My first recollections started at age four, when our family lived in Williamson, W.VA. Our father, Bob Hunter, was a state trooper and had been stationed in southern W. VA. Near the Kentucky border along the Tug River, in the heart of the Hatfield-McCoy country. When I questioned our mother about our time in Williamson, mom was near age ninety. She simply indicated “We knew a couple of those Hatfield boys. Part of our father’s duties was to drive as far as the dirt road allowed, then hike to the locations of the moonshine stills to bust up the equipment.
Our uncle, Jim, served a tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Davis-Monthan air force base near Tucson. After his tour, he joined ASARCO at the Silver Bell mine. That was in 1956. The Post World War II economy was booming and copper prices were high at the time. The mines paid well, relatively speaking and our parents decided to leave their home state as they did not wish to raise their four young boys in the hollers of an impoverished area where upward mobility was limited.
The move to Arizona was a great adventure. Cars in the 1950’s were a status symbol. Our father purchased a 1956 Oldsmobile, his first new car. The family still owns this old sedan and after some renovation, it’s on display at the Silver Bell reunion. Our uncle purchased a 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk, which was super-charged , an extremely fast car for the era. For the move, Bob purchased two trailers, a large four-wheel stake bed open-air unit with a tarp which he pulled behind the Olds, and a smaller two-wheel trailer pulled by the Golden Hawk. U-Haul didn’t exist east of the Mississippi. This must have appeared as quite a dichotomy; grapes of wrath style trailers pulled by iconic 1950’s era V-8 super cars.
Company housing started in 1954 at the lower end of Silver Bell. We called these homes the “old houses”. Our home at the northwest end of the community, later named the “new houses” wasn’t quite finished. We rented an old ranch house for a couple of months called Choate Ranch near present day I-10 and Avra Valley Road. The place had a wrap around porch with wooden deck and was quite rustic. We played games and chased one another around the porch but had to be careful as we had never experienced anything like Cholla Cactus and other desert plants surrounding the property.
The day finally came when we moved into our new home. It was nice to be the very first occupants. Everything was fresh, from the paint to the hardwood floors. Asbestos shingles wrapped each home in various colors including green, tan and gray. There was a single car carport, storage room and a back yard with a chain link fence separating each house. There was no charge for utilities and water was abundant. Most homes had a well-maintained lawn.
The general store, barber shop, post office, rec hall, pool, baseball field and tennis courts were clustered in the center of the community, between the “old” and “new” houses. I don’t recall there being any street names. Rather, friends would simply say, “let’s meet at house number …, it’s in the “old” houses. It’s funny to think back that “old” houses were only a couple of years senior and there was no stigma designated at all. This was simply used as a point of reference since there were both, two- and three-bedroom homes. Career families would sometimes move within the community to gain a little additional space.
Barneys, Bustamantes, Sanchez, Eckrotes, Elders lived in the “old” houses, while the Praters, Bourguets, Wyatts, Fryes, Hunters, Combs, Sanders, and Hoods lived in the “new” houses to name a few. It was all one community with the mine superintendent, Don Jameson, and supervisors, Barnes, Greens and Rickman, residing next to the miners.
There were also ground level apartments and a trailer park. Two bunk houses served the single miners and summer program for college students. ASARCO was diligent in maintaining company homes including roof coating, interior paint and general maintenance, all served by a crew employed by the mine.
To say the pool and rec hall were the central gathering spots would be an understatement. We practically lived there. Silver Bell didn’t have telephone service until I was in the eighth grade. There was no such thing as video games or Netflix and television was limited to the three alphabet channels (ABC, NBC, CBS) with no cable. Barbeques were frequent and often centered around events including The World Series, Beatles first introduction and song on Ed Sullivan in 1964 and the Moon Landing. Homes were nice but very small (880 s.f. for two bedrooms and slightly over 1,000 s.f. for three bedrooms. Houses had only one bathroom. We essentially lived outdoors. I think our Marana School classmates were a little envious, since the Silver Bell kids always showed up to school in September with bronze tans and light hair streaks from the summer sun.
Swimming lessons started at a young age and were almost a mandate. Despite the high use of the pool over many years, there were no incidents of significant injury or drowning. The pool had a mid-sized diving board and denizens became proficient at front and back flips (some with twists) gainers, and of course figure fours, cannon balls and preacher seats, all designed to soak anyone who was dry.
