The Novelist Who Shaped The City

Harold Bell Wright's Tucson Legacy Combines Eastward Sprawl With Desert Passion.

ONE OF THE most popular authors of the early 20th century made his home in Tucson for over 15 years. Today, though, he is primarily remembered only because of a few small wooden signs near the intersection of Speedway Boulevard and Wilmot Road.

Yet Harold Bell Wright's impact on Tucson was remarkable and contradictory. His urge to get away from it all by building on a big tract of land miles from the center of town triggered the city's eastward expansion across a quilt of large, desert-gobbling residential lots. At the same time, his love of the natural vegetation inspired more and more locals to think of the desert as something other than a wasteland better off blanketed in Bermuda grass.

Between 1903 and 1942, Harold Bell Wright's 19 books sold over 10 million copies, an amazing number before the advent of chain book stores and mass marketing. But since he wrote what he termed "inspirational literature," stories meant to lift up hearts and encourage the contemplation of greater ideas, Wright is little known today. The author's novels are as out-of-date now as his beloved horses, which he once rode to deliver manuscripts to the express office.

In his books, Wright made it clear that he intensely disliked large cities and the urban way of living. Instead, he thought there was something redeeming in natural areas and the rural lifestyle of the West. He wrote of himself, "Certain it is that my mother endowed me with a love of nature which has been one of the most potent influences through all my years."

So it is not surprising that Wright moved to the small town of Tucson in 1912 long enough to write Their Yesterdays in a house on Speedway Boulevard near Fourth Avenue.

Three years later, he was back in Tucson for a much different reason.

Wright suffered from poor health, including tuberculosis, from his earliest years. His condition led him to leave the Midwest, where he had been a painter, a preacher and then a writer, to seek the sunshine and warmth of southern California. It was there in 1915 that while on horseback he was struck by an automobile, and the accident inflamed his tuberculosis.

Wright retold the story of his relocation years later in a once-famous article titled "Why I Did Not Die":

"All right," I said to the doctors; "now tell me what is my chance?"

They answered: "A dry, mild climate--and live out of doors."

"That," I returned, "spells Tucson, Arizona. I know a wonderful place at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains. It is sheltered by the wall of rocks on the north. To the south is open desert. It has sunshine every hour of the day ..."

Wright would be moving back to a community where at least 25 percent of the population had tuberculosis. The Southern Arizona sun was thought to be beneficial for recovery and the city of 20,000 was flooded with patients.

At his desert retreat in the mountains, located not far from the present-day Ventana Canyon resort, Wright entered into a regimen that would literally save his life. He made himself a white suit to reflect light and set up a "glare-proof" desk that would allow him to complete his next novel, When A Man's A Man, while sitting in the winter sunshine.

Over time, Wright continued to visit Tucson, and finally moved here permanently in 1919, at first living in the downtown area. The author thought that the Tucson "climate was productive of clear thinking, the surroundings were ideal for writing, and for that purpose [he] had decided to locate here and get a home."

After coming back to Tucson, Wright would occasionally return to the Santa Catalinas, and he closely observed what he saw in the mountains. One of these trips led him to incorporate the area around the Cañada del Oro into the setting for his 1923 book, The Mine with the Iron Door, which he dedicated to "my friends in the old pueblo Tucson."

By 1920 Wright had found an isolated 160-acre parcel of property near Speedway and Wilmot, at that time five miles east of the edge of the city. It was there that he would build a home. The author said of this location, "Where else in Arizona or the world could I find a site for this home of mine with eleven such ranges of mountains in the plainest view and in sight of the country I love best."

It took two years of planning and preparation, but by 1922 Wright had his desert home built to his own design. According to a 1927 Sunset magazine article, "When Harold Bell Wright decided to build a permanent home he had these things to consider: his love of the desert, his dislike of gaping tourists, his appreciation of Indian architecture, and his own comfort while writing."

