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Setting down roots
Homesteading gave Yuma family a home
Despite the hardships of homesteading, Bill and Myrtle Gunlock were “tickled pink” to be the new owners of 124 acres on the Yuma Mesa.
After getting word that their names had been drawn in the U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation's homestead lottery in 1948, they made a trip from Tulelake, Calif., to check out the new place as soon as they could.
The young couple caught their breath as they stood at the corner of East County 13th and Avenue 4E.
“You could see for miles. There was nothing, no trees, no houses,” Myrtle said.
It was August and the sun was blazing. In a Yuma Sun archive story, Bill recalled their first visit. “It was over 100 degrees and very humid. When we got out of our car on Main Street, Myrtle fainted from the heat and we had to take her inside the Valley Cafe and apply wet cloths to revive her.”
That incident didn't deter them from moving to Yuma. “We liked it. We were really happy. We were tickled pink to get a piece of land,” Myrtle said.
They already knew it wouldn't be easy. Both Myrtle and Bill grew up on farms, Bill in Texas, Myrtle in California. She was familiar with homesteading as her father had done it in Tulelake.
“My dad was a World War I veteran (from Oregon). He applied for a homestead and drew 80 acres in 1938,” she said.
It was through her parents that Bill and Myrtle, newly married with a toddler, got the idea of applying for a homestead.
With Bill fresh out of the Navy, they heard the Bureau of Reclamation was awarding World War II veterans free land to farm in Alaska, Washington, Idaho as well as Yuma, Ariz., and Bard, Calif.
“So we put in for all of them,” she said.
And then they waited and waited. By chance, they learned their names had been drawn when they heard the news on the radio.
The Gunlocks and five other individuals and families from the same area also had been drawn.
“We knew each other, so that made it kind of nice,” Myrtle said.
Those friendships made all the difference as the 54 homesteaders settled into their new lands.
“Everyone helped each other back then,” she noted.
With their 1 1/2-year old daughter, Trudy, they drove to Yuma in a 1939 Chevrolet. One of the men who drew a homestead had a truck and offered to haul their furniture, what little they had, including a brand new ringer washing machine that Bill had won in a drawing.
Some homesteaders pitched tents on their properties, but the Gunlocks opted to rent an apartment in town. Her father came down and helped them build a house, with three bedrooms, one bath, kitchen, living room and laundry room.
Their property came with two barracks from the base and a latrine, which they knocked down to reuse the materials. Some of the frosted windows from the latrine still grace Myrtle's home today.
In two months, her father had the house “all roughed in.” The cracks between the plank boards of the wood subfloor made it easy for bugs and spiders to drop in for regular visits.
They furnished the house as they could afford it, but the Gunlocks' new home had no electricity and no drinking water. They had to haul water in from town.
There was a government power line adjacent to their property, but the government would not let them hook onto it. They lived without electricity for about half a year before Arizona Public Service took over the line and allowed them to connect to it.
They were also fortunate to have a government paved road next to their property.
And so they got down to the business of farming. The Bureau of Reclamation had already planted alfalfa on the property. “So we were in business,” Myrtle quipped.
Many homesteaders did not have farm machinery when they got here, but the Gunlocks had a John Deere tractor.
After several years, in the late 1950s or early ‘60s, they started planting citrus, then gradually went to citrus. They also planted cotton and raised cattle.
“We had some good years and some bad years. The cold weather froze trees, there were price fluctuations. You know how farming is,” Myrtle said.
Some winters were so cold, the irrigation water froze on the fields.
And the winds were equally harsh since there was nothing to block them. “The dust was terrible,” she added.
To supplement their income, especially during bad seasons, Bill worked for the Test Station for a period of time.
“A lot of the guys did that, work to add some income, whether it be baling or something else,” Myrtle said.
The Gunlocks raised two more daughters, Susan, in 1949, and Judith Ann in 1951. The girls attended local grade schools and graduated from Kofa High School. Two daughters still live in Yuma; Susan now lives in Las Cruces, N.M.
In addition, Myrtle has seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren scattered across the nation, from Montana to Florida.
When Bill injured his back at his government job in the 1950s, he could no longer do as much. The Gunlocks started selling off property and leasing some of the farmland.
“We depended on the balance of our profits from the land that was left. And we learned to manage with what we had,” Myrtle said.
Bill died May 30, 2004. At 86, Myrtle's health is still good. She still lives in the original house, with updated plumbing, floors and fresh new layers of paint, on the remaining five acres.
But it's no longer the same scenery as 64 years ago, when there was nothing but acres of empty land. Her house is now surrounded by tall trees, lush plants and colorful flowers.
Unlike the Gunlocks, not all homesteaders stayed. “Quite a few gave up and left. They sold out and went back where they came from,” Myrtle recalled.
“There are always some looking for greener pastures. Either they didn't like the heat or the town, I don't know exactly what they were looking for.”
As for Myrtle, she has no regrets in spite of the hard life that comes with homesteading.
“I call homesteading pioneering, which it really is. You would not believe the hardships people had to put up with.
“But those of us who stayed here and worked at it and were determined to make a go of it, we've done all right for ourselves. So it's a happy ending.”