If Yuma-area history intrigues you, a visit to the home of George and Shirley Murdock in Roll will whet your appetite for more.
Although she was born in California (for lack of good medical facilities in Roll and Yuma at the time), Shirley considers herself a native of the Yuma area. Her home, to which she returned about three weeks after birth, certainly has plenty of history behind it, not only of her family but also of agriculture in the Mohawk Valley.
Built in 1925 on 160 acres that Shirley's father cleared of mesquite trees with the help of two mules, the original dwelling was a simple wood-frame, one-room house about 20 by 30 feet in size, which included a wood-burning stove.
“It's the stories behind it that make it interesting, I think,” Shirley said.“We love the house just as it is, but we don't think of it as being particularly unique.”
The house in 1925 was wholly unlike that of today, although today's stands on the same site.
The walls throughout the current home are adorned with many photos of their family's history. For instance, Shirley's parents, Harold and Ethelind Woodhouse, were instrumental in bringing water to the Mohawk Valley area that enabled farmers like themselves to turn the area into a rich agricultural heritage.
On the Murdocks' farmland, not far from the house, is a flagstone and bronze monument that the Wellton-Mohawk Valley Kiwanis Club erected and dedicated to the Woodhouses in 1955 for having “carved this farm out of the desert.” The monument stands where the first Colorado River water was delivered on May 1, 1952, via the Wellton-Mohawk Project to the Roll area, officially on the Woodhouse farm.
“The thing that people like about it is its history,” Shirley said, referring to her home, which has had two fires — one in 1946, the other in 1986. The 1946 fire burned the garage, storage room and her father's shop, along with a storage shed and a small “hired man's house,” said Shirley. In 1986, the family room of the current home didn't burn but suffered “a lot of smoke damage,” she said.
Shirley describes that fire in detail in the book she authored, “The Mules Go in Front,” hailed on its cover as “a story of hardship and triumph on Arizona's Lower Gila.”
On the wall of their family room is an aerial photograph of the original house, beneath which is another shot taken from the ground in about 1930. Both Shirley and George are airplane pilots, as were Shirley's parents, both of whom were killed in a plane crash in 1954.
Her brother, the late Bob Woodhouse, was one of the pilots who flew in the world-record Endurance Flight in 1949 that helped put Yuma on the map. For the 50th anniversary of the occasion, George, whose hobby is restoring classic cars, restored an old Buick identical to that used in the original record-setting flight.
The Murdocks have their own private airstrip a quarter-mile from their house, near where they also store their Beechcraft Bonanza, purchased in 1974. Even their plane's history is of interest, for it had belonged to Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, a close friend of the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who was also a pilot.
Appropriately then, just above the pine mantle of the floor-to-ceiling rock fireplace in the family room spans the wooden propeller of a Taylorcraft two-place 65-horsepower airplane. This propeller came from a plane that George had owned, which he flew twice to Alabama, his native state, before he and Shirley were married 65 years ago this year, as of Aug. 19, 2011. The propeller's edges have inlaid brass on one side of each of its two blades.
The family room is adorned with hunting trophies — elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, buffalo, a mountain lion and pheasant, mostly from George's hunts — but is also full of other family memorabilia. Among the wall memorabilia is a round glass trophy from the Arizona Farm Bureau — its Heritage Award for 2010 for their long and dedicated service to Arizona agriculture and the farm bureau.
Also adorning the family room walls are other photos, some taken in Alaska during 30 years of annual salmon fishing and others from fishing trips along the coast of Mexico at Cabo San Lucas. Two photos on the north wall are of a helicopter crash that the Murdocks survived in Alaska in 1955, where they had hoped to fish.
“We hovered over this stream where we had fished the day before, and suddenly the helicopter went into a carnival ride, spinning and spinning and spinning,” Shirley explained. “And then it just plopped down into water that was about 18 inches deep and rolled over into the deep water, where we were going to fish. We were with it upside down in the stream, and we all got out safely,” Shirley chuckled.
The helicopter was a total loss. After using a mirror to get the attention of a passing plane, they were rescued by the Alaska Air National Guard, which flew them to an Anchorage hospital. To the surprise of hospital personnel, they did not need the wheelchairs and gurneys that awaited them.
What piques the interest of history buffs, however, is the wall behind those hunting trophies in the family room. It was built adjoining the west wall of what was originally an adobe guest house whose construction began in 1936 with the bathroom. The adobe bricks for the guest house “were made right here in the back yard,” said Shirley.
She still recalls watching the Mexican laborers dig the pit in which they made the adobe to build the guest house, one room at a time, when she was a little girl. “They got in with their pant legs rolled way up and their shirts off and with all four limbs, they worked the mud and straw. They had a double frame to make the adobes.”
She added, “I can still remember the slurping sound made when the forms were taken off the mud.” They left the adobe bricks on the ground for a while to dry and then turned them over “in the hot Arizona sunshine to dry and ‘bake',” she states in her book.
Some of the furnishings of the guest rooms (formerly the adobe guest house) are also from her parents' pioneering days. For instance, the oak bed in the first guest room was made for her parents. Its frame, trimmed with copper, features a footboard whose oak center panel is in the shape of the diamond such as one would see on a deck of cards. The boards angle to either side of the central diamond, so as to make the footboard almost resemble a fan. Topping that bed is Shirley's hand-stitched quilt with its tiny, even stitches that took her two years to make.