IN ADDITION TO becoming a citizen of the city, Wright became an active member of the community. He donated funds to several charities and raised more money for good causes by staging productions of his novels. He arranged for the premier of the 1924 movie based on The Mine with the Iron Door to be held at downtown's Rialto Theater. He was also one of the driving forces behind the construction of the Temple of Music and Art.

For his efforts, Wright was widely hailed. In 1924 The Arizona Daily Star printed an eight-page Sunday supplement about the author and said it was done "In appreciation of the service to Tucson rendered by Harold Bell Wright." Seven years later, the Tucson Citizen wrote, "Time and again there has been a search for the outstanding personality of Tucson and each time the laurels of 'first citizen' have been awarded, by popular and informal opinion, to Harold Bell Wright, author, artist, sportsman, former minister, philanthropist and 'prince of good fellows.'"

Despite all his good works in Tucson, Wright, at least in his 1925 novel A Son of His Father, expressed mixed feelings about the city. He wrote it was a place "where get-rich-quick development artists build their pasteboard and plaster bungalows." He also offered the opinion that "With feverish activity they are putting down pavements, putting up electric lights, putting down gas and water pipes, putting up real estate signs, putting down more city wells, and extending the city limits to include new additions of the surrounding desert. With a fine contempt for the past they have destroyed the ancient [presidio] wall, demolished many of the picturesque adobe structures of history, renamed the century-old streets, converted the beautiful old Saint Augustine church into an unsightly garage."

While Wright may have had ambivalent feelings about Tucson, the public loved what he had to write about the cowboys of Southern Arizona. The first printing of A Son of His Father was 600,000 copies, enough to fill 27 train boxcars full of books.

In his writing studio at his eastside home, Wright completed many of his most famous novels, and one 1929 non-fiction book of which he was justifiably proud. Long Ago Told is a well-researched compilation of stories of the Tohono O'Odham people that beautifully describes their legends and beliefs.

In the foreword to this book, Wright pointed out the changes occurring in the Tucson area because of urbanization:

"There are few evenings when we do not watch the sunset from the roof of our desert house. When the sun is down and we are in the shadows of the nearer mountains, Baboquivari Peak still glows in the last of the sunlight. The light pales; the colors fade; the mystery and the beauty of the afterglow passes. ... And against the shadowy mass of the hills we see the lights of a modern city. So the day of these legends is passing. The light of their meaning is fading."

While Wright's work may have fit the mood of early 20th-century America, by the 1920s the author's best-selling novels were being ridiculed by critics, and even his own family members. As Yndia Smalley Moore, a relative of Wright's first wife, said of the author in a 1983 interview, "I always just loved him dearly, even though we all criticized his books and thought they were completely unscholarly, which they were."

In a different interview Moore expressed great admiration for the author's generosity. "Harold Bell Wright produced his play Shepherd of the Hills with amateur Tucson actors and actresses. ... It was all for charity. He did a great deal of charity for the nuns at St. Mary's Hospital. ... He was a very fine person."

The dusty trip out to Wright's home also made an impression on Moore. "We used to get out to swim at Uncle Hal's. [Speedway] was a dirt road with dips all the way out [to his house]."

Despite widespread criticism of his books, Wright continued to turn out best sellers from his Tucson home. His popularity, however, was destroying the privacy he had sought in his isolated setting. As Moore recalled much later, "I was having lunch with them [Wright and his second wife] and the maid came in and said there was an old lady wanted to see Mr. Wright. So Uncle Hal left the table and came back and he said, 'Yndia this is my public, come out and see.' So I went out to see and here was a broken-down old Ford, darling little old lady ... [with] this worshipful look on her face. Uncle Hal left the table and took her all over the place. ... Spent a couple of hours with her."

In addition to frequent interruptions by uninvited guests, by 1930 Tucson's urban growth was beginning to annoy Wright. Automobile traffic on the unpaved roads in the area was continually throwing up clouds of dust, not something the health-conscious author enjoyed. In response, Wright and his neighbor to the south offered to provide $3,000 to Pima County to oil Wilmot Road between Broadway and Speedway if the county would oil the two latter streets from the city limits east to Wilmot.

