The Gilbert area’s earliest homestead was purchased in 1891; some of these farms were free if the family stayed for at least five years and made improvements on the land. Others paid the government cash for their land, which could be purchased for as little as 50 cents an acre.
Gilbert – Our Railroad Heritage
The Town of Gilbert owes its name to William “Bobby” Gilbert who sold a right-of-way through his land to the Phoenix and Eastern Railroad Company in 1902. The railroad line was built from Phoenix to Kelvin, Arizona in 1903. The line was later known as the Arizona Eastern Railway. A rail siding was established on Bobby Gilbert’s property; the spur line and the town that sprung up around it, became known as Gilbert. The railroad depot that was built just north of the railroad tracks and west of Gilbert Road in 1905 was unfortunately torn down in 1969.
Around 1910 when Gilbert was first getting established, there were no paved streets, no electricity, and no indoor running water or toilets. Most people built sleeping porches onto their homes because there were no cooling devices.
Ayer’s Grocery Store, the first store in Gilbert, opened in 1910 and became the location of the first Post Office in 1912. The town’s Post Office moved location regularly before settling for many years on the east side of downtown Gilbert Road. In 1979 a new Main Post Office was built on Elliot Road; it was only then that the Post Office began delivering mail to town residents. The Val Vista Station opened in 1992.
Gilbert – “The Hay Shipping Capital of the World”
Gilbert became a prime farming community; the construction of the Consolidated Canal in 1904, later the Eastern Canal, and the Roosevelt Dam in 1911 assured continuing water flow to the area. Rich soil, good irrigation and the hard work of the early pioneers made for a successful combination.
Alfalfa, cotton and dairy farms surrounded the square mile of Gilbert in those early years; so much so that Gilbert was known as the “Hay Shipping Capital of the World” during the WWI period when Gilbert farmers supplied the U.S. Army with hay for their horses.
Farming was done by horse-drawn equipment until the 1920’s, even though cars started to appear around 1910. Products shipped from Gilbert went by train; the ramps east of town next to the railroad tracks were used to transport sheep and cattle. Gilbert farmers also grew and shipped watermelons! Gilbert would remain just a small farming community for many years, until expansion started in the 70s and 80s.
This article in the East Valley Tribune offers an interesting insight into early Gilbert life from some of our senior residents.
Gilbert’s Astounding Growth
‘Modern’ Gilbert began to take shape during the 1970s when the Town Council annexed 53 square miles of county land. Although the town’s population totaled less than 2,000 at the time, the Council realized that like the neighboring cities of Tempe, Mesa, and Chandler, the town would need room to grow.
Gilbert celebrated its 90th year of incorporation in July, 2010 and now encompasses 76 square miles; the population grew from 1,971 in 1970, to 5,717 in 1980, to 110,000 in 2000, to an estimated 240,000 today. Build out is anticipated in the next decade, with a population forecast of 330,000.
Gilbert School District
Gilbert’s first school was built in 1900 on the southwest corner of Baseline and Cooper Roads. In 1909 the school was moved to the northeast corner of Guadalupe and Cooper Roads. This school was called Highland because it sat on the highest land south of the Salt River. These two schools were part of the Mesa School District.
When the elementary school was built at the southwest corner of Elliot and Gilbert Roads in 1913, the Gilbert School District was formed. Students would often hitch a ride to school on a farm wagon heading to the new creamery that was built in 1911! Beats the big yellow school bus doesn’t it?
In 1977 the “Alamo”, as our building was nicknamed, was closed for classroom use. In 1982 it reopened as the home of the Gilbert Historical Museum, the only Gilbert building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Did you know that Gilbert had its own airport from 1946 to 1959? The runway sat to the south of the museum where the Mesquite Jr. High pool currently sits. Gilbert Airport was built by Bill Mastin & Joseph Wilbur; it had a hangar, a repair shop, an office, a pilots’ lounge & a hard-packed dirt runway.
By the mid-1950s, crop-dusting was the airfield’s principal business. In 1959 the Gilbert Unified School District purchased some of the property for a new school, but Mr. Mastin continued to use the runway for his crop-dusting business until the early 60s.
Contact Gilbert Museum today
If you have any questions about the Gilbert Historical Museum, or if you would like to record your Gilbert family history, please feel free to contact us; we’re open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.