One of the life guards formed a swim team and Silver Bell held it’s own competition with the Tucson clubs, Caddy Shack type moments were frequent and included pyramids, horse fighting and Marco Polo. Adults only were granted Wednesdays (all day) and two other evenings.
The rec center had ping pong, pool and table games to check out and was open till 10 PM. There were adult dances, Junior dances, weekly movie nights where everyone brought popcorn and sat on the outfield grass. ASARCO brought in a person with a projector and current film to show on a linen screen tacked on the rec center wall. More than anything, the rec center was where people went to hang out and just visit. Romantic relationships developed as kids transitioned from tag and hide-and-seek into more serious courtships.
ASARCO sponsored a large Labor Day celebration every year with food and beverage trucks and games for the kids including egg toss and relays. The beer truck was deemed to be a bad idea and later cancelled when too many miners went a little too far in blowing of steam and a few fights ensued.
A loud siren would sound and could be heard throughout the town at noon to announce lunch hour for miners. Another loud siren would sound at 10 pm, announcing curfew. If you were out past 10 pm you better have a good reason. Our resident sheriff, Carl Elder was about 6’6” but very nice. As long as you had a good explanation for being out late e.g. games or events you were ok. Otherwise, if the story didn’t add up, it could be an uncomfortable call to the parents.
Scouting was a significant part of our lives. My den mother in cub scouts was Ora Mae Harn, who later served a s Marana’s Mayor. “Ora Mae Harn Park” was named in her honor. Imagine my surprise when I saw her at the U of A on enrollment day when I was eighteen, signing up as a college freshman. She went on to serve us all proud. Mrs. Pierce and Mrs. Woolbert were other notable den mothers. Scout masters at the Boy Scout level included Paul Horner, Herb Cleaver and Ezra Barney. Campouts were held near Silver Bell, along the Gila River (including fishing), Camp Lawton on Mt. Lemmon, and other sites. Leaders dedicated considerable time and effort. We were encouraged to join NRA. Since everyone owned guns at the time, the organization wasn’t political as much as it promoted safety.
There were corrals near the townsite where people owned horses, donkeys, goats, pigs and chickens. When I asked our father, Bob Hunter, where the old wood came from to build the corrals, he indicated some was retrieved from the original Town of Silver Bell, near the BS&K, approximately five miles northwest. These were remnants of the original hotel, saloon and other collapsed buildings where several thousand residents and miners lived near the end of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When I was twelve, Dad purchased a motorcycle. This was a more tolerant period when it came to driving and someone always had access to wheels of some kind. Most were unlicensed and many lacked fenders or a roof. There were numerous mechanically inclined people and by age thirteen, the desert was our playground. We could drive on back roads one direction all the way to Kitt Peak, nearly fifty miles, and in the other direction to Red Rock, often stopping near Ragged Top aka Sawtooth Peak to spot wildlife including an occasional herd of big horn sheep. We found the old Sliver Bell graveyard on one junket and a small Tohono O’Odham village a few miles from Silver Bell on another.
These native Americans could be seen occasionally with horse drawn wagons pulling into the Silver Bell General Store to trade hand woven baskets and other wares for needed staples and treats including ice cream for the kids and beer for the men. They would park under the shade of a nearby mesquite for a rest break before returning to the reservation. When I walked by them on the narrow trail home, my nostrils were filled with the scent of smokey mesquite permeating from their clothing, the result of fires used for cooking and warmth inside their adobe huts.
On some weekends we would pile into the back of Dad’s truck and head out to remote picnic areas with Uncle Marvin, Aunt Dee, Cousins Joyce, Judy, Janet, Jeannie, and Larry Frye, often with friends the Cleavers including David and Diane, dining on chicken and exploring petroglyphs near Tucson Mountain Park.
Our Dad and Uncle befriended a couple of old timers, who lived several miles from town towards Red Rock. They were simply known as the Sommerall Brothers. I never learned their first names. Born some
time near the end of the nineteenth century they wore old slouch style hats and had long beards, looking like a cross between Ted DeGrazia and ZZ-Top. Rumor was these two Texans either had inherited some funds or were trust recipients, but chose instead to live in an old shack and work a claim along the old country road, outside of Silver Bell. They treasured being hermits.
