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Letters from Tucson, 1925-1927

Ethel G. Stiffler (2006)


Finally, it is more than a little alarming to see the extent to which this group of presumably sensitive and well educated people bothered the wildlife and harvested the native plants. Even witlout the strict state and federal protections now in place, natural scientists of today would find it unethical to be so cavalier about capturing hawks, Gila Monsters and cacti simply for their own curiosity. (iv-v)

As far as I can see from my window the town is surrounded by mts. - the great bare copper looking ones like the pictures. We went thru mountains like that all the way from El Paso. They surely are magnificent. (4)

The town is made up almost entirely of houses of 1 floor only. A four story building is a novelty. All the buildings are stone or concrete or rock - to keep out the heat. There are trees along most of the streets. Trees & grass are watered every night. I'm relieved that there is plenty of water. I feared one might have to use it with care. It's most excellent tasting water. And cold water is greatly in demand. I've drunk gallons since I've been here, I think. Mornings and evenings are cool and very pleasant, but between 1 & 4 the sun is one hot glare. (6)

Outside the town is a 10 or 15-mile - or more in places, stretch or ring of desert. Beyond that lie the mountains and beyond them the sky. The mountains are magnificent. They look different colors at different times of day. It's the fashion in the mountainous country, to paint the initials of the college or town on the mountain. There's a big A for U. of A. on one here. The freshmen have to go up there and whitewash or paint it white every year. There's a wall in the form of the letter & they just paint that. (8)

Did I tell you that 80% of the white population of the town is made up of T.B. cases or of people who have come here with them? About l/4th of the students are inclined to have it and a large percentage of the faculty. They don't necessarily have it at present but they think this is a good place to live. Dr. Young got all this information from one of the faculty. Consequently, people just about live outdoors. You see cots on the front porch and in the back yard. [Healthy people also commonly slept outdoors during hot weather.] Almost all the houses are 1-story stucco concrete buildings with most of the rooms having outside doors. It makes it rather nice. (10)

I don't particularly mind the heat but the sun is certainly bright and hot. People dress accordingly. About 6 men, including the president, on campus, seem to wear coats all the time. The rest don't. It seems strange for them not to. Various kinds of shirts are worn. A great many blue ones are in evidence. And as for hats - well, it seems that only a few people wear them to church. It isn't necessary to put one on to go downtown. The girls wear colored glasses when the sun is brightest, or carry gay Japanese parasols, or both, or neither. Have seen a few cretonne parasols. Some of the others are very pretty indeed. I plan to get one when I find one I particularly like. Have seen only a few in the stores. They cost something less than $3.00 I believe. There is a motley array of clothes. Apparently one wears anything one pleases, summer or winter, clothes & hats, silks or voiles or ginghams. It's a nice way to do. (12)

Yesterday was "A day." I told you, didn't I, about the custom of putting the initial of a college in white on a mountain side? The A here, for the university, is kept up by the freshmen. Every year, on A day, they go up and whitewash the A. And it so seldom rains that the one time is all that's needed to keep it up for a year. At night there's a big rally on the football field, speeches & a big bonfire. Then the freshmen, over on the A, all light their torches, thus outlining the letter on the mountainside. It was very pretty. After dark the mountains don't show, and we saw just the big flaming A off in the distance, apparently right up in the sky. Then the boys filed down the trail with their torches, which gradually burned out, and it was all over. But it was pretty while it lasted. (12)

I never saw such a place for reaching. The table is quite large - I could no more than reach the center, but everybody grabs anything it's possible to reach. Rather convenient. Dr. Young is wonderful, with his long arms, at grabbing things Mrs. Young and I want. (13)

As for the droughts here, one has to irrigate all the time anyhow, so a real dry season isn't noticed so much. And the supply of water seems inexhaustible. It comes from underground streams. When I first came, I used to worry about the supply giving out and was very careful not to waste any when I brushed my teeth. (27)