Opposite the footboard is a cedar chest trimmed with brass that Shirley's mother made in a high school shop class in Huntington Beach, Calif., when most other girls were pursuing home economics. Draped across the top is a machine-stitched quilt whose top is a combination of embroidered and appliquéd patches that a friend, now age 94, made. Shirley's mother's art — etchings and paintings — adorn the east wall of the room.
“My mother did all of these when she was in high school,” said Shirley, pointing to her mother's exquisitely detailed artwork created at age 15. “We had just moved the pictures out of a room that burned just before we had a fire.”
To the left of the cedar chest are two antique tricycles, the tops of which are wooden horses, hand-painted to resemble those you might see on a carousel. Both tricycles feature wooden wheels and ornate wrought-iron panels between the back wheels' axles and the horses' saddle seats. The wooden handles, attached to wrought-iron handle bars, look as if they might have come from old-fashioned jump ropes. The smaller of the two stands is perhaps no more than a foot tall — too small even for an infant to ride.
As you walk through the short hallway to the second guest bedroom, you pass a shallow chest of drawers, where more historical photos and trophies are displayed, along with others upon the wall. One of the wall plaques is dedicated to Shirley's parents, who were “the first and sixth presidents of the Arizona Flying Farmers Association,” presented for doing more “toward the promotion and advancement of private aviation than any other similar Arizona couple,” it says.
“My parents were active in the Flying Farmers. They called themselves ‘The Flying Woodhouses.' My mother flew my grandmother up to Fresno, where she lived. That was probably in about 1947.”
The Flying Farmers International organization's website explains that farmers view their aircraft much as they would any other piece of farm equipment such as combines or tractors. Their planes enable them to check irrigation systems, haul supplies and compress the time needed for travel from their rural locales.
Besides the photos and other memorabilia in the hallway connecting the guest rooms is a glass trophy with a marble base for their restored “Buick Convertible having won the 2009 ‘Run to the Pines' car show in Pinetop,” Shirley said.
“That car always wins its category in car shows, probably a half a dozen times, at least.”
A visit to the second guest bedroom will convince the visitor that both bedrooms are showplaces for heirloom quilts. Draped over a stand near the bed is a quilt that Shirley's grandmother hand-stitched. Its pattern, now designated as the “Linden Star,” is her grandmother's original. Shirley, who once attended a quilting convention in Kansas City, said that no pattern like it could be found in any of the books of antique quilt patterns that she researched, which is why she was able to name it after her grandmother Linden.
Moving through a large archway to the north of the family and guest rooms, you will see the ranch-style kitchen, an office, another bedroom, bathroom and the master bedroom. The first feature that catches your eye in the kitchen is another large red-and-white quilt draped over the top of a wall that extends only to about two feet from the ceiling.
“The bricks in that wall are the adobes that were from the original house,” Shirley explained.
Nearby sits a dining table whose centerpiece is a quilted table runner in red, white and gray, on top of which are red candles set in a wrought-iron holder, adding to the kitchen's feel of country hospitality. The kitchen's island houses the built-in stove. A dropped ceiling with indirect lighting helps call attention to the copper-based utensils suspended above the island.
Besides the fires during its 86-year-old history, the Murdock home has faced other problems. In 1963, right after they had completed remodeling the kitchen and dining room, the north and east sides of the house began to crack. One end of the heavy adobe began to sink into the ground after the 30-year-old galvanized pipes had deteriorated and leaked, forming a pool of water beneath the foundation of three bedrooms and a large bathroom. Shirley describes that scenario in her book:
“The adobe walls sank more and more until there were big humps in the hallway. ... Tiles popped off the bathroom counter and walls. Bugs and spiders invaded that part of the house.”
Shirley said that the contractors who came to assess the situation “threw up their hands and shook their heads.” They had to tear down the adobe walls and the foundation, forcing the family of six to occupy the two guest rooms while renewed remodeling occurred under the roof that had been propped up before the dismantling could begin.
Outside in the front yard, a large mimosa tree presents its pink, fragrant blossoms to visitors who enter the circular drive. In the back yard are some more antiques, including an old washing machine with a hand crank to press clothes through the wringer, a device that resembles rolling pins that one would feed clothes through to wring the water out of them.
Out back is also an old wood–burning cookstove. Shirley said that the stove in the original one-room house resembled this one, but she also recalls their getting a new one.
“I remember when a pale cream and green enameled stove similar to that out there was delivered when I was 6 years old, and a little tiny stove for me that actually plugged in and got hot.”
The Murdocks raised their two sons and two daughters— Kenny, Carol, Janet and Jimmy — in this home that is so full of local history. In the family room every morning around 5:30, Shirley has cookies and coffee ready for a group of friends, including their two sons, who come to visit each other around the Murdocks' smaller dining table. The background on a sign on the bar in there says in large print, “Home.” Superimposed in smaller script, it says, “Home is where your story begins,” a quotation signed, “A. Davidson.”
Indeed, it is that and so much more for the George and Shirley Murdock.