Once in a while we would see their old 1940’s truck at the General Store. Dad and Uncle Jim enjoyed bringing them a six pack of beer and listening to old stories. On one such occasion, a large diamond back rattler crawled within a few feet of where they were visiting. Dad got up to retrieve a shovel and take care of business when one of the brothers said “Leave him alone Bob, he ain’t hurtin nobody.”
In his early 20’s, my brother Bob, Jr. was accepted into medical school in Philadelphia and lived with his new wife Carol in the suburb of Springfield. He somehow arranged to complete medical rotations in Tucson for stretches of several weeks at a time. We looked forward to spending more time with him during his Arizona forays. The problem was that he missed the desert so much, we rarely saw him. Bob was outdoors at every opportunity. It struck me how much we “native” Arizonans take for granted, with the spectacular weather, mountain and sunset views. Bob learned to appreciate this more when he lived near a large eastern city.
Growing up in the desert, I always wanted to try living for awhile in a greenbelt area. It wasn’t until I began traveling up to two weeks each month for business, that I discovered the “other side.” After deplaning in Detroit one January and meeting my client, he commented about the mild 31 degree day they were having. That put everything in perspective. I’ve since traveled to Winnipeg at 40 below zero, Banff at 32 below and other locations and always look forward to returning home to the desert. Even with the hot summers, I will take this climate over the more humid areas of the country any time.
Lil Abner’s Steakhouse
Lil Abner’s is a well-known destination in Tucson and a favorite of Tucson residents as well as tourists. The rustic atmosphere and large outdoor fire pit create some of the best Mesquite grilled steaks anywhere in the U.S. It wasn’t always that way. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Lil Abner’s was a small tavern along a dirt road just over Rattlesnake Pass at the foothills of the Tucson Mountains. In addition to the bar, there was a roping arena, where local cowboys came to apply their skills for calf roping and bull dogging.
At the time our Uncle Jim owned a couple of Model A Roadsters. Our favorite was a 1931 with a red body and black fenders that included a rumble seat. On many Saturdays we would all pile into the Model A and spend the mornings exploring the mine shafts and back roads of the mountains surrounding Silver Bell. Eventually, we would end up at Lil Abner’s.
As kids, we were content with a bag of pistachio nuts and a soda pop, either Fanta, Hires Root Beer or other favorite and sit and watch the cowboys rope while our father and uncle enjoyed a few beers.
Eventually, Lil’ Abner’s was expanded into a steakhouse. The rocks used in the construction of the fireplace were picked up by Dad and Uncle Jim and transported for the restaurant expansion, something we enjoy seeing on the rare occasions when we venture to Lil” Abner’s. It seemed appropriate that the Silver Bell Reunion Committee would select this iconic location to host the main dinner and town site celebration event.
We were sleeping in a tent in our back yard at about age eleven when my cousin asked if we were poor in Silver Bell. This is something I never really thought about but decided we weren’t, since we had a home to live in, food and a car and a truck. We just weren’t ever handed money. It had to be earned and there were always people who were willing to hire reputable youngsters to mow lawns, dig post holes, wash cars, pull weeds, etc. I inherited the “GRIT” weekly paper route from Henry Barela AKA “Crusher”, a fond nickname for an outsized but very nice guy. I would walk the entire town making deliveries every week. People were very friendly in Silver Bell.
I graduated to the daily paper and shared this duty with my brothers, earning a crisp $20 bill every month, which went a long way when burgers were 15 cents and cokes 10 cents. Mrs. Cybil Moser owned the Silver Bell route. She was lots of fun to be with and her skills were amazing. She would pick me up about 6:30 am. We would drive to her home and roll papers while her husband George would use both a compressor and/or hand pump (depending upon the situation) to put air in any low tires on her old rambler sedan, which lacked pressure and were bald for the most part. This was a daily routine. We loaded papers on the seat covers and then she sprang into action. It was amazing to watch, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, coffee cup perched precariously on the dash and a spoiled overweight dachshund with rear paws on the top of the front seat and forward paws on the driver’s side windowsill.