To dinner I wear whatever I've had on all day, or, if I've had the time & energy to go home after lab, a clean dress, or a different one. This isn't a dressy place at all. Some of the men wear blue jeans part of the time. (45)

I'm up at the lab, having various things to see to & no particular desire to waste the precious moments on cards. Also desired to dethorn my knickers, having sat, while eating my supper, on the site of the death of a giant cactus. The thorns of the giant aren't bad anyhow, especially when old & weathered, but these did stick into my knickers - causing a tingling sensation at times. (58)

Yesterday the Papago [Tohono O'Odham] Indians had a general celebration & exhibition on the mission grounds. The Kelloggs, the Connollys, the Youngs [& E.F.C.] & I went out, the Kellogs in their car, the rest of us in the Youngs'. They charged 50 admission to the grounds. It was great. All the Papagos for miles around, who could get there, were evidently present. Some of them came from more than 100 mi. away and had been on the road since a week ago yesterday (Sun.). Drove down in their covered wagons. Some have automobiles. Lots of them - chiefly the mission Indians - had cameras. Things ain't what they used to be. They say that the Papagos were never a warlike tribe, but quite peaceful & friendly. They certainly are an amiable looking bunch. (69)

We all took turns shooting, then. Lots of fun. A rifle doesn't make nearly as much noise as a revolver. I hit a bull's eye with my last shot the only one made, so they gave me the target as a souvenir. I wish I had some rich uncles who doted on gratifying my wishes and I'd ask 'em for a revolver & a rifle. Good guns cost just heaps of money. (71)

[18th January:] People are planting flowers & gardens & saying, "Well it begins to look like spring!" (72)

I have some pictures of Baldy, or rather taken from it, but Dr. Carpenter doesn't want me to send them away for about two weeks. The rhyme & reason for all of this is that he's copyrighting two of his pet views & to do that , the owner of the negatives is supposed to have had them in his possession since he took the pictures. (72)

Fri. night Dr. Carpenter & I are going to try out my new chess men. By the way, don't cook up any romantic ideas about him. (73)

Did I tell you about the cactus seedlings? I'm raising a lot of baby giants [saguaros] & cutting off their roots as fast as the darlings get started. May count their chromosomes or something. Hunting a Ph.D. thesis. They certainly are cute & they grow so fast. They look like this [simple sketch] and when about 8 - 10 days old develop a little tuft of tiny spines right in the center. I'm wondering what they'll do next. (79)

You can call it either ro/de/o or Ro da o, depending on your preference for the Spanish or English pronunciation (only I forget which is which). The Southtm Pacific is advertising reduced rates & stop-over privileges, etc. for the occasion. No doubt there will be a number of gullible Easterners present. We must look as wild & woolly & Western as possible, if not more so. (82)

I never rode so straight down-hill in my life as we did in places. And the road was so stony & narrow, I just hated the thot of trying to crawl back up. I had my doubts about getting up, even in low [gear]. However, Dr. Young said he'd go any place a Ford or Chev. could. (84)

Austin [a student laboratory assistant] was just telling me about the doings of his frat. This is initiation week for the pledges. They made them build a holy fire in a bucket in front of the campus gates & each one had to go out into the desert & bring in all the wood he could carry to keep it going until the week is over.
Three others had to go up A Mt. & get a 12-ft. giant cactus, roots & all, & bring it down to the house. Austin says they're going to make them take it back & plant it the last night. Another cactus has to be watered every night.
One boy was more or less timid anyhow, so they gave him 2 big boxes of matches & told him to go downtown to a certain place where he'd find his instructions. He went & found part of the epitaphs from two tombstones & instructions to find those 2 & copy the rest. Austin says they're taken from diagonally opposite comers of the cemetery. There's a big cemetery [Evergreen Cemetery] out on the Oracle Rd. The Catholics have a section [Holy Hope Cemetery] & each of the other denominations a section so it's quite an extensive place. In addition to completing these two epitaphs, he was told to copy down the epitaph of any stone which bore the name of a member of the frat. One member's name is "Born," and practically all the stones have "born" on them, so the poor fellow had a time last night, & didn't find the 2 particular stones. He has to continue tonight. They're not so particular about having all the epitaphs from the whole cemetery but they do insist upon those two. (87)

