Monday, February 17, 2020

An Arizona Visionary and a Long-Forgotten Town: Marshall Shelton and Acre City

Sleepy, dusty Phoenix had not even 25,000 residents by 1916, but had more than its share of visionaries who saw a chance to make a better life or better world. From those who found ways to bring water to the desert to those who built resorts to help "lungers" (tuberculosis sufferers), people who dreamed of making a difference found fertile ground in the arid earth of the Salt River Valley. Some live on in our daily lives by leaving their names on streets, dams, mountains, or hospital wings; others never achieved their dreams at all. Many, if not most, occupied that middle ground between the magic and the tragic, where they achieved some success but ultimately watched their castles crumble.

Marshall Shelton's name is unfamiliar to most Arizonans. On some online maps, it appears as a neighborhood name tagging part of the area between Van Buren and Washington, from 30th Street to 34th Street. Adjacent to the "Shelton" area is an area labeled "Acre City," and below that, between Air Lane and Madison, is "Pacific Place," and to the east is "Portland." These Monopoly-game names are all connected, historically as well as geographically, in a unique tale of a man who dreamed of giving a small, disenfranchised population their own exclusive community to follow their own dreams.

Marshall H. Shelton arrived in Arizona a couple of years before it achieved statehood, accompanied by his Tennessee-born wife, Genevra, and their two adopted sons, Charles and James. Born in Missouri on April 2, 1870 (or the 21st, or March, 1873, depending on which official records you choose to believe are correct), Shelton had come most recently from Seattle, but had lived in plenty of other states before making his way to the southwest. As a young adult he worked for several years as a porter at various places in Kansas City, including The Tuxedo Club (1898). By 1900, still in Kansas City, he'd married his wife, Genevra Williams, to whom he'd remain married until her death. They moved to Seattle by 1910, and Marshall worked as a solicitor. 5'10" and a slim man, Marshall was ambitious and hard-working.

Soon the couple found themselves in Arizona, settling near Washington Street in what was then the fringe of Phoenix, an area verdant with alfalfa crops and citrus groves. Marshall, by then a real estate broker, conceived of a lofty plan. He established an office at 215 W. Washington and from there he began marketing the opportunity of a lifetime: Giving people who were otherwise not likely to be able to buy real estate a chance to buy their own acreage in his planned community, which he called Acre City. By May, 1914, Shelton was advertising lots at $350 an acre, some of which were already planted in alfalfa. He promised the area would soon grow into a thriving town of industry, with a general store coming to the corner of National Avenue and Division Street. Shelton encouraged those who dreamed of raising chickens or cattle to buy in his new town, even offering to help them get a cow if they didn't have one.

Shelton laid out the streets of his new town with attention to every detail. He named one street, Genevra Court, after his wife; others were given women's names such as Leola, Zelda, Edna, Maria, and Elvira. The street he called Genevra (sometimes appearing as Genevie in newspaper articles) is now Madison Street, and the National Highway he proudly raved about is what is now Van Buren. At the time, the area he developed - Washington to Van Buren between 32nd Street and towards 44th - was in between the cities of Phoenix and Tempe, and Shelton saw it as an "intermediary" town.

The Arizona Republic carried frequent mention of Acre City in its section devoted to local news from around the state. A woman named Hope Edson was Acre City's designated correspondent. Her columns were filled with optimism for the emerging community as she informed readers of critical events. Mr. George Cagle planted fruit, pecan, and shade trees on the George Utley property, she wrote; her husband, P. J. Edson, harvested a crop of pears for Mr. Carr.  She told us when Mrs. Carson had left for the mountains to partake in the bracing air up north, and when Mr. Cotton and his son, Fred, were in the mountains for Mr. Cotton's recuperation from an unspecified illness. Ella Stevenson bought an acre to raise chickens on, and Mr. McNeff bought the property north of F. R. Towar on Genevie Court. As for Marshall Shelton himself, Hope Edson boasted that Marshall had a flock of 80 colorful ducks.

So the town grew. Five houses popped up on Division Avenue. Mrs. T. V. Parsons, from Fresno, purchased five acres in the Zeibenow addition nearby. By fall of 1914, acres were going for $525 apiece. The next year, the Cauthen family moved to an orange grove north of the Desert Inn, and Belle Grissinger, a farmer's daughter, made plans to convert her seven-room house into apartments. Roberts Willabos visited his brother Louis, and Mrs. Carson built a chicken coop. Babies were popping up all over: by March, 1916, Acre City boasted no fewer than a dozen infants and toddlers under the age of three years. Children had become so abundant that the city had an active boys club that promoted reading, writing, recitations, and cornet playing. Residents circulated a petition in an effort to bring a primary school to town, as the National Highway had become so heavily trafficked that it was unsafe for the little ones to walk to school. 

A big event happened in January, 1919: Mr. and Mrs. R. A. Waschan had twins. Hope Edson referred to them as the "famous" twins, and the newspapers carried the news that the Waschans were going to name the babies with the public's help. Ruby Bowers and Mabel Weaver submitted the winning names: Milton and Marie.