Cybil Moser set the bar high. Driving quite fast, we were slinging papers as quickly as we could grab them, while she was working her three speed column shift with mastery. The minimum expectation was the center of the lawn but landing on the 3’ x 6’ front porch brought a big smile from Mrs. Moser.
Fortunately, our father slept soundly, because creaky hard wood floors made it difficult to sneak out at night. On many nights we were allowed to pitch a tent during summer months in the back yard, which made it very easy to connect with friends and hang out. There was a little mischief, including stealing peaches or plums (fruit was a delicacy then) from a few residents’ trees. Occasionally, a few enterprising people would climb the tall chain link fence surrounding the pool with barbed wire on top, and take a late-night dip. Occasionally, the large wooden life guard chair would end up in the pool, especially if that summer’s guard was a jerk. We would watch with amusement as he tried to fetch the chair from the bottom of the ten foot pool.
A narrow trail connected the pool and rec center with the alley just below our home. This was a short cut through the desert to avoid the longer walk along the street. I think about that now and realize we were “bullet proof” in our own minds, walking barefoot sometimes on the dirt path when it was pitch black with steep sides to the right and left. How many times we probably stepped near or over a rattlesnake or other varmint and didn’t even think about what could happen.
Silver Bell was immersed in sports. Our Little League teams practiced daily and carpooled to Tucson to play at Ft. Lowell, Santa Cruz, and other parks. There were adult fast pitch softball teams which fared well against Tucson teams. Cars surrounded the field and people sat on the hard metal hoods or in lawn chairs to watch home games.
However, most of the sports were ad-hoc, choosing sides for football games (tackle of course with no pads or helmets). There was an occasional loose tooth or broken collar bone but no one was worse for the wear.
Our father brought a large bulldozer to the alley behind our home and bladed an area where we constructed our own dirt athletic field. This consisted of two basketball hoops, a high jump pit, and even a dirt track where we raced our go-cart. Not all sports were televised so we would enjoy listening to heavy weight boxing matches or the Indy 500 on the radio, then acting out our sports fantasies. How or whether he got permission from the mine is still a question. Dad was somewhat of a maverick in that respect.
He was the hardest, most diligent worker of anyone I knew but had an ornery streak. He was promoted from Truck Driver to Shovel Operator (the top job in the mine) and eventually became a Federal Mine Inspector. He complained incessantly about the “Safety Bar” on the truck with tires larger than a person, and kept bumping his leg. The mine wouldn’t so anything so he used a blow torch and cut it off himself, a feat which earned him three days suspension. We loaded up the Olds and went to the new park of Disneyland during that time.
We received boxing gloves one Christmas and put them to good use, even solving some sibling disputes. Our dirt lot basketball and baseball games were big neighborhood events. We even scheduled track meets with the “old houses” against the “new houses”. We created our own uniforms with paint or crayon on white T-shirts and there was an occasional rock fight, usually ducking behind large rocks or trees to chuck small stones.
We really looked up to our high school athletes from a young age. Carpooling from Silver Bell, starting about age 11 or 12, we could see the football stadium lights from a distance, the only landmark in a stark rural area. Anticipation would grow as we approached the field. They never failed to deliver as we watched future NFL stars, Paul Robinson and Sonny Campbell among others. Needless to say, Silver Bell kids contributed significantly to all the success and state championships by Marana High School during all those years. Marana won all four major state sports championships in 1969 in football, basketball, track and baseball.