Along with increasing traffic, Tucson's growth was bringing Wright more neighbors in his isolated location. By 1930, William Woodin had become a "next door neighbor" of the author. Then in 1934, Florence Pond decided to build a mansion on the north side of Speedway across from the Wright home. This house, named Stone Ashley, was completed in 1936 and contained a driveway lined by a long double row of Italian cypress trees, something the desert-loving author probably would have abhorred.

Wright, however, was gone from Tucson by that time, continuing the wandering lifestyle he had followed since childhood. In 1929 he spent several months in Hawaii writing his novel Exit and he was out of town as well for much of 1931 and '32. By 1934 Wright had moved to Quiet Hill Farms north of San Diego. The final break with Tucson came in 1936 when his eastside home was sold. Eight years later, Wright would die in California.

But leaving Tucson had been a difficult decision. He said, "Everyone who knows me at all knows my love for Arizona. As I have often said, I owe more to Tucson than I can ever repay." After the move, however, he would explain, "We still like Arizona better than any place in the world. ... But our Tucson place was unproductive, I am getting old, our sons live in California--for these and other reasons we felt it was best to make the move when we did."

Ninety-four-year-old Roy Drachman remembered in a recent interview that there was no bitterness about Wright's leaving. "I think Tucsonans were grateful to him for the time he spent here and liked him and he was popular. I don't think there was a great deal of resentment that he went back to California." Then Drachman said of the author, "He was a very nice, very gracious guy. A very pleasant, tall, slender fellow who certainly had a following among his readers. It seemed like there wasn't any question that when his new book came out it was going to be a best seller."

WRIGHT LEFT BEHIND more than a house when he moved from Tucson. He influenced both the direction and type of growth that occurred in the community, as well as the city's landscaping pattern.

Before Wright built at Speedway and Wilmot, most of Tucson's urban development had spread out from the downtown area in a concentric pattern. In 1920, the eastern edge of town was near Campbell Avenue and most homes in Tucson were on small lots.

Harold Bell Wright was largely responsible for changing that. His acquisition of an enormous estate far beyond the edge of the urban area opened many people's eyes to the prospects for large, scattered lot development on the east side. As the Tucson Citizen asked in 1929, "What caused the transformation from untamed desert that could once be acquired for a song, to landscaped estates, handsome residences, and improved subdivisions that are said to be the finest in the state?" Their answer: "The movement originated with the magnificent estate of Harold Bell Wright, on Wilmot Road, near the Speedway."

Roy Drachman, dean of the Tucson real estate industry, agrees. "I think that [Wright's impact on the development of large-lot estates on the east side] was probably influential," he said. "What he had done was influential in convincing others to buy a big chunk of land and put a home on it. It was a good way of life. Most of them weren't that big [160 acres]; they were smaller. They were 30 and 40 acres, that was quite common."

But it wasn't only large-lot estates that started popping up on Tucson's east side after Wright finished his home in 1922. Subdividers looking to accommodate Tucson's growing affluent population also saw the possibilities of offering unique settings for large homes. In 1927, the Williams Addition was developed on Broadway near Craycroft. The next year El Encanto Estates, which was intended to "create a unique environment of privacy and peace," was opened at Broadway and Country Club. South of Broadway, the Colonia Solona subdivision was developed to offer a more natural desert setting.

Drachman said of these subdivisions, "[Williams Addition] was a long way out there. People wondered, 'Who in the hell would want to live out there?' But they did, although it was a struggle. But El Encanto and Colonia Solona were much more popular; they were closer to town."

Interest in El Encanto and Colonia Solona was initially high, but the Depression reduced demand considerably. Tucsonans were rightly nervous about the future. As the late Oliver Drachman said of his El Encanto home, "We bought this lot, an acre lot, in 1940. Paid $2,300 for it, which was a big sum, really. About a month after we bought it, we said we made a mistake. It's too far out of town, really. It's too far out of town, we never should have bought it. So we tried to sell it, couldn't sell it, so the next year we went ahead and built. How lucky can you be?"