Meanwhile, Marshall and Genevra themselves had added two boys to their family. There's a  mystery involving the boys, though - their origin, and whether or not they were actually their biological sons or not. One census record specifies the boys are adopted, but there are reasons to doubt this assertion. You see, the reason Marshall and Genevra Shelton began master-planning a community was that they wanted people like themselves to have an opportunity to own land. In a time when banks generally denied mortgages to black people, Marshall and Genevra - designated "Neg," for "Negro" on census records, or with a "C" for "colored" on voter's rolls - were themselves a black couple who saw a chance to create an exclusive community where blacks were able to buy property and achieve the dream of home ownership and cottage industry. By 1920, only about 4% of the population of Phoenix was black. Perhaps it was because, compared to most states, Arizona's was relatively hospitable to blacks drew the Sheltons to the valley. Already Phoenix had a black newspaper, the Phoenix Tribune, devoted to civil rights issues and local black news. The well-established Arizona Republic praised the paper and its publishers, and encouraged readers to subscribe to the Tribune, in addition to promoting the news and marketing of Acre City. News of the settlement spread and even the nationally-known black educator, Hattie Q. Brown, bought land from Shelton for her winter home. Whatever the reason, the ever itinerant Sheltons stayed in Arizona for the remainder of both their lives.

Here's the mystery regarding the Shelton boys. Charles Courtney Shelton was born in 1921 in Denver, Colorado. His brother, James Curtis Shelton, was born March 8, 1925, in Portland, Oregon. In the 1930 census, Charles and James are listed as adopted, and their race is designated as white. In the 1940 census, the boys were not cited as adoptees, and their race has been designated "Neg" for "Negro." Shortly after that census, the young men went to war. On their draft cards and subsequent military records, they're both designated as white. I assume that, whether or not the sons were in fact adopted or were the biological sons of Marshall and Genevra, that they were light-skinned enough to "pass" and that their parents made the decision to identify them as adopted white children to offer more opportunities to the young men. I could find no birth records or newspaper accounts of their births, but that isn't in itself unusual. On James' 1942 draft card, his description is given as 142 lbs., 5'8", with brown hair and brown eyes and a "sallow" complexion. I could find no photographs of them - yet - but I did find yearbook photos of Charles' two sons, Curtis James and Bruce Eugene, and they each have features that appear consistent with some African descent. Clearly I do not know with any certainty the facts of James' and Charles' birth or ancestry, nor the motivations for the family changing their racial identity to "white" on documents, but based on that being a not infrequent occurrence in those years, and the understandable inclination to want their sons to be as free as possible of bias and closed doors, it makes sense to me.

Marshall's two sons, as mentioned, went off to fight in World War II. Private Charles Courtney Shelton, service #18017448, served in the 60th Coast Artillery Corps., I Battery Anti-Aircraft, in the Southwest Pacific Theatre: Philippines. In 1943, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and detained at Hoten POW Camp (Mukden) in Manchuria. Pvt. Shelton was liberated on May 7, 1942. He suffered greatly during his detention and became disabled. Upon his return, Pvt. Shelton lived only until April 9, 1949. He left behind his widow, Alice, who briefly stayed in Phoenix with the two small children. In March, 1951, Alice accidentally backed her car over two-year-old Bruce in the driveway of her home at 9101 N. 12th St. in Sunnyslope, breaking his leg. Not long thereafter, she took the boys to Springfield, Missouri, and raised them there. Both eventually returned to Arizona after graduation from high school.

The younger brother, Bruce Eugene Shelton, was born on December 7, 1948, seven years to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He attended Phoenix College and ASU. Like his father, he went off to war and served in Vietnam in the First Cavalry 11th. Bruce died on September 7, 2012 and is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery on Cave Creek Road in Phoenix. Bruce's older brother, named Curtis James Shelton in tribute to his uncle, was born June 1, 1947, also went to Vietnam. On November 28, 1967, he was wounded in the war. Curtis survived and returned to Tucson, Arizona, where he died on March 15, 2003.

The uncle Curtis was named in memory of, Marshall Shelton's younger son James Curtis Shelton, (born March 8, 1925) enlisted in the 1402 Army Air Force on June 15, 1943. On March 31, 1945, he was killed in action. James' body was brought home to be buried at Tempe Cemetery, not far from Acre City. On February 3, 1949, Marshall Shelton applied for his son's grave marker. His address at the time was 33 North 11th Street, Phoenix, still near the place he'd built a city in the desert.

By then, Genevra Shelton had died. Born on February 1, 1875, in Nashville, Tennessee, to James Williams and Julia, Genevra was a petite 5-foot-tall, 100-pound woman on her voter registration in 1928. (Both she and Marshall were registered Republicans.) Genevra, despite her birth as a woman of color in the 1800s in a southern state, was literate. She and Marshall formed a business with a partner from Los Angeles. They were both founding officers of the Phoenix and Los Angeles Investment Association formed on April 18, 1928. 

