Photo courtesy of City of Eloy
by Blake Herzog
Eloy started as a tiny settlement in 1902 after a siding along the Southern Pacific Railroad near Picacho Peak was emblazoned with the acronym for “East Line of Yuma,” as that stretch of track was known.
It already was becoming known for its potential as a cotton-growing hub.
About 5 miles to the northwest, the community of Toltec, which shared a name with a pre-Aztec Mexican civilization, grew from a school district formed in 1913 to serve children from cotton farms to the south and west of Eloy.
Thirteen years later the district obtained its first school site, nearly 2 acres just off the intersection of state Route 84 (now Frontier Street) and Toltec Road. It was donated by Frank W. Shedd & Co., founded by a family that continues to farm in Eloy and the vicinity today.
They and other Toltec-area growers including the Isoms, Alsdorfs, Pretzers and others offered housing to attract the best field workers, which were a diverse crew including Latinos, Blacks and members of the Tohono O’Odham tribe.
Two wooden classroom buildings were built on the site at 3725 N. Camelot St. in 1928 to educate first-through-eighth graders until a larger mission-style building was completed. The first and second grades remained in one of the original buildings, while the other served as the “colored” school for nonwhite students until school segregation ended in Arizona in 1951. It was later used by the school district for bus maintenance and storage.
Enrollment would fluctuate wildly, with first-through-fourth grades often swinging from 10 to 15 students per grade up to 50 or more during the fall and winter cotton harvest. Fifth-through-eighth grades saw a smaller jump, as many of those kids were kept home to watch their siblings or brought to work in the fields alongside their parents.
The last eighth graders graduated from the mission-style building in 1956 as the school transitioned to a larger campus a few blocks to the south. It was used by the Eloy stake of the LDS Church until the district brought first and second graders back from 1966-76.
The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office then put a substation in the building, complete with jail cell, until 1984. It fell into disrepair over the next 20 years as the school district used it for storage.
The campus, including the main building and the former colored school, took on new life after the Sunland Visitor Center, a joint venture of the Eloy and Arizona City chambers of commerce, signed a long-term lease with the district for it in 2003. The Santa Cruz Valley Historical Society was formed to oversee its restoration.
It finally opened to the public as a visitor center and historical museum in February 2020, and it is open during the winter 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.