“From Cowtown to Desert Metropolis” is Roy P. Drachman’s telling of an oasis in the Sonoran Desert that, in the twentieth century, became a mid-sized American city. Mr. Drachman is the grandson of Polish immigrants who lived his first 10 years in Tucson’s Barrio Viejo, the old neighborhood south of Congress Street at Meyer and McCormick where the Convention Center is today.
His home was an old adobe house that was built in 1870. “Across the street on the west side of Main Street, there was a row of adobe houses occupied by Mexican-American families. All of these houses had dirt floors, and none had indoor bathrooms. They were occupied by very nice families…”
“There were only three other gringo families in our neighborhood.” One of those was that of William Scott.
“Will Scott was a retired judge who was confined to a wheelchair all the time I knew him – he was a crotchety old man who drank a lot. He was married to Larcena Pennington, whose family had been killed by Apache Indians in a famous incident several years before. The Apaches had left her for dead but she survived terrible wounds and was found and returned to Tucson.
“Scott Street was named for that Scott family and Pennington Street after the Larcena Pennington family.” (Southern Arizona Guide has this horrific story about Larcena’s survival called “A Fate Worse Than Death”.)
Mr. Drachman tells the story of how his family came to be in Tucson.
“In 1868, my grandfather Phillip (who lived in Tucson) decided he needed a wife, and he set off for New York City to find a lady to become his soulmate. Louis Zechendorf , who lived in New York and who was one of the Zechendorf family that owned mercantile stores in Santa Fe and Tucson, knew Phillip. Phillip had worked for Zechendorf for about a year in the family’s Tucson store. Louie was my grandfather’s contact in seeking a bride. Uncle Louie, as he was known by friends as well as family members, introduced him to one of his cousins, a young lady from Baltimore by the name of Rosa Katzenstein.
Within a few weeks they were married and set sail for California via the Isthmus of Panama, which they crossed in a horse-drawn wagon. They eventually reached the port of San Francisco, then sailed down to Los Angeles. From there they traveled overland to San Bernardino, the home of my grandfather’s younger sister, Augusta. She had come to America after he had and married Hyman Goldberg who was also from Piotrokov, Poland. Augusta and Hyman later moved to Phoenix, where they raised a large and successful family of merchants who operated the Goldberg store.
Phillip and Rosa’s marriage was in the early part of the summer, and Phillip feared that his bride from the East Coast would not endure the terrific heat of the desert very well, so Rosa stayed in San Bernardino with the Goldbergs while he went ahead to Tucson. He returned for her in the fall, and they commenced twenty-five-day trip by wagon for the Old Pueblo. They arrived in early November. There was only one other Anglo woman living in Tucson at the time, my grandmother said.
She told me the trip across the desert that first time was very difficult. She said they encountered the worst kind of rough men. They passed graves of many earlier pioneers and were constantly fearful of Indian attacks. To avoid the heat, they traveled at night.”
“The life of a young American woman in Tucson was far different from the one Rosa had become accustomed to, living in a large port city like Baltimore. None of the homes had indoor plumbing, and none of the first few of my grandmother’s Tucson homes even had wooden floors. She soon adapted, she had to if she wanted to raise a family and be a good wife to Phillip.”
Mr. Drachman mentions the time he had lunch with Wyatt Earp. “Whenever I mention some of the interesting people I have met, the one who seems to draw the most questions is Wyatt Earp, the gunslinger and alleged outlaw of Tombstone fame.”
“In 1927, when I was twenty-one, my father and I went over to the Old Pueblo Club to have lunch. It was a downtown businessmen’s club, located on South Stone Avenue in Tucson. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the club was Billy Breckenridge, former U.S. marshal in Tombstone during the time when that town was earning its reputation as being too tough to die. He was a good friend of my father’s and my father introduced me to him. He told us that he was waiting for Wyatt Earp, who should be showing up any minute. He said to my dad, “Since you know him well, why don’t you join us for lunch?”
Earp did arrive soon. After proper greetings, I was introduced to him, and we went upstairs to the dining room, where we had lunch. Before Earp had arrived, Billy Breckenridge and my father had agreed that Earp was an outlaw and a killer. He was certainly not the folk hero that he is today.”
Another famous person in Roy’s life was Ginger Rogers.
“One of the most attractive personalities to visit the Rialto (Roy was then manager of the Rialto Theater in downtown Tucson) was Ginger Rogers, who came through as one of the vaudeville acts on the circuit out of Chicago the first month she was in show business. She had won a national Charleston contest in Chicago in 1926 and was with a pair of redheaded Charleston dancers in an act that kicked off a lifelong career for her. She was only about sixteen and accompanied by her mother, who watched her like a hawk. I was very impressed with the young dancer and asked her if she would like to go dancing with me at the Blue Moon dance hall on the edge of town. She could go, she said, if her mother went along. We went to the Blue Moon after her last performance and spent about an hour there.
The interesting thing about that evening was that the actor Lew Ayres, to whom she was later married, was playing the banjo in the orchestra at the Blue Moon that evening.
Many years later, when she came to Tucson to help boost the sale of war bonds, I was in charge of the programs in which she was to appear in various places around town. I met her at the railroad station and spent most of the day and evening with her. I told her about her first visit to Tucson when she was just a teenager. She was divorced from Ayres at that time but said they were still friendly and that she tells him about the 1926 evening when he was playing at the Blue Moon.
I later ran into her two or three times in New York City night clubs. She was always quite friendly, although I’m sure she never knew my name.”
Mr. Drachman recounts various milestones along Tucson’s route to becoming a successful mid-sized American city. “Milestone number one for Tucson in the twentieth century, then, was its decision to become a tourist and health center.”
“Milestone number two occurred around the midpoint of the 1930s during the Depression. Air-conditioning became a fact of life with the development of the “swamp cooler,” which enabled every household and small business to cool their premises to comfortable levels at reasonable costs.”
He goes on to recount other milestones, such as World War II which brought huge development to the Old Pueblo, and the coming of the Hughes Company (now Raytheon), and the fire at the Pioneer Hotel in 1970 that killed not only twenty-eight people but also downtown Tucson. Roy P. Drachman died in 2002 and did not live to see the completion of the Tucson electric streetcar that began offering service in 2014 and jump-started the revitalization of Downtown Tucson.
From Cowtown to Desert Metropolis is jam packed with stories of 20th century Tucson that Roy Drachman was involved in, from early baseball and streetcars to the old Rialto and Fox Theaters. It’s a good read and I recommend it highly to you.
Get it from Amazon here. I found it a compelling read.
From Cowtown to Desert Metropolis: Ninety Years of Arizona Memories