The past is the present for future generations who do not know their history

Ointment of Love…

Tuscon Arizona Sunset

Tuscon Arizona Sunset

Oliver E. Comstock and Tucson‘s Tent City by Dick Hall

Reprinted here from The Journal of Arizona History, Volume 19, Number 2, Summer 1978 

IN THE SPRING OF 1909 my mother Lucy and her children John and Richard (myself) left St. Louis for Tucson. The doctor had ordered her to go to a dry climate or face certain death in a few months from tuberculosis. My father came with us but stayed only a few days. He felt he had to get back to his job with the hardware firm he had been with for years. He came to visit us a few times but never lived with us. For him the desert around Tucson was like a foreign country and he could not identify with it. Besides, he had to support his family. He was a valued employee and his place with the firm was secure, so he kept his job in St. Louis till the day of his death. Mother accepted this separation as inevitable, but it made her very sad at heart.

John, then about twenty-five years old, acted as head of the family. He found us a tent-house on Park Avenue some three blocks north of Speedway. This was one of several rentals owned by a family who lived at Park and Lester, a few blocks north of us. It was one of the better sort, having a wood floor, wooden sides, a steel roof three feet above the canvas and two cottonwood trees which gave us some shade. The interior, about thirty feet long, was divided into a bedroom for Mother and a kitchen-bedroom-living room for the rest of us. Thirty-five feet to the rear was a one-hole toilet. An outside faucet supplied water from a shallow well owned by the people from whom we rented the tent. The water was very alkaline so John bought a copper still for improving it. Drops of pure water came out of the coil into a bucket. The neighbors facetiously accused John of running his still for the manufacture of whiskey.

Tent City, or Tentville as it was called, extended about three-quarters of a mile north of Speedway between North First Avenue on the west and Campbell on the east. These boundaries, however, were not too strictly defined since growth was a haphazard affair. When a sick person needed a place to live, beginning about the turn of the century, he somehow got a tent set up in this general area. The streets were unpaved and consequently it was very dusty. There were no street lights. An outside toilet served behind each tent. It was “a place of squalor shunned by most citizens.”

I have no way of estimating how many tents there were or how many invalids lived in them, but there must have been several hundred, and smaller colonies existed in other parts of the community. They were dreary places. The desert with so little vegetation seemed forlorn in contrast with the green fields and tall trees of Kansas or Iowa. The invalids

One of the better tent city homes for those with tuberculosis

One of the better tent city homes for those with tuberculosis

were too sick to work. The nights were heartbreaking, and as one walked along the dark streets, he heard coughing from every tent. It was truly a place of lost souls and lingering death. Sometimes life was too much to bear and a victim would end it. He was soon replaced, however, by others who hoped for a cure in the dry air and bright sunshine of Arizona. It was a desperate and sometimes a heroic gamble which many lost and few won.

There were better facilities for people with money. St. Mary’s hospital had been receiving TB patients since 1880. The Whitwell Hospital on North First Avenue (later known as the Southern Methodist Hospital and Sanatorium) was opened in 1906 and there were a few smaller enterprises. Later, more and better facilities were built, but most of the “lungers” in the early days were poor and some of them were destitute.

Isolation was one bad feature of  Tent City. It was nearly three miles from downtown. The closest ride was the streetcar which stopped at Park and Third Street–a good mile from Adams and North First and the only way to get there was on foot. A mile was a long way when one walked with only one lung.  

Another bad feature of the situation was the way most healthy people felt about the disease. They were terribly afraid of it and of the sick men and women–justifiably so since the death rate was very high. They were seriously advised to stay at least three or four feet from a tubercular individual and avoid any personal contact. This was a sad thing for my mother. She never dared hug or kiss any of us. When I was seven or eight, I would sit at the foot of her bed and read aloud but never came any closer. She probably suffered heartache since she did not dare kiss me. In her mind it would have been tragic madness to do so. This taboo had a queer effect on me. I don’t remember kissing a girl until I was at least twenty years old. Kissing was just not a part of my life.

