When Marji Scotten was growing up outside of Gilbert in the 1950s, a crop duster plane crashed on her farm. Because they had no telephone, her mom told her to ride her bicycle to the neighbors to call authorities.
"I told them there was a plane crash in Gilbert, and they said, ‘Well, where is Gilbert?' They didn't now where Gilbert was, so I had to explain to them how to get here."
Today, there's nothing obscure about Gilbert, a town of more than 220,000 people living within 73 square miles. On Tuesday, Gilbert officially marks the 90th birthday of its incorporation.
Longtime Gilbert residents recall a small town, surrounded by alfalfa fields along a Southern Pacific rail line, that grew little until 1970 when town leaders embarked on an ambitious annexation of 53 square miles of county land. In fact, the town's official population was just 1,971 before that expansion began.
Scotten said it was only 1,800 in 1951 when her family moved to their farm on Guadalupe Road near Val Vista Drive where the Freestone Recreation Center now stands.
"There really wasn't anything to do in Gilbert because there was no movie theater," she said. "Every Friday night, we'd go to the Pioneer Drive-In Theater (on Main Street west of Country Club Drive) in Mesa. A lot of activities centered around school, but those were not very often."
For many years, only Gilbert and Elliot roads were paved, Scotten said. And when the Gilbert Days celebration and parade began in 1959, paving came to side streets.
"The parade lasted about a minute and 37 seconds - they weren't very long," she said. By the 1970s, the parade had expanded. The parade marshal one year was Amanda Blake, who played "Miss Kitty" in the popular "Gunsmoke" TV series.
"The best part of Gilbert Days was the barbecue they had at the American Legion," Scotten said. "They would cook this meat underground for days."
Historian and former Mayor Dale Hallock, who moved from Oklahoma with his family in 1936, recalls a community where the real population was on the area farms. "There weren't too many people who lived inside Gilbert," he said. Downtown Gilbert was modest with a large lumberyard and as many as four grocery stores.
Hallock, mayor from 1971-76, published a pictorial book on the town in 2007, "Gilbert Arizona: From Cowboys and Sodbusters, A Mega Residential Community." He laments that the railroad tore down the landmark depot in 1965. "Of course, it is what put Gilbert on the map." Later removed was the prominent sign downtown that proclaimed Gilbert, another regret.
"We swam in the canals, but, in 1947, when the guys came back from World War II, they organized the Gilbert Jaycees chapter, and they built the Gilbert swimming pool, which is where the senior center is now," Hallock said.
He recalls a third of the population was Hispanic, and, for 20 years (1929-49), their children attended the Gilbert Mexican School near what was then Gilbert High School, later converted into the school district's administration building. For a time, until the early 1930s, black children attended the Negro School in a house near the still-standing city water tower. Later, Gilbert's black youngsters were bused to a school in Mesa, while those in high school were sent to Carver High School in Phoenix, Hallock said.
Doris Gregory Lane arrived with her family from Texas in the early 1940s.
"Downtown Gilbert was just a wide place in the road," she said. "On Saturday night, they had a platform downtown for dancing and music. They would play guitars, and they would get out there and they'd do the old family hop-hop. It was like square dancing, but it was just a jump-jump."
Lane, 84, said she was a Methodist who married into a Mormon family, who disapproved of the dancing. "My husband didn't believe in showing off in public, but we went down there and viewed it because it was really attractive," Lane said.
"When I came to Gilbert, I lived by a canal. And every time it got hot, mother would walk us down to the canal and we'd jump in and float down. Then she'd drive down in the car to get us and go back home."
Lane recalls Gilbert having a movie theater where tickets were just 10 cents.
Later, Lane's father, Burl Gregory, purchased and operated the '76 service station in Gilbert.
"I met my husband working at the '76 station that dad owned," she remembered. Lane went to night school to complete her high school diploma.
"My husband didn't believe in women working, but for one year, he let me work at Motorola in Mesa," she said. "My husband got me a new Ford, so I got to drive, and he let me work for a year."
Lane recalls Gilbert Days parades that featured numerous antique cars owned and driven by the local Nichols family.
June Neely Morrison has lived in Gilbert since 1924. "I remember a very simple life," she said. "I lived three-fourths of a mile from town, and my folks liked it that way." She walked to school with neighborhood children. Without sidewalks, the route was on the berms and end rows of corn, cotton and alfalfa fields.
She recalls the old Gilbert post office with its combination locks and the benches outside along the south side where older men "sat in the winters sunning themselves and talking."
She estimated that 95 percent of the community was related to agriculture. Morrison said the Great Depression brought 25 percent unemployment and many people riding the railroad into Gilbert looking for help.
"They would come here to our house, because we were not too far away from the railroad track. ... My mother would always have food for them. She would have a plate of food for anybody who came to the door."
Morrison remembers how kids would ride horses into the desert for a day at a time without much concern and how youth played many "self-made games." Some played jacks, Annie-over, marbles, games with baseball cards or the boys game of mumbletypeg where pocket knifes were flung into the ground with precision without striking one's own foot.
Morrison recalls the craze when Monopoly came along. "Now, that was a biggie."
Morrison and late husband Marvin, twice named Arizona's Agriculture Man of the Year, watched as area alfalfa and cotton farms were sold off for development and the town once known as the "Hay Capital of the World" grew into a major city.
"I remember my husband saying, as we looked toward Gilbert, ‘You know you are going to be an old so-and-so if you don't sell this place one of these days.' We were within a half-mile of Gilbert Road and we still are. Marvin knew there were big changes coming."
Lawn Griffiths writes the blog Spiritual Life for the East Valley Tribune: http://blogs.evtrib.com/spirituallife