Grand Growth: The man whose vision built our city
Interview by Brett Eisele – Winter 2017
In the late 1950s, Casa Grande’s population was less than 10,000 and the northern boundary was somewhere near Cottonwood Lane. Beyond that, everything was raw desert. Around this time, a young man who worked for Garrett AiResearch in Phoenix had heard that buying land in Casa Grande might turn out to be a pretty good investment. So, as a result, that young man purchased 160 acres at what is now the northeast corner of Trekell and Rodeo roads. The rest, as they say, is history. That young man was Harlyn L. Griffiths, who developed his acreage into Rancho Grande under the name Mi Casa Builders. From the start of his company until 2005, Harlyn was instrumental in the growth of our city. One example of his many success stories was in the 1960s when he and a group of fellow businessmen decided the industrial base of the city needed to grow. So the group hit the streets and sold shares in what is now the Valley Industrial Park. Their first big buyer was the Hexel Corporation, which is still there and continues to be a major employer in Casa Grande. Later, Harlyn formed Griffiths Construction, which launched him into the commercial and industrial sides of development. The corporation’s first big job was the Wells Fargo (then 1st National Bank) building on Florence Boulevard. Of course, behind every good man is a good woman. And in Harlyn’s case, it was wife Dorothy, who was a community leader in her own right – but that’s another story for later. This edition’s interview is a great look into the history of the development of our fair city, and even you old timers might learn something… I sure did.
– Brett Eisele, December 2016
GC Living: Harlyn, you came to Arizona originally to work at Garrett AiResearch at the airport, is that correct?
Harlyn Griffiths: That’s where I started, yes.
GC Living: And then, what brought you to Arizona?
Harlyn Griffiths: Weather and the beauty of it. We used the reason that my wife had asthma and I got a leave of absence from the job that I had back there and so when we moved here, I got a nice six-month leave of absence from there and just never went back.
GC Living: What did you do at Garrett AiResearch?
Harlyn Griffiths: Several things. I started out in quality control in the shop and then I went from quality control in the shop to quality control in the lab, where they tested the gas turbines and pneumatic controls and all that kind of stuff.
GC Living: It sounds like you had a good steady job.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. I was working six and seven days a week and double time on Sunday.
GC Living: And what in the world made you change your mind and pack up your bags and go to Casa Grande, and get in the construction business?
Harlyn Griffiths: Well, I had started by purchasing land. I was at AiResearch for 11 years and then I ended up going into sales and I was responsible for military support on all the AiResearch equipment. Pneumatic controls, gas turbines and so forth and I ran that area of the sales department for approximately eight years.
GC Living: So you were on the road. Is that how you found out about Casa Grande?
Harlyn Griffiths: That isn’t how I got to Casa Grande. No, we had purchased some land in Casa Grande while I was at AiResearch.
GC Living: Where was that land?
Harlyn Griffiths: Rancho Grande.
GC Living: Do you know what you paid for it?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, $50 an acre.
GC Living: And how many acres?
Harlyn Griffiths: 160
GC Living: So you had a quarter section of land, basically out in the middle of nowhere?
Harlyn Griffiths: Right.
GC Living: Where did it go from there to get you in the construction business?
Harlyn Griffiths: I had a partner there, a minor partner that started and he helped me lots. I started Mi Casa Builders in 1960 and I moved to Casa Grande in 1963. But that was not the first property I purchased in Arizona. I had purchased a residential lot way out in the country for 625 dollars. We were at 42nd Street and Glenrosa, between Indian School and Camelback roads.
GC Living: That was out in the middle of nowhere.
Harlyn Griffiths: It was, but I also purchased, I think it was in ’54…80 acres west of Phoenix at White Tank Mountains.
GC Living: Don’t you wish you still had that?
Harlyn Griffiths: No, because I did alright. The interstate took 47 of those acres and so they paid me something over $1,000 dollars an acre, and I paid $30. I still had a balance, and the last portion of that I sold for, I think it was, $18,000 an acre.
GC Living: That’s a good return.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, good return.
GC Living: Well before you formed Mi Casa Builders, you actually had to get contractor’s license right?