The situation was not all bad. On the good side, there were always people who cared. Foremost among them was the Reverend Oliver E. Comstock, who came to Tucson in 1907 from Alabama when one of his daughters contracted the disease. In the course of the following year his oldest son died of appendicitis. Comstock took the boy’s body back home for burial, sold out his printing business and returned to Tucson in the summer of 1909 to take up permanent residence. With his son’s life-insurance money he built a home at 727 North Second Avenue and went on to become a Tucson legend.

At the time of his arrival he was fifty-three years old with an interesting career behind him. He complained of growing up under adverse conditions but his father was, in fact, a well-to-do manufacturer of pianos and melodeons at New Albany, Indiana. Oliver, however, became an earnest Baptist and preferred theology to trade. After a public-school education he enrolled in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Louisville, Kentucky. He took time out from his studies to marry Jennie F. McClelland, who became the mother of his ten children, but he completed his course and in 1887 was licensed to preach. His first post was with the Second Baptist Church of Louisville, but for reasons of his own he left the active ministry very soon and went into business as a printer, carrying on “missionary” work at the same time. He spent several years as editor and publisher of the Sheffield Reaper at Sheffield, Alabama, but never forgot that printing was his trade. He was a member of the Typographer’s Union and carried his card till the end of his life.

Eventually he sold his business and was elected city clerk of Sheffield, holding the position until he moved to Tucson.

He meant to start a printing business there and listed himself as a printer in the 1910-11 Tucson city directory with only his home address, 727 North Second Avenue. By 1912, however, the Smith-Comstock Printing Company was in existence at 216 East Congress, prepared to do all kinds of typographical jobs. The business provided him with the wherewithal to do the work which he undoubtedly felt the Lord had laid upon him. He made a little extra by serving as justice of the peace from 1912 to 1914, and it pleased him for the rest of his life to be called Judge. He was also at one time a member of the city council.

His personality was striking but by no means simple. Humble and charitable as he was, he was not without personal pride. His daughter remembers that he had “a magnificent bass voice–in fact, almost a limitless baritone, and should have been in grand opera with all the adulation from male and female that such a profession brings.”  The mutton-chop whiskers which he wore when the majority of Tucson men were clean shaven was a trademark which marked him as an uncommon man and told the world that his baldness did not mean hairlessness. He always wore a coat and tie and appeared to his last day in a celluloid collar. Even the bicycle which he rode all over Tucson was a sort of demonstration of his affinity with the common man. He owned a car, when cars became available, but preferred to pedal his two-wheeled vehicle.

For his time he was an intellectual. Behind his house was a small building which housed his library–an unusually large collection for Tucson in those days–in which he read constantly. His reading never shook his basic conservatism, however. He was a rigid Baptist and an unyielding moralist who never compromised with what he considered sinful. Alcohol and dancing were works of the devil. Personal adornment was a vanity. And so powerful was his influence In his own family that his taboos were influential in the second and third generation.

His wife shared his convictions and had strong ideas of her own. She was a devoted mother and not one to “dawdle her days away.” Her daughter says she “served to the death. Mute, exhausted,” as so many women did in those long-gone days.


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One response

  1. Joni Crowell Collopy

    I live in Tucson, Arizona and found this article interesting. If I am correct, the home on 727 N. 2nd Avenue (we do not spell out 2nd but use the numeral) and the building used as the library are still standing and the home, at least, looks good. I would have to go down the alley to see the other buildings and I think the alley is a part of the private property, so I won’t be doing that. The home was built in 1909 with two other buildings (described as duplexes now) built in about 1912 or so. One of the current duplexes was probably the library.

    The area of the tent is marginally better than when it was a tent city. It is spotty but nicer homes are occasionally found.

    March 7, 2011 at 6:41 pm

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