W. Horatio Brown has acquired a flivver at last. He got it Sat. Evening & we went out yesterday to christen it, as it were. Flat tire when he demonstrated driving like a "crazy man." (89)

The Youngs are going to build their house & would like to have it done by next fall when they get back. The Kelloggs & Connollys think they can't afford to build just now so are considering building their garages and living in them for a while. It's quite the thing to do here. (92)

I was glad I didn't go on the Baboquivari trip. Aside from the fact that I had a good time without going, I was glad not to have been around when something went wrong. When they were about 150 ft. from the top, a man hurrying on ahead dislodged a big rock. It started down all right, then was diverted from its course, broke up into many pieces & the pieces all came down so they didn't know how to dodge them. The biggest one hit one of the girls in the back over her hip, after bouncing up from the ground, and hurt her more or less seriously. I've heard various reports as to her condition, but none very definite. The party turned back then & all bent their effort to getting her & themselves back down. Her lover, who is a senior in Mines School carried her down 2000 ft., strapped to his back, and she's a very solid girl.
They say it was really quite a feat. He had to climb down ropes, etc., where it's hard enough to get down oneself, under favorable conditions. I think they were very foolish to attempt it due to the rains recently; the whole peak, bare & rocky, was covered with ice so one couldn't get a foothold & they said their feet & hands got numb with cold. Rest assured that I'm always cautious about clambering around & take no risks with the rocks. (98)

Did I tell you about the new woman in the Math Dept. who has no eyebrows nor eyelashes? She wears penciled on eyebrows but it's perfectly weird to look at her. (99)

Oh, yes, I was going to suggest that if Dad puts Tucson, in addition to the street address & Ariz. on my letters, which he forwards, I'll get them sooner. As it is, with the name of the town left off, they wander around to Prescott or Phoenix & finally arrive with a penciled "Try Tucson" on them. (102)

Then we thot it would be fun to go get in the Connolly's car & surprise them so we "snuck" out hastily & settled comfortably in the back seat. Mickey, their puppy, had disappeared that afternoon, tho, and they were so grieved that it spoiled the fun a little. They took us home then. Mickey was found the next morning. (109)

Dr. Young & Bachman climbed Baboquivari in much better than record time & did it entirely without the aid of ropes. Everybody's wondering if Dr. Mez, who is so proud of his climbing, will go dashing off up Baboquivari without ropes to beat this record. If he does, Young & Bachman are determined to go back & break his. (121)

The chicken certainly was good, but you shouldn't have given me all the best pieces. It left so little for you. And I wanted you to eat the pear. I know I picked it up & pinched it and smelled it in a meditative manner yesterday morning but I was only desirous of seeing how it was getting along and when it would be just right for you. Anyhow, it was very good, but a wee bit overripe in the center. (129)

We stopped at the new hotel ("El Conquistador") on the way home & went thru. It will be quite fine, I think. Spanish architecture, of course, & brick covered with concrete. We saw some of the plaster work for decorations. Everything is to represent the desert, so their plaster showed the greatest profusion of prickly pears, giant cacti, yuccas, etc., you could imagine. It far surpasses real life. (137)

Next time Emily cuts her finger, catch some catch some blood on paper & let it dry & send me the paper. I may be able to tell whether she's still immune. (140)

[Editor's photo caption:] The upper entrance to the "control road," between the town of Oracle and the village of Summerhaven near the top of Mt. Lemmon. The sign displays a clock and lists the hours when ascents and descents could begin over the narrow dirt road. It was not until the 1940s that a better two-way road provided "autoists" more direct and faster access between Tucson and the mountaintop. (140)