Some notable Silver Bell athletes include:
Larry Kilburn Football QB, wrestling, baseball
David Thoma Running back, wrestling, baseball, track
Bob Rice Basketball State Champion, Baseball State Champion
Mike Sanchez Basketball (scored over 40 pts in a state championship game – before the existence of the three-point line), baseball, track
John Bustamante Holds strikeout record in a state championship game
Mark Bustamante Football, baseball
Tim Hunter All State Baseball, state championship basketball
Tom Hunter Football, basketball, baseball (All State)
Jim Hunter Basketball State Championship
Bob Hunter Baseball as well as Salutatorian
Jim Barela Football, basketball, baseball, track
Steve Barney Basketball State Championship
Dickie Calderon Basketball, baseball
Jim Coffee Basketball State Championship, Baseball
John Baldwin Football, wrestling
Paul Harn Football State Champion, track
Dickie Doty Football, basketball
Mike McConnaughey Football, wrestling, track
Armando Sotelo Basketball, track
Jerry Brown Football
Glen Bourguet Wrestling
Duane Avery Wrestling
Ken Bourguet Wrestling
Bruce Hitt Track
Claud Elder Football, Track
Ken Sanders Football State Championship, track
John Mullens Football, track, (Gas Plant)
Bob Mullens Football, track, (Gas Plant)
Mike Mullens Basketball (Gas Plant)
Cheerleaders from Silver Bell:
I’m certain there were numerous names missed in the summary. One stark memory I have was when I missed an impromptu pickup basketball game with Dickie Calderon the day before his deployment to Vietnam. I figured I would catch up with him upon his return. Dickie was later killed in action. Missing his send-off is one of my biggest regrets in life. I found his name as well as Bobby Young’s on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., a fitting tribute to two Silver Bell heroes who gave their all for the U.S.A.
We grew up in the muscle car era. There was no shortage of cars which would sell for a huge premium today at the Barrett-Jackson auctions. GTO, Corvette, Road Runner, GTX, 55 Chevy, Chevy SS, and OLDS 442 were just a few of the hot cars owned by the Youngs, Glen Bourguet, David Molinar and others, cruising the streets of Silver Bell.
Sand rails and Jeeps were also the craze. Larry Young could be seen driving his rail with large tires through the middle of the desert. One contest on Labor Day pitted a Sand Rail against a Jeep in climbing ability. The hill was almost vertical and scary to watch.
We spent many evenings sitting in lawn chairs, sipping a Coke or TAB (when dieting) and watching the parade. A nod of the head or small wave spoke volumes about their cool car. The main street, running parallel with the “new houses” and connecting to the mine office, served as sort of test track where you could hear the loud roar as one of the proud muscle car owners pushed the pedal to the metal to let their muscle car “EAT”. Neighbors helped neighbors and there was always a torque wrench or other tool to borrow. Benny Sanders spent a month of evenings helping our father install a rebuilt engine in his 1952 Dodge pickup. That’s how things were in Silver Bell.
In the late 1940’s, Dad took flying lessons. He would buzz the W.V. farmhouse, just above the electrical wires, where our mother lived, in a feat to impress her. This backfired as far as her parents were concerned and they thought he was some wild out of control character trying to steal their daughter. His instructor, Ralph Abertazzie, would later become President Nixon’s Air Force One pilot. He flew the President on his historic flight to China. Other dignitaries he piloted included Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger.
Flying was in Dad’s blood, but with a young family to support, he was unable to pursue his passion. I was surprised one morning at 5 am when Dad woke me up with a large grin and said “Do You Want To Go Flying?” I was probably 9 or 10 years old. Located a short distance from the Silver Bell town site was a narrow dirt strip which served as a runway. Constructed in the 1950’s for executives from ASARCO to visit the mine, the strip was a little grown over and in need of repair. We sat in Dad’s truck for 15-20 minutes when a small single engine Cessna landed on the strip, bouncing over some baseball-sized stones before coming to a stop. The plane moved towards us and Dad’s friend opened the door and in we climbed. I sat in the rear, of course, and we taxied to the end of the runway. Once airborne, we veered left and flew over oxide and then the El Tiro mine pits.
The sense of freedom to go anywhere and explore new aerial views was exhilarating. I felt a sense of pride when Dad was offered the controls and flew the plane for a while. As much as I didn’t want this to end, we eventually made our way back to the dirt strip, a memorable day for an impressionable young boy!
In retrospect, Silver Bell was little more than a sleepy mining town in the middle of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert. But it was much more, as evidenced by 250 commitments to attend a town reunion nearly 40 years after it became a ghost town.
Silver Bell was a unique place where you would rarely get a hand out but could always receive a hand up, a place where respect, friendship, and integrity were valued above financial gain, and a place where we learned how to treat others while striving for success of our own.
Finally, Silver Bell was a place where people did their best to raise children and set an example in how to invest in God, Family, Country and Community. That little mining community with support of a good employer paid for college educations, family vacations, gratification for work performed well and an ethical environment to raise children, many of whom have gone on to become business and community leaders.