In the beginning there was dirt — and roads that were mere afterthoughts of other East Valley cities. For the most part, they didn’t lead to much of anywhere, as they dustily meandered west toward South Mountain.
Long before there was an Ahwatukee Foothills and a Streets of New York, the roads and byways of the Kyrene farming community were carved out on the East Valley’s dry desert canvas. In the early part of the 20th century, today’s Ahwatukee Foothills was part of a larger farming community under Tempe’s umbrella, and pioneering farmers to the east lent their name to the dirt roads that fronted their acreage. So it was when 5 year-old Milton Ray’s father moved from his native Mexico to Chandler and began farming 80 acres between today’s Cooper and Gilbert roads in 1915. Upon the patriarch’s death five years later, young Milton helped to take the reins of the family’s farming operation. A 1929 graduate of Chandler High School, Milton spent his life living and farming in Chandler until passing away in 2000 at the age of 90.
Farther west and decades before the term “interstate highway” became part of the lexicon, a sleepy east-west path named Pima Road aligned with Ray Road as it dead-ended at the Pima Ranch buildings. These were all that remained of New Yorker William Belden’s 1929 plan to construct a grand winter residence on the land now known as Mountain Park Ranch. Named for Arizona farmers’ early 20th century cash crop, pima cotton, the “P” word became so ubiquitous that a rechristening of several Pima roads around the state was warranted. Thus Pima Road became Ray Road in the late 1930s, although it remained a dusty dead end until the development of Mountain Park Ranch fifty years later. Its most notable feature during that half-century was the Gates family’s dairy and junkyard on the southeast corner of the intersection with today’s 48th Street.
A mile south and 10 miles east of the future Mountain Park Ranch, Mesa’s Cleveland Avenue honored our only two-separate-term president. That roadway was renamed Chandler Road in honor of not a farmer but a veterinarian: Dr. Alexander Chandler, founder in 1912 of the city that bears his name. With the outbreak of World War II, the construction of Mesa’s Higley Field, soon to be called Williams Field, commenced, with early Arizona aviator 1st Lt. Charles Williams as its namesake. There went Dr. Chandler’s naming rights as the boulevard was rechristened Williams Field Road. Name changes abounded as the site grew into the U.S. Air Force’s largest pilot-training facility, and the field became Williams Air Force Base in 1948. Today, we know it as Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
Of the east-west streets in present-day Ahwatukee Foothills, only Williams Field Road stretched as far as 32nd Street some 70 years ago. Beneficiary of air-base-related government funding, the artery was widened and paved during the war in part to accommodate the military trucks and heavy equipment traversing it. Thus, it is the one exception to the dirt-and-dust condition of other pre-Ahwatukee roads.
The thoroughfare’s 32nd Street termination marked the beginning of a private dirt road that led to a U.S. Army tank-testing grounds during World War II. Ideally situated due to its distance from civilization — as well as its similarity to the hot, dusty conditions encountered in West Africa — thousands of pre-Foothills acres were used for tank-testing by the U.S government during the war. In the late 1940s, the 4,140-acre International Harvester Proving Grounds were established, occupying the entire future Foothills and Club West for the next 35 years.
Today, the main roads of the Foothills follow almost exactly the route of Harvester’s main test tracks. Not until development of the Foothills commenced in the mid-1980s was Williams Field Road pushed west beyond 32nd Street, looping to connect with a newly extended and paved Ray Road. Its back-to-the-future reincarnation, this time as east Chandler Boulevard, occurred in 1988.
In the simpler-is-better street-name category, Pecos Valley Alfalfa Milling Company Road pushed the envelope. So it is that the southernmost border of today’s village of Ahwatukee Foothills is known by the more concise Pecos Road. Named after a 1935 enterprise that ground hay for use in livestock feed, the mill and its feedlot were located between Arizona Avenue and McQueen Road. Similar to the Kyrene farming community’s Ray Road, the western section of a sparsely travelled dirt path that came to be called Pecos Road assumed its name due to its geographical alignment with the mill to the east.
President Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act helped open the west to settlement. In exchange for living on and farming open government land, typically in 160-acre parcels, Arizona’s hardy pioneers were granted ownership of the tracts on which they staked their claims. Among the streetwise, two of the more well-known homesteaders are Reginald Elliott and Samuel Warner.
Arriving in the Arizona territory in 1908, the Kansas-born Warner homesteaded 160 acres on the southeast corner of today’s Priest Drive and Warner Road, site of the present-day Warner Business Center. Upon construction of Casa de Suenos (the area’s first winter residence, later to be re-named the Ahwatukee Ranch) in 1921, the narrow dirt road was extended all the way into present-day Ahwatukee. In effect, Warner Road’s two westernmost miles were a straight-as-an-arrow driveway to the residence, with the thoroughfare’s path reconfigured when Ahwatukee development commenced in 1972.
In 1914, California native Elliott settled on 160 acres on the southwest corner of his street and present-day Priest Drive, current site of Tempe’s Costo Plaza. The discrepancy between Elliott’s surname and Elliot Road? The sign-makers at the Arizona Department of Transportation in 1970s did not allow do-overs and the misspelled name stuck.
Arthur Hunter began clearing land and farming in the future Ahwatukee Foothills area in 1908. His 160-acre homestead between present-day Thistle Landing and Chandler Boulevard ran along a dirt lane which for decades appeared on area maps as Hunter Drive. When Ahwatukee’s first phase of development commenced, its western border was defined by a soon-to-be-paved 48th Street, connecting Elliot and Warner Roads. Gradually, development extended farther south and, today, the bustling north-south artery bears little resemblance to bucolic Hunter Drive and its rural surroundings. The march of progress gradually widened, paved over and renamed this long-forgotten road into Ahwatukee Foothills history.
While these pre-World War II-era roadways ferry us around today’s village, the community itself owes its very existence to “the Big One,” a post-war undertaking that would serve as a major catalyst for the development of Ahwatukee Foothills: The Maricopa Freeway, better known as Interstate 10.
• Marty Gibson is a local history writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.