Saturday, Bachman took Miss Mial, the new Home Ec. girl, Carpenter & me to Casa Grande for the pageant. I came up to mess early & made the sandwiches, doing very well by us. We got away by about 8:15 and went first to the mountain popularly known as the "Ship of the Desert" - an old landmark in pioneer days [Now called "Picacho Peak"]. We left the car in a wash at the foot and spent the next 3 hours climbing about over the very interesting mountain and taking pictures. Bachman dashed on ahead, hoping to reach the top or the big peak, but couldn't make it. We found a number of interesting rocks. There were lots of geodes there. It's fun to break them open and see all the crystals inside. (142)

The ruins of the ancient village [Casa Grande ruins] where the pageant was held are 12 mi. beyond the town.
We got there, parked the car, then wandered about. There are lots of remains of walls there, and one good sized building over which they've built a roof and some supporting woodwork to preserve it. The pageant started at a little after 5 'clock. I'm sending you literature on the subject which will give a full account. I think the account in the program is better but the magazine will be of interest.
It was very effective. The pageant took place on some of the ruins but in the background there had been constructed a concrete building which was used a great deal. In the 1st act, the Indians were very effectively dressed in blankets (not real) of gray, with beads & white designs on them. They made a beautiful picture against clay walls, with the sinking sun shining on them. In the 3rd act, there were four real Indians who danced and sang and made weird noises. They were all dolled up in feathers & beads, etc.
Most of the characters in the last act were really Spanish & most of them from Tucson. Altogether, I enjoyed it very much. Carpenter got a picture of the first scene & now regrets that he didn't try more. His camera has a fast lens.
They came out all right financially on the pageant, I guess. It was reported that 3,000 people were there Fri., 8,000 yesterday & I suppose 3,000 or more on Sat [Sunday?]. Admission was $1.00.
It was the dustiest place I've ever seen. The dust was 6 in. deep over much of the ground and the mob rushing out certainly stirred it up. So did the automobiles. We got out in fairly good time but Nere part of a steady stream all the dusty 12 mi. to Florence. (144-5)

[Editor's photo caption:] The pageant at Casa Grande Ruins, Nov. 6, 1926. With a cast of 300, the pageant was to be "only a mere beginning of pageants of Arizona history planned by the Arizona Pageantry Association" (STAR, Nov. 7, 1926). The purpose was to publicize the Casa Grande National Monument. The Buildings in the photo were not the ruins, but actually painted wood. Owing to lack of seating, visitors sat on the ground, in the dust stirred up by automobiles and thousands of people attending.
The pageant consisted of four acts, which had little to do with the ruins or actual history. The first act depicted indians being driven from their pueblos, next, songs and dances - Indian? - were presented, followed by Coronado's destruction of their village when he could find no gold. Father Kino, founder of the San Xavier and Tumacacori missions arrived to bring God and education to the tribes. The fourth act represented the arrival of unattractively dressed Mormon missionaries from Salt Lake City. Then the cast sang a hymn.
Four thousand people attended, along with Ethel and her friends on Nov. 6, with a total attendance of 13,000 for the three days. The thousands of autos destroyed much of the native vegetation at the site. In Nov., 1927 attendance was 10,000, and declined for the next two years. The pageant was discontinued in March, 1930 when only 5000 attended. (Clemensen, 1992)
[See also] (144)

[Gov.] Hunt & Clark ran so close for governor that I think they're going to recount the vote. [...] Meanwhile University affairs continue to be in a stew. Hunt promised some people that he would fire Marvin & others that he would not, so nobody knows what's going to happen. (145)

