It smells as if the wood were still burning, but no fire is in sight. Six palm trees are so charred they look like they’re made of wrought iron.
Their spiky leaves flick stiffly in the breeze next to the blackened debris of the Nash home near Queen Creek, a crumbled heap of clothing, books, furniture.
In one night, a fire turned almost a century of the Nash family’s history into ashes.
A few days after the Aug. 29 blaze, Betty Nash, 80, is numb. "I’m trying not to think."
She turns her back to the remnants of the one-story house where she grew up. Her dark brown eyes focus on her hands, the table, as she tries to ignore the sounds of friends and neighbors overturning piles of debris to help her son, Walter, and his wife, Pat, in their hunt for photos, jewelry, books, kitchenware — anything that can be salvaged.
The half-dozen friends, wearing ash-covered masks and dirty gloves, are finding large bound copies of the "Chandler Heights Weekly," which chronicled news in the area during the 1940s. Nash delicately opens the cover of one volume, her brown, wrinkled fingers trace the edges lined with soot.
The yellowed newspapers inside were all written and printed by a single person: The editor, an inquisitive teenager named Betty Binner — today, Betty Nash.
The only child of Teresa Binner and Roger Stokehill, Betty cranked out 100 copies of her paper each week on a mimeograph, a machine that printed copies from stencils she created. For a meager 3 cents a copy, folks in Chandler Heights could get the scoop on the local gossip, people’s travels, fires, crimes, local meetings, marriages, funerals and births.
Friends say Betty ran around with a pencil tucked behind her ear and a pad of paper in hand, ready to record the day’s events and stick her nose in everybody’s affairs, and "telling people what they ought to know" whether they wanted her to or not.
Every Thursday, local residents would hear a rap at the door and find Betty at their step, demanding in a rush of breath: "You been anywhere, seen anybody, done anything?"
The ambitious teen even delivered the paper, trotting boldly from house to house on a pony named Lady, and sometimes on the back of a duncolored horse, Jezebel, who loved to run.
The independent teenager was an anomaly in Chandler Heights at the time — a mirror of her mother’s own strong spirit. It was unladylike for a girl to run around delivering papers, and it was especially scandalous when Betty sold raffle tickets. Mame Curtis told her so.
Betty felt swallowed up by the darkness inside Curtis’ home, which would later become her own. "Black as the ace of spades," she thought, as she got a lecture from Curtis, the wife of a physician at the Phoenix "insane asylum," Dr. Kim Devol Curtis.
Well-known for her grumpy disposition, locals say Mame Curtis was a "nasty witch" and joke that her husband put her in the house far from Phoenix to keep her away from him. She didn’t stay too long, though. A few years after Dr. Curtis died in 1934, Mame Curtis sold her house on Lime Drive to Betty’s parents, Teresa Binner and Roger Stokehill. Betty’s parents opened the dark home to the light, installing sky lights.
They had come to the area when Betty was 4 to avoid the bitter weather in Montana. With his tuberculosis worsening, Teresa thought Roger might not survive another winter, so she put the family on a train to Phoenix.
On their first 10 acres, the family grew oranges —valencias and navels — and grapefruit, some of the first citrus trees in the area. They also ran the Chandler Heights trading post out of their home at South Lime Drive, selling food and materials and running the area’s first post office. Later, they moved the post to a building near Power Road and Santan Boulevard, now home to a Hispanic meat market — a "carniceria." The trading post was a central location that helped Betty with her newsgathering.
And oh, the stories.
During the Depression, one customer would come to the trading post to buy a single bullet. "If he didn’t get the rabbit, he was aiming for, his family didn’t have meat," Betty recalls.
She swears he became one of the best shots around.
Another local figured out the best way to shoot gophers so he could profit from the government’s rodent control program. The wily hunter stuck a mirror outside of the gopher hole, and then waited a short distance away for the rodents to pop up and become entranced by their reflection. Then, he’d shoot.
Gophers back then were worth 10 cents a foot, Betty says, "until the government realized gophers have four feet." The price was changed to per-tail.
As Betty got older, she turned out fewer and fewer editions of the Chandler Heights Weekly. She printed a few special editions after 1949, three years after she graduated from the University of Arizona with a journalism degree at age 21.
She got married, had her first child and divorced. She began teaching to keep a steady income and the paper got to be too expensive to produce.
"Too much input, no output," Betty says, her silver, shoulder-length hair swishing as she shakes her head.
After four marriages and four divorces, Betty had three children — all sons. John and Roger are in their 50s, and Walter is 49. She kept the name Nash from her second husband because he "was the best of the bunch."
Betty recently sold her house on nearby Recker Road and moved back to the old Curtis house, where she grew up, to live with her son Walter and his wife, Pat.
Pat snapped awake when she saw the flames. Betty thought she and Walt were yelling "Spiders!’ because he’s afraid of them. She realized just in time that they were yelling, "Fire!"
Walt suffered some burns, but no one was seriously hurt.
They weren’t insured. Walt, disabled by back problems ever since his spine was wrecked in a fall in 1987, says insurers estimated he would have to pay $9,000 a month to cover the house as he and his wife continued adding to it.
Pat also is disabled by a brain aneurysm. And Betty has to walk with a cane now "because of old age."
Rural/Metro fire officials say the blaze started when a pile of debris that Walt was burning spewed embers that landed onto fronds of two palm trees near the home. The burning fronds fell and ignited the shingles on the roof. The fire caused about $200,000 in damage.
The Nashes say they may rebuild. For now, they are living in a motor home. Walt asks that anyone who wants to help the family to please call him at (480) 206-7002. They especially need help preserving and restoring some of the damaged historical documents, he says.