Harlyn Griffiths: No. We had to have qualified parties, somebody with a license and I didn’t have one, but my superintendent had a license. That was Dan Smith. In those days, they didn’t have school for a contractor’s license, like they do now. So, you had to know what you were doing and I took my residential license test and passed it the first time. About six months later, I realized I needed the commercial and I had to go back to get another test and I passed that. I still have both my residential and commercial license.
GC Living: So, this was good because you did a lot of commercial work in Casa Grande?
Harlyn Griffiths: I did a lot elsewhere too, but the biggest job that I had was roughly a 200,000 square-foot corporate headquarters for the City of Scottsdale. And then the second biggest job was a 125-cell detention center – five stories, plus 80,000 square feet of building in Yuma.
GC Living: Now let’s back all the way back up to Rancho Grande. That subdivision was in the middle of nowhere – that’s way out on the north of Trekell Road, which I’m assuming was a dirt road
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes.
GC Living: How did that come about? You had to have sewer and you had to have water. What did you do?
Harlyn Griffiths: We had to bring the water from Cottonwood Lane out there with the Arizona Water Company and the sewers were septic systems.
GC Living: When did Mi Casa Builders sell its first house?
Harlyn Griffiths: I’m not absolutely sure, but I’m guessing it would have been maybe 1959.
GC Living: So whoever bought that was living in the country? What was the price range?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. (Laughs) The price range would be, in those days, a three-bedroom, one- bath house was $10,800. A three-bedroom and two-bath and a family room was maybe $12,500.
GC Living: Did sales boom at the beginning or was it slow? How did it work?
Harlyn Griffiths: It was more than slow. (Laughs) It was, I think, the first year that I was here, we sold 18 houses.
GC Living: Wow, well that is a lot for Casa Grande. What was the population?
Harlyn Griffiths: About 7,500 plus or minus.
GC Living: So that was kind of a lot. Who was your competition?
Harlyn Griffiths: Jack Johnson.
GC Living: Jack Johnson, business relations, and he did commercial work as well?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yeah, some. I don’t think he ever left the [Casa Grande] valley.
GC Living: All right now, when you moved to town and were establishing yourself, how old were you?
Harlyn Griffiths: When I moved to Casa Grande, I would have been 32.
GC Living: At the same time were you getting involved in the community?
Harlyn Griffiths: Very much so, yes…Chamber of Commerce, Knights of Columbus, industrial development, City Council.
GC Living: You ran for City Council?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, I was on City Council ‘67 through ’71, I guess it was.
GC Living: And how long did it take you to build out phase one and phase two of Rancho Grande?
Harlyn Griffiths: Phase one was about 18 months, and then I went to phase two and I forget how many lots were in phase two…somewhere in the neighborhood of 40. If you go through this, you’ll see where phase three started, but I don’t remember what year I actually started phase two.
GC Living: But then you were rolling. I mean the houses were selling.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, and then about that same time I developed Mi Casa Estates I purchased the land along McMurray east of Center, and developed Mi Casa Estates. I developed 17 lots. The typical lot there was roughly 15 to 18 thousand square feet, so they were pretty good-sized lots.
GC Living: Once you were established, what was your first commercial job?
Harlyn Griffiths: My first commercial job was Armored Radio Communications. It was right next door to the south of Casa Grande Animal Clinic. My next job was an office building on Florence Boulevard for a title company next to Dr. Hoeffert’s office.
GC Living: So that was your second job and by then you were rolling. Tell me who the other guys were. There’s a few of you that helped make this city grow. Who were they?
Harlyn Griffiths: Well, Tom Irwin was one big one. Nate Coxon was by far one of the most important ones, because he was everything that there is in the city. I thought it was Mayberry because nearly every department he was responsible for. Also, there was Bruce Cosseboom (the manager of First National Bank) and people like that.
GC Living: Okay. So, this was the early days and had Lamar and Irwin become partners yet?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes.
GC Living: Okay. So it was Irwin and Lamar. Was Don Johnson here yet?
Harlyn Griffiths: Don was here but he was not active in the chamber and that kind of stuff. I believe he had the Ford Agency.
GC Living: OK. Who was the city manager?
