No creature comforts in Yuma in the early 1900's
Frank Cooper was born in 1914, two years after Arizona became the Union's 48th state. It was also the year his parents arrived in Yuma from Salinas, Calif. Attracted by the irrigation project, they purchased 80 acres at the corner of Somerton Avenue and 8th Street, where the University of Arizona Agricultural Center is now located.
Cooper, the fifth of eight children, grew up in a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing, not unusual for the era.
“We didn't have electricity until 1926. One day I came home from school and the house was wired and lit,” he recalled.
And they didn't have indoor plumbing until probably the early ‘30s. Before then, they used an outhouse.
But the family did have a windmill and a pump, which meant enough water for the Saturday night bath in the bathtub.
As for the heat, they had no choice but to endure it in a time before air conditioning and refrigeration.
“We didn't know any better,” Cooper said.
In the summer and even those nice winter nights, the family slept in a screened porch.
Like most of their neighbors, they had an icebox and the ice man regularly delivered a chunk of ice.
“That's how we kept our food cold,” he said, pointing out that the first building in Yuma to have a refrigerator was the San Carlos Hotel in 1929.
For fun, the Cooper kids played “all kinds of games,” such as baseball and softball, swam and fished in the irrigation ditches and river, picnicked out in the desert, rode horseback and went hunting “a little bit.”
“There were lots of rabbits because there was a lot of vegetation and brush scattered throughout the valley in different undeveloped areas. Dove hunting, as I remember was popular later on, probably in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Cooper said in an Arizona Historical Society oral history.
But the Cooper children also worked hard. “All of us worked on the farm we had. In addition to growing crops, we had a dairy all the time that I lived on a farm. This pretty much kept us busy every day. It was a seven-day-a-week job,” he said, adding, “We milked cows in the morning and evening.”
They farmed with horses until they bought their first tractor in 1930.
Their first car was a 1915 Ford Model T. Typical of the day, Cooper, 97, learned to drive at 12 years old.
But to go to school, the Cooper children either rode horses, walked or went in a horse and buggy. They attended Rood Elementary School, which was at Somerton Avenue and 10th Street, about two miles from the farm.
The school had four classrooms and four teachers, including the principal who taught as well. Cooper remembers when the school burned down.
“One of my recollections of that is that – I think I was in my seventh year at school – about a week before school was to open, the building burned and was completely destroyed. So that particular year I attended school in a little residential house about a mile west of there.”
The original school was a two-story building with four classrooms and an auditorium upstairs. It was rebuilt as a single-story building.
One of his earliest memories is spotting steamboats on the Colorado River.
Another early memory is of the family piling into the car and going on weekly shopping trips to downtown Yuma on Saturday nights.
“We would get groceries and clothing. There were a few groceries scattered all over, but we shopped mainly downtown. Everybody shopped downtown and visited.”
Cooper noted his family liked to shop at one of E.F. Sanguinnetti's numerous stores. “He practically owned Yuma,” he quipped.
“The town was quite small. I imagine a population of five thousand,” he recalled. “It was quite small and remained that way for many years until shortly before World War II, when it started expanding.”
In the middle of his senior year at Yuma High School, Cooper went to work in for Mr. Sanguinetti.
“I started working in the wholesale grocery department during the last semester of my high school year. I had completed practically all the credits that I needed so I had every afternoon off and I started working in the afternoons and all day on Saturday. The job was clerical and involved a lot of typing.”
When he went full-time, he earned $12.50 a week for a 60-hour week. He worked for Sanguinetti until 1940.
The first time he went to a movie was probably in 1931 at the Yuma Theatre, but he doesn't remember what movie he saw.
He married his wife Martha in 1939, and they had two kids. Cooper went into the Air Force in 1943 and served for three years.
After WWII Cooper went to work at a lumber and hardware business in Indio, Cali., for eight years, then opened a hardware store in El Centro, where he stayed for five years. He was then approached by Imperial Valley Hardware to manage two stores in Yuma, which he did from 1958 to 1978.
When he returned to Yuma in 1958, he noted many changes.
“Yuma had grown, tripled its size, at least. The most notable change was the expansion southward onto the mesa areas,” he said.
Many more residential developments and schools had been built and many more businesses had been established. Even farming had expanded and changed.
“The crops basically were cotton and alfalfa during the early days and then sometime in the 1920s, they started growing lettuce and cantaloupe here, but cotton and alfalfa continued to be the dominant crops,” he said.
“Gradually, in the late ‘30s, some of the other crops which we have here now, were being grown here.”
He noted citrus, such as grapefruit, oranges and lemons, were being grown on the mesa, the elevated portion direction south of Yuma.
“Citrus was all irrigated by pumped water and I don't remember the exact date but when I was six or seven years old, there was a pumping station built south of Yuma which elevated the water out of one of the valley distribution canals up into the mesa, so that it gave them an unlimited supply of water at quite a bit less cost than they had previously had..
“There was a dedication of the pumping plant which is no longer used and we attended that. There were state senators and other dignitaries here, telling about he wonderful future and the wonderful development of citrus growth,” he said, adding, “It would have to be about 1921 or in that area.”
Cooper has been retired for about 31 years now. He fills his time with volunteer work.
He lost Martha in 1993 after about 55 years of marriage. He married his current wife, Pat Martel, in 1995.
He is now the oldest living graduate of Yuma High School. He's in good health, according to Martel.
“I think he's fooling the calendar,” Martel, 81, quipped.
Mara Knaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (928) 539-6856. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSMaraKnaub or on Twitter at @YSMaraKnaub.