Long ago, Mary Lewis Riggs helped create an Arizona landmark. Today, Riggs, who turned 102 years old this summer, is considered somewhat of a Mesa landmark herself.
Born on June 27, 1911, she married Chester Lewis in California during 1933. Together, they had eight children, two of whom are now deceased.
In 1950, when the couple was living in Holbrook, Ariz., Lewis felt it was a perfect place where travelers would enjoy stopping and sleeping in a 30-by-16-foot concrete teepee. He bought the rights to the design and built the Wigwam Motel.
The Holbrook motel was closed in 1974, and Lewis died in 1986. However, his widow and children still believed in Lewis’ dream, restored and reopened the 15 rooms in 1988, and continue to operate it today.
Located along what was once Route 66, where it beckons to tourists and nostalgia buffs, The Wigwam Motel has been a familiar landmark for more than 60 years.
“The Wigwam Motel is a national historic site. It’s always been in our family, and my mother is the one who is really responsible for making sure that happened,” said her son, John Lewis.
After Chester’s passing in 1986, Mary married Don Lynwood Riggs in 1992. He died about nine years later. Today, Mary has 36 grandchildren, more than 90 grandchildren and an increasing number of great, great grandchildren.
Her son called his mother’s service and dedication “monumental,” and, yet, he said, she would just as soon be referred to as “Mrs. Anonymous,” and not have the attention focused on her.
He adds that just as she did with the Wigwam, his mother deserves credit for preserving much of their family history and what their family holds dear. And, that is precisely why he chose to help her celebrate her 102nd birthday this summer by taking her back to a place of their Mormon pioneer heritage, Nauvoo, Ill.
Riggs’ first great-grandfather, Joseph Leland Heywood, was in Nauvoo when he and the Mormon pioneers were driven out of that area and traveled across the country to settle in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Heywood later became the first U.S. Marshall of Utah. Riggs’ first great-grandmother, Martha Spence, was the subject of the book about the pioneers, “Not by Bread Alone.” Riggs also is related Levi Savage, who was known for his bravery and kindness on the pioneer trail and whose son, Levi Mathers Savage, was an LDS bishop in Woodruff, Ariz., for 25 years.
Lewis has been his mother’s caregiver for the past seven years.
“I just felt like the trip to Nauvoo was something that needed to be accomplished,” he said. “Some of our ancestors were there in Nauvoo, and I felt like it was important to go back and take mother for her birthday.”
In June, they flew into St. Louis, rented a car and drove to Keokuk, Iowa, 12 miles outside of Nauvoo, where they stayed in a hotel.
Lewis knew that traveling with a centenarian could be challenging; yet, “Everything worked out so well,” he said. “The good Lord was really with us all of the way.”
In addition to seeing the restored historic sites in Nauvoo, Lewis made arrangements for him and his mother to attend the LDS Temple there.
“Going to the temple has always been important to my mother,” he said. “She is such a spiritual person; she has always had a testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that’s what she radiates.”
Until she fell last year, Riggs was attending the temple in Mesa every day that it was open. Today, in addition to taking daily “walks” around the temple, with Lewis pushing her in her wheelchair; and, she has now recovered enough that they are able to attend together two or three times a week.
“When it comes to spiritual things, she never gets enough. She is hungry for it,” Lewis said.
Riggs agreed, saying, “The temple brings you closer to God. It’s the best place in the world to be.”
Back in Mesa, she enjoys her daily, and she loves going out for Mexican food, especially at Matta’s.
Lewis said it has been a privilege to work as her caregiver.
“I owe someone big time for giving me her as a mother,” Lewis said. “She is a little dynamo, just a little precious thing. I get much more from caring for her than I am ever able to give. It’s a pleasure and a privilege.”