Harlyn Griffiths: Dave Kincannon. I think it was ’67 when he became city manager. He was doing county work at the time and then when they let the city manager go, he became Casa Grande city manager.
GC Living: Was Hugh Guinn involved at all in economic development?
Harlyn Griffiths: Not yet. Not until after he became Mayor.
GC Living: So, you were kind of on the ground floor?
Harlyn Griffiths: Absolutely.
GC Living: Where did you bank in those days? Just out of curiosity.
Harlyn Griffiths: Well, I started out with Valley Bank, then they could not do what I needed, so Bruce Cosseboom approached me and said, “I would like to have your business.” And then First Federal approached me also.
GC Living: Now, your lumber packages. You used to buy those… who did you get those from?
Harlyn Griffiths: Quentin Coxon. We would buy by the carload for some of our bigger jobs.
GC Living: So, when you say “carloads,” the railroad would pull into town, drop off a car on the side and that’s all your lumber?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yeah.
GC Living: How many employees did you have?
Harlyn Griffiths: I would say, typically, 20.
GC Living: So, you had these guys going nuts.
Harlyn Griffiths: I had my own framing crew. In fact, I had two that consisted of four or five guys. We did most of our own concrete at first and our painting. We had our own painting, concrete, framing and finish carpentry crews. GC Living: When you say concrete, in those days there was Tanner and there was Pinal Materials, who were you buying your concrete from?
Harlyn Griffiths: I was buying it from Ben Zink.
GC Living: Wow. And Tanner was Jack Rowe. See, we remember some things. (Laughs)
Harlyn Griffiths: There’s too damn many names. (Laughs) There was another man that took Jack Rowe’s place. He was Mayor for a term.
GC Living: So, when did you feel you were at your peak in Casa Grande with, with commercial development?
Harlyn Griffiths: I would say starting in about 1969 through the ‘80s.
GC Living: Rancho Grande was really outside of town. Did you have it incorporated in the city limits?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. The city approached us and Nate Coxon was the primary one to have it become part of the city.
GC Living: So, how did you work the deal to run the sewer that far? Because that was a long haul.
Harlyn Griffiths: Well, I think the city did.
GC Living: So, they cut a deal with you to bring you in the city limits and they would help you with the sewer? Because that had to be two, three or four miles?
Harlyn Griffiths: Three.
GC Living: Then it had to be merged?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yeah. I have a feeling it might have topped out at Cottonwood.
GC Living: That was a long run. So, that kind of changed everything, didn’t it? Did you see the writing on the wall and start buying other property along the sewer line?
Harlyn Griffiths: I purchased 40 acres at the corner of Kortsen and Trekell, where Tierra Palmas is.
GC Living: And that was, eventually was when it became Tierra Palmas.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes.
GC Living: When did you develop that?
Harlyn Griffiths: In the early ’80s.
GC Living: And whose concept was that?
Harlyn Griffiths: Mine. Single families, condos and the commercial corner, which is still vacant. Then I built those five offices where the realty is. I owned all five of those buildings at one time.
GC Living: And I was interested because one of those eventually was occupied by Discovery Builders.
Harlyn Griffiths: Well, no, they built that after the fact. It was a piece of property that was ours and there’s still a vacant piece of property just north of the northwest building that I had set up to build apartments on, but I sold the property and people never put apartments on it.
GC Living: But didn’t you turn your condominiums into apartments eventually?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes.
GC Living: That worked out well?
Harlyn Griffiths: It worked out well. That was during the crunch.
GC Living: Those were rough times.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yeah. ’87, I think it was.
GC Living: One of the businesses that was built there was Southwest Eye Care which is now our Coldwell Banker office.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yeah. I had all five of those. That building was the first one that I opened. That was part of the behavioral health.
GC Living: Did you own that building? Or sell it to them?
Harlyn Griffiths: It was a lease purchase.
GC Living: So by then you were established. You’ve got Rancho Grande, the Mi Casa Estates and you’ve built some commercial buildings in town. When did you start branching out and going to Scottsdale and other cities?
Harlyn Griffiths: I would guess it was in the late ’70s. For example, I built the vocational education building for the City of Mesa which was a…30,000 square-foot facility then remodeled the Valley Bank in Mesa. And I built two schools at Havasu City and built the Casa Grande City Library. Those are some of the things that I built around 1975.