During this chapter of the Sheltons' life - the 1920s - the were hard at work on developing acreage known as "The Portland Tract" into another exclusive community for black Arizonans. By 1923, Shelton advertised that the land was near a meat packing plant and that a cement plant would be built as well, offering more opportunities for industrious-minded people. The Portland Tract was bordered by Van Buren on the north; "Four Mile Road" on the west (now the 40th Street alignment) and "Chicago Avenue" on the east (now 44th Street) and the northern edge of what is now the Sky Harbor Airport grounds. Shelton, acting as agent for his Los Angeles partner Edward L. Minsoh, requested the platting of the tract for his new city. That tract was the NW 1/4 of Section 7, TWP 1N, Range 4E. 

The Portland Tract - which it appears was to be called "Pacific City" - remained mostly undeveloped into the 1930s. It is likely the Great Depression halted Shelton's progress. In 1941, Sky Harbor (nicknamed "The Farm" because of its location in rural farmland of the valley) began rapidly expanding. Much of the Portland Tract was consumed by the airport. It was noted to have been occupied primarily by squatters in cars and tents by then [FAA Sky Harbor Environmental Impact Statement, June, 2005]. Once - in the 1890s - owned by livery stable owner Joseph S. Drew, the land then became a failed city for people of color, and was now to be part of an airport that would one day grow to be the busiest in the nation. 

His dreams halted by the economy, Shelton stayed in the area throughout the 30s and 40s. At 11:40 a.m. on November 29, 1946, at age 71, his long-time wife and partner, Genevra, died of colon cancer in Tempe Hospital after a two-month stay. I could find no obituary nor newspaper tribute to Genevra. Her name on her death certificate was spelled "Genevera"; at times in census records and other documents, it appeared as Genevie. Searches under all such spellings turned up nothing to honor her death. Soon, Shelton would be alone in Arizona, his grandchildren having moved to Missouri; his sons both dead; and his wife gone. On June 16, 1952, Shelton died at his home at 311 N. 32nd Street. Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies served to provide information to the medical examiner regarding his death, as no family was left to do so. He was in his 80s when hypertension-caused heart failure felled him. Shelton is buried in Tempe at the Double Butte Cemetery, near the land he'd believed in. I could find not a mention of his passing in the papers. 

Nothing discernible remains of Acre City, Pacific City, or the Portland Tract except asphalt, dusty weed-filled lots, and a mention on online maps. A few businesses - Circle K, a car lot, and so forth - have been built, and a few aged homes cling to the neighborhood behind chain-link fencing. Planes taxi down runways where Portland Tract once promised to be the promised land. Even the street names have changed; there's no Shelton Road, nor is Genevra still commemorated on street signs. But once, that area was an exciting, thriving community, all because of Marshall Shelton's ambition and vision. 

For anyone researching Acre City or its original inhabitants for genealogical purposes, here are a few of the additional names I ran across. Spellings of names are suspect, so don't accept them as accurate; many were gleaned from Hope Edson's newspaper column about Acre City happenings. I cross-checked many names in census records and other official documents, but interestingly, found very few of the people below were designated as black in those records.

Bates: Little Gordon Bates was ill as of January, 1916, but improving.
Carr: Owned a pear tree orchard
Nellie Cassity: Lived in Colorado, but attended school in Acre City.
Couthen (lived on the Dr. Bond property until moving to an orange grove north of the Desert Inn).
Donaway: Mrs. Donaway lived in Acre City until moving to Phoenix.
Hope Towar Edson: Born in 1901 in Iowa, daughter of P. J. Edson
Gareison / Garelson: "A resident of Acre City for some time" moved to Phoenix in September, 1915, to open a business there.
Emmanuel Gormezis: In 1916, erected a large chicken yard on the Jack verner property just west of Belle Grissinger's house.
Cathuleen Kendall lived in Acre City until September, 1915, when she left for Tempe to attend the Tempe Normal School (now ASU).
Lasem: lived in Acre City in October, 1915.
Lasuer: Mr. Lasuer worked at a quarry near Tempe.
McNeff: owned the property north of the F. R. Toward place on Genevie Court.
Pare: Mrs. Pare was ill in January of 1916 and was attended by Dr. Dameron.
Robert Parscal: The Parscal family owned a ranch and alfalfa fields in Tucson. Robert Parscal was a resident of Acre City in January, 1916 and, at the time, suffered a serious illness.
Ella Stevenson bought one acre in Acre City.
Mr. and Mrs. R. A. Waschan had the twins, Milton and Marie.
Robert Willabos

Residents of Genevra Court (Del Rey Precinct) as of 1930:

Charles and Thelma Norton (white)
Charles M. and Ethel M. Norton (white)
Mary Fraley (white)
Thomas and Frances Brown (white)
Bradbury Thomson (white) 
Silvio Sinforiani (white, Italian immigrant)
Matthew Mitchell (black - listed as "Negro" in census records)

In 1930, the Shelton family lived at 305 Orange Road, one of the north / south streets in Acre City / Portland Tract.

Credit for the inspiration for this content goes to Twitter friend @UncleTom2019, with my thanks for introducing me to such an interesting and little-known piece of Arizona history.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Marcy J. Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are appreciated * Thank you for stopping by!

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