By the early 1930s scattered subdivisions had been approved near Broadway east to Alvernon and beyond. Along Speedway, a string of mostly undeveloped subdivisions lined both sides of the street all the way east from Country Club Road to Wilmot, just across the street from Harold Bell Wright's home. While the sale of most lots in these subdivisions awaited better economic times, the trend that Wright had started wasn't going to be stopped. As real estate man Herbert Drachman told the Citizen in 1929, "The beautiful desert flora that surrounded the Wright home for miles in every direction opened the eyes not only of Tucson people, but of visitors fortunate enough to see it. ... Newcomers saw the opportunity and seized the land."

ALONG WITH INITIATING eastward sprawling nature of the city, Wright also helped change Tucsonans' perception of their desert environment. Before 1900, it had been difficult to find anyone who had much good to say about the Arizona desert, apart from its dry air being a "last chance" for victims of tuberculosis. Most people looked at it as a place to go through as quickly as possible: a hot, waterless wasteland, home of dangerous animals, weird plants and killer Indians.

That attitude, however, began to change at the turn of the last century. A small group of people--scientists, naturalists, artists--started seeing the desert in a new way. These people represented a different sort of desert creature--one that did not need to transform the land or directly exploit its resources, but rather found in the desert a living environment that had merit of its own. Harold Bell Wright was one of those people.

When he built his new home, Wright retained its natural desert setting, and even enhanced it. He fenced off the native vegetation to protect it during construction, and over time supplemented it with over 300 types of cactus. He greatly admired the "character" of desert plants, noting in the introduction to a 1930 Ladies Home Journal article on desert flowers that "plants that have been forced to fight hardest for a bare existence flower in rarest beauty."

While Wright's treatment of the desert would not be considered unusual today, 80 years ago it was uncommon. Locally, Bermuda grass lawns had come into vogue in 1910 and there was a move away from the desert in Tucson's residential landscaping. Wright's return to native plants and admiration of the desert helped to reverse that trend.

But his advocacy of the desert went beyond his own yard. Harold Bell Wright helped to install a desert landscaping project at Tucson Medical Center, an effort for which he is still honored today by a plaque in the hospital's main corridor.

In 1950, 14 years after he sold his Tucson home and six years after his death, Wright's east side property was turned into a subdivision called Harold Bell Wright Estates. The streets of the neighborhood bear the names of characters from some of the author's most famous books, including the title character of The Winning of Barbara Worth, the setting of The Calling of Dan Matthews, and a shortening of the name of one of Wright's most popular books, The Shepherd of the Hills.

Before obtaining final approval from the Pima County Board of Supervisors, the subdivision plan had received some critical comments from the Planning and Zoning Commission. Instead of the mostly half-acre lots shown on the plan, the commission wanted larger acre lots, but the developer didn't think those would sell well. Despite the Planning Commission's recommendations, the Board of Supervisors approved the plan as presented.

At the center of the subdivision, Harold Bell Wright's home still stands, a reminder of a time when it was a remote dwelling located in a desert that its owner loved. As Wright wrote in The Mine with the Iron Door:

"From every street and corner in Tucson, we see the mountains. ... But of all the peaks and ranges that keep their sentinel posts around this old pueblo there are none so bold in the outlines of the granite heights and ragged can[y]ons, so exquisitely beautiful in their soft colors of red and blue and purple, or so luring in the call of their remote and hidden fastnesses as the Santa Catalinas."

The research for this article was funded by a grant from the Arizona Humanities Council. For more information on Wright, see either the 1986 book Harold Bell Wright: Storyteller to America by Tucsonan Lawrence Tagg or the Journal of Arizona History's spring, 1975 article by Thomas Langdon, "Harold Bell Wright: Citizen of Tucson."
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