GC Living: Was the architect Bud Johns?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes.
GC Living: Did you build City Hall as well?
Harlyn Griffiths: I did not build City Hall, but I built First National Bank, Arizona Bank and Southwest Gas complex.
GC Living: Now that’s all owned by the Don Kramer family now? But that’s where Arizona Bank was and that’s on Florence Boulevard and Sacaton. You built that?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yeah. I’m the one that built that. I negotiated that with Southwest Gas, that whole complex. I built their building, Arizona Bank, and then about a 10,000 square-foot spec building.
GC Living: Now before that, it was Central School. Did you have to tear down the school?
Harlyn Griffiths: No. The school was already gone. Then I built Sun State Bank. [Editors Note: Originally called The Bank of Casa Grande]
GC Living: So, you guys had a very positive impact on this community?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, we did. I was one of the first eight or nine investors in The Bank of Casa Grande at that time. Also we were the project coordinator on the hospital. I designed and built the two office buildings in front of the hospital.
GC Living: And now that’s now Banner out on East Florence Boulevard.
GC Living: So, what you would consider your first really big job? I mean the one where you felt you had arrived.
Harlyn Griffiths: I would say the First National Bank,That was in 1972.
GC Living: And that’s still there. It’s in the Casa Grande Mall. Now it’s Wells Fargo.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. When, the new hospital was built, I did a new expansion on the old medical office building, which is now Central Arizona College.
GC Living: That would be the southwest corner of Trekell on Florence Boulevard. Tom Cole was in there with his partner Bill O’Neil. [Editors Note: Now the Hon. William J. O’Neil] There was a MD Pharmacy on the corner.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. And, of course, Dr. Ford.
GC Living: Was Dr. O’Neill in there as well?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. I can remember going in there with a sore throat or a cold, and I go to Dr. O’Neil’s office and we talked about everything except my problem. Finally I’d say, “What am I gonna do about my cold?” (Laughs) But he was a great guy.
GC Living: He was a great guy. But just for sake of location, across from which used to be Albertsons and is now CAL Ranch.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yeah. Another one of my first big buildings was Fry’s Food Store – the first one. It became Office Max and is now Mor Furniture.
GC Living: The Great Western is in the corner. Was that your building, or did you sell the land and build the building for them?
Harlyn Griffiths: I just had a contract to build the building for a price.
GC Living: What about further down as the building continues. I know there were individual lots within the development. Did you build any of those as well?
Harlyn Griffiths: No. Whenever we were doing commercial buildings, we were competing with others. This is before cell phones and everything else. So, if we had a job, like this Mesa job, we were the last ones to get the price of supplies because we were in Casa Grande. Somebody would have to go to wherever the bid opening was going to be, get an open line, hang on to that open line. And sometimes two minutes before bid opening, we’d get prices and put the bid together. It was tough.
GC Living: When did you build the project for City of Scottsdale.
Harlyn Griffiths: City of Scottsdale. It would have been in ‘86, ‘87, ‘88. I did quite a lot of construction out in the Sells area too…medical facilities, office spaces and stuff like that.
GC Living: Did you have a supervisor who would go oversee these jobs on a daily basis?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yeah, I called him an old salty dog contractor – somebody that had done everything. And he was really good. In those days, we didn’t have computers, so this guy would get the plans…he’d do all the takeoff, the lumber takeoff and he’d get all the other things and he would select a sub-contractor…like electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and that. He would say, “Look at it. Give me a number that you can live with,” but actually did it the day of the bidding. But he had the breakdown completely filled in before the prices ever started coming in. He would do it all by hand. And he would work weekends. He was just terrific. He would find superintendents that would be on the job and then he would go up there occasionally to check things out.
GC Living: So, what part did your wife Dorothy play in all this?
Harlyn Griffiths: Dorothy was our interior decorator. She worked with the subcontractors on paint colors, flooring and all that good stuff. But she also was very involved in the community, maybe more than any of us. She was in Cotton Wives and was president of that. She was in the hospital auxiliary. She was in a sorority. Dorothy was extremely involved in the housing. When I quit housing, I said to her that I should have turned it over to her and let her run it, because she loved housing and I hated it.
