Eli, who began spending more and more time troubleshooting dairy equipment. An avid collector, Eli accumulated a myriad of machinery on his father's land, with the metal eventually outpacing the cows. Eli Gates called his collection a recycling business - but for years, everyone else called it a junkyard. In 1972 the state of Arizona condemned the dairy.
A 100-foot square irrigation holding pen constructed near the corner of the eventual 48th Street and Ray Road in the early 1950s marks an Ahwatukee Foothills milestone. The water stored to irrigate the dairy's alfalfa crops also provided a cool respite to the Gates and other local farm families. Of the thousands of swimming pools that grace our village today, Herb Gates can lay claim to having constructed the very first one. The pen was eventually filled in and firewood sold on the corner until 1995, when the land was sold to Vestar Development Company.
In a "Twilight Zone" moment, picture if you will a young Herb Gates working under a brutal desert sun, performing the backbreaking task of creating something out of nothing on his arid, sun-baked piece of desert. Might Gates have harbored doubts that this vast acreage would ever amount to anything? Did he, in moments of quiet desperation 90 summers ago, ponder the origin of that shard of glass that he'd found in the dirt - the one with the initials "R.B." on it?
• Marty Gibson is a 23-year resident of the community and the author of "Phoenix's Ahwatukee Foothills."