Thur. I went over to Youngs' to see what they were going to do. They were going out to the Tortolitas - a range 20 odd mi. away. I wiped the breakfast dishes, then went home to dress while Mrs. Young put up lunch. They came by for me a little later and off we went. We went thru the thickest cholla country I've ever seen.
Having reached the end of the road, we set off walking toward the hills. Dr. Young went down along the stream bed. Absolutely dry, of course. While Mrs. Young & I started climbing. It was all very pretty and quiet and peaceful. She found the cutest baby turtle [tortoise]. Very fat & juicy. It was the kind that grow to be a foot long.
I found a pretty little box canyon and went down to see it, so we went back different ways. (146)

Let's see: I mailed your letter Fri. night. Sat. I cut sections of mouse liver full of anthrax & mounted them on slides. Spent most of the afternoon darning stockings. (160)

As to grabbing Jack [friend from Woods Hole], he's a slippery article, even if one wanted him. Several girls have apparently had him grabbed, but he slid out from under. No, men don't come in ideal combinations. The good looking ones are likely to be conceited, the healthy ones rude & boisterous, and the very good ones rather narrow.
Yes, the times are exciting. The board of regents meet tomorrow. We're all wondering what they'll do. A new topic of interest has come up. The very active Baptist Minister here is starting, or aiding, a sort of state wide revival, one of the end results of which is to be an act of legislature prohibiting the teaching of evolution. More fun! (164)

Besides, so long as we own the building, we have to pay ground rent and there's always the possibility of the store keeper going bankrupt, leaving the building in our hands, Of course, if he doesn't, a steady income from rent is O.K. Considering ground rent & taxes, $50.00 per quarter really wouldn't pay enough. (167)

4:00 p.m. - A pestiferous student came in after lunch to get help with his work & no sooner I had he gone than Dr. Soller came up [the Physics Dept. was two floors below]. He left just a few minutes ago. He's such a bore and so long winded and so egotistical. Most drives me distracted, tho I think he means well. Toward the end of the afternoon he asked me if I'd ever been in love, etc. and then later, punching the end of his sternum, asked me what it meant when you got a pain there. I told I him he was probably getting TB. I don't know whether he was just trying to be coy or whether he was serious. I wasn't taking any chances. (169)

[Editor's photo caption:] As a a scientist, Carpenter was extremely disturbed by the incorrect, and even impossible, claims of these self professed scientists. He demonstrated that Brown's education did not include study with a famous British anatomist as claimed. And he also used a rational argument to disprove Brown's claim that the Earth's axis is included 23.5 to the plane of its orbit because Satan had sucked away all the water vapor from the Earth's atmosphere and then hurled it back, throwing the axis of rotation askew! Though the heated Tucson debates on this issue declined, these attempts to replace scientific explanation of Earth's history with biblical ones unfortunately continue today. (171)

Ed & I are going for a walk this afternoon, probably. We're hoping Rocks [Brown] will want to take us out in his flivver but he may not feel so inclined. We enlarged 2 pictures of his girl for him the other night. He was pleased. Stood there & beamed at them just after we'd put them in hypo. He was all for carrying them right off home to bed with him and let them dry under his personal observation, but we told him they had to be washed an hour and he'd have to wait here until the hour was up or wash them himself at home. So we went off without them. Carpenter thot one, especially, a rather ungraceful pose. I suspect it was because, altho she wore her garters above her knees, her short dress, side view as she sat on the steps, showed one leg above the stocking top. Looks like a jolly girl, crazy about dancing, moonlight rides, etc. - flirtatious, as it were, and has vampish eyes. I think she'll suit him very well.
Rocks is going to take us out to Snyder's hill. Nice. (174)

It seems that before Christmas there was an ex-soldier magazine agent around, taking subscriptions for magazines. As an ex-service man, he appealed particularly to the ex-service men on campus & collected many subscriptions. It turns out that he was a fake - or else turned rascal after he got the money. His credentials were apparently O.K. Strange to say, the company is going around, insisting on reimbursing all subscribers. They say this affair will ruin them if they don't insist upon paying. "Little Rocks" [W. H. Brown] thinks they'll be out about $5000 as it is, and maybe ruined anyhow. (180)