GC Living: Well, at the same time, you had what, four girls and one boy?
Harlyn Griffiths: Three girls and one boy.
GC Living: Three girls and one boy. And she was running the household at the same time?
Harlyn Griffiths: Oh yeah. She was busy, she was a busy girl. And she was very good. She was just a very pleasant person to work with.
GC Living: Your right hand?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. Early on, she and another lady would do our construction cleaning…the house, windows, stuff like that.
GC Living: You mean the final cleaning?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes.
GC Living: Holy cow. That’s a horrible job. You paid her well, I hope.
Harlyn Griffiths: Oh absolutely. Three meals, and housing.
GC Living: Yeah. (Laughs)
GC Living: Tell us about Dorothy.
Harlyn Griffiths: Dorothy is from an alcoholic family. Her mother was divorced when she was about 12. Dorothy basically put herself through high school. She was head cheerleader and majorette and she had her own radio program, when she was in high school. She was very active.
GC Living: And you guys met in high school?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, I’ll always say I went to a reform school and she went to Hopkins High School. I went to Eden Prairie, which is now the largest school in the state of Minnesota. My class had 15 kids.I had my girls fooled for a long time because I tricked them. They’d come home with reasonable grades and I’d say, “You know you could do better than that. I was seventh in my class.” (Laughs)
GC Living: So, back to your work. You were really rolling in the ’70s. What made you bid on the subdivision for Magna Copper up in Superior?
Harlyn Griffiths: I didn’t have to bid on it. I just gave them a price. And they accepted it and off we went. Hey, I’m not even going to tell you who got it for me. (Laughs) It was not a big job, seven or eight homes that were semi-custom homes that were approximately 2,000 to 2,800 square-foot homes for their supervisors. That was in 1970, ’71.I also did the remodel on the president’s old house at the same time.
GC Living: So it was a fat bid?
Harlyn Griffiths: Not necessarily fat, but it was a good one. At the same time I was building the service station for Russell out at Tabletop and the KOA plus homes in the Casa Grande area.
GC Living: That’s where the Pullman Hotel is.
Harlyn Griffiths: So I had Casa Grande going. I had Superior going. I had the Gila River Center going…they call them community facilities out on the reservation. This is before cell phones and I was wearing my wheels off just trying to get around to those jobs, and I didn’t have my superintendent at that time. It was Bill Simmons, our designer and part-time superintendent.
GC Living: So you were doing all this on your own. Today you’re in very good physical condition. Were you taking care of yourself when you were doing all that?
Harlyn Griffiths: Pretty much.
GC Living: Wow. So, you took Mi Casa Builders to a certain point, and then what did you do? Did you sell it?
Harlyn Griffiths: I sold Mi Casa Builders and they immediately went broke in the first fifteen months.
GC Living: They went broke. But right after you sold Mi Casa Builders, you started …
Harlyn Griffiths: Griffiths Construction had already been started, because it was said, “You know, you can’t be doing this kind of commercial stuff under the name Mi Casa Builders.”
GC Living: So at this point, were you just all commercial?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. I built apartments, for example the Hacienda Apartments on Cottonwood.
GC Living: Was there more money in commercial than in residential, as far as profit margins?
Harlyn Griffiths: No. The best business I had was when I would build to suit. That’s the best building. For example, the Arizona Foundation for the Handicapped – those two buildings down on Main Street and First Ave.
GC Living: Tell me about that. What was there and how did you go about doing that?
Harlyn Griffiths: I don’t remember…I would imagine it was Nate Coxon that told me about those lots with the old building, the old bar, the old hotel, etc.They were 25-foot lots, so I think I purchased somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 lots. And then the first building I built was the 10,000 square-foot building.I had to tear all that stuff down.I think I told you yesterday I can remember having a tractor inside one of the buildings, and the building had the metal ceilings. We just crumpled it up and took it out to the dump. (Laughs)
GC Living: And it was probably copper.
Harlyn Griffiths: Probably copper, yes. This is kind of a side bit. The guy that was running the tractor inside the building, trying to knock the walls down and so forth, he was my nephew and he came home and said, “I was in that building all day with that tractor going, and there was a drunk sleeping right next to where I was working.” (Laughs)
GC Living: So, needless to say, OSHA was not in check in those days.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yeah.
GC Living: So what are your greatest memories? You had to have a lot of fun over the years.
Harlyn Griffiths: Oh yes, we did. I had some of the best mentors anybody could ever pick, like Nate Coxon, Hugh Guinn, Monsignor Ross. You know, I could visit with Monsignor Ross and I don’t know what he’d do, but he’d bless me anyway. (Laughs) Before I even moved here, I had a great mentor at AiResearch. This guy’s name is Bill Orr, and Bill Orr was a couple notches ahead of me in sales, and he ended up being the president and the chief operator for all of AiResearch which is now Honeywell.
GC Living: So, you mentioned that Dorothy ran the Cotton Wives and a member of the hospital auxiliary. That had to be a lot of fun for you at Christmastime and in the spring, when they would hold their annual galas.
Harlyn Griffiths: Oh, it was. It was a lot of parties, a lot of fun. I think one of the neatest things was – I don’t remember whether it was Cotton Wives or what it was – but Dave Kincannon was managing Francisco Grande, and Dorothy and Dave got along well. We would reserve a penthouse for a party. Well, hell, one year we waited too long, and there wasn’t one available, so Dorothy calls Dave and says, “Dave, you got a pretty good-sized lobby here, right down in the hotel. Can we have our Christmas party there?” (Laughs) He’s just thinking, “Are you crazy?”
GC Living: So they shut off the lobby and that was the place everybody came.
Harlyn Griffiths: Sure. I mean the guys that had the parties upstairs…I can remember one guy. He was from Coolidge. He came down and he said, “Nobody’s coming to our party, so we’re coming to yours.” (Laughs) Also in the Francisco Grande, we did the remodeling, redecorating of the dining room and remodeled the kitchen and Dorothy was the one that did the selection of colors etc. Mi Casa Builders actually built Duke’s Bar.
GC Living: God, that’s a lot of history.
Harlyn Griffiths: I also built two houses for Red River Land, for Louis JohnsonActually I built three houses. I built one 5,000-square-foot house for Louis’ daughter and then I did a major remodel on Louis’ house. That’s where I met John Wayne, in fact. I knew John was going to be there, It was around Thanksgiving time and they always had their bull sale that time of year.I knew that the Duke would be there around noon for lunch. Our daughter Linda was home from college and Dorothywas home. I said, ” let’s go check the Johnson job,” and sure enough, he comes in, and he sits and talks with my daughter Linda and Dorothy.
GC Living (Bea) So tell me about how you were on the Industrial Development Authority? You were a very powerful group, but there was no government involved at the time.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. APS has always been very involved in it.
GC Living: Well tell me about that, because what prompted it? Was that after the mine closed?
Harlyn Griffiths: I don’t recall whether it was or not, but it was almost like a continuation because each chamber had an industrial development entity.
GC Living: You all were a very influential group. You went out and got Hexcel, and later on you went out and you got Abbott Labs and Frito Lay. What prompted you guys to form that? If I’m not mistaken it’s when the mine closed and really devastated this community.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes it did. I don’t think I can recall exactly how it started. But I’ll go back to when Hexcel came here. I was already involved in the industrial development authority. In fact, Nate and I were partners In selling shares to purchase the land for the industrial park.
GC Living: That’s right. Now I remember Hugh Guinn telling me about how they would go out and sell shares to the Valley Industrial Park.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes we did.
GC Living: How in the world did you land Hexcel?
Harlyn Griffiths: There’s a really a good story there. The chairman of the board of Hexcel was very much of a people- person and he actually got involved here. I forget who would be, [EDITORS NOTE: William S. Powell] our main contact but, he came down here and one of the things he wanted to do was go through the high school.
GC Living: And this is when the high school was what is now City Hall?
Harlyn Griffiths: The old high school. In fact Bob Brutinel’s son was a senior in high school. He was president of the class. So anyway, the school superintendent asked, “Are you wanting to meet with one of the faculty or one of the students?” He