We were all disappointed in not seeing the "Walrus" (Gov. Hunt) at the special assembly this morning. 'Twas said the students had threatened to hoot him off the stage if he did come. Neither did he come to the reception. (186)

Carpenter got his Pontiac and it seems to be a very nice car. Sat. he, the Youngs, Dr. Rocks Leonard, Blount & I went out to Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mts. Got there about 7 o'clock; & stayed until after lunch yesterday. Old chief Cochise used to gather his gang back in there and a mighty good place it was, too. I'd surely hate to pursue the enemy into such country. It's very rocky - whole hills of big round rock, all ready to be toppled down onto somebody. (189)

Homesteading is quite popular just now. A lot of homesteads are being taken up and I think it's a good idea. These places in the Tucsons and out toward Sabino Canyon are going to be very valuable 10 years from now, at the rate the town's growing. If I were going to stay here for some years, I'd certainly grab one too. (193)

It seems that about a dozen girls on campus are wearing no stockings these days. I haven't seen any without stockings so far. Carpenter had one in class Thur. It somewhat shocked his New England ideas of convention. Really, I think it's a very sensible thing to do, when you come right down to it. Not that I would. Think of the money and time saved. I was very much surprised recently to find that my feet have gotten sunburned, right thru my stockings. Blount's worrying about the bare legged girls' feet getting burned to match their shoes. (201)

The Canyon surely is one huge, magnificent gash in the old earth. You just can't imagine it without seeing it, and even then you have to give it a chance to sink in gradually. It was all hazy reds I and blues in the sunset. (203)

[From the Epilogue:]
There are a few surprises in these letters. For a trained botanist, it is odd that Ethel never wrote of visiting the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill. This was already famous enough for her to mention in her first letter in this collection, and which by now has conducted research on ecology of desert plants for over 100 years. And while adventurous about the outdoors, she was timid about trying new foods. Hence her tastes of Mexican food were infrequent, though refried beans became a favorite the rest of her life. Ethel continued to love ice cream and to believe that shredded wheat was an acceptable food.
Edwin Carpenter married his fiancee Hazel Burton in the summer of 1927, and they lived a few blocks east of the campus. While pregnant, Hazel contracted tuberculosis and she and their baby died in childbirth in 1931. Following this loss, Ed Carpenter took a sabbatical leave from the University in 1932, visiting astronomers and observatories in Europe.
In August, 1933, Edwin Carpenter and Ethel Stiffler were married in Flagstaff, Arizona. They returned to Tucson and initially lived at 2216 E. Third St. They had two children, Roger Edwin Carpenter (b. 1935) and Emily Hazel Carpenter (Long) (b. 1939), both of whom graduated from the University of Arizona with majors in the biological sciences.
In 1937, Dr. A. E. Douglass retired from the Astronomy Department to pursue his interest in tree ring dating, and Carpenter became Director of Steward Observatory and Head of the Astronomy Department from then until his death. Much of this time was spent searching for the ideal spot as the next site for the university's telescope, and participating in the decisions that resulted in establishment of the National Observatory on Kitt Peak. He died in February, 1963, eight months prior to his planned retirement, in the same year that the 37" reflector was installed at Kitt Peak.
Ethel never taught again after their marriage, except for the guidance she and Ed gave their two children. An important part of this was the great love of both parents for hiking in the desert and appreciation of the natural world - as well as and showing us how to develop negatives and produce prints and enlargements in a photographic darkroom. She died in 1995 at age 95, having outlived everyone mentioned in these letters except her sister Emily.

Tucson was another dear friend. With sadness, Ethel watched it succumb to the typical symptoms of age for western American cities in the 1900's _ growth, "progress," traffic, less clean air, and the shortage of water that she had expected when she first moved here in 1925. In looking back over the past 80 years, it is difficult to think of any of the physical changes over this period that have been improvements in the quality of life for residents of the city, other than those resulting from technology now available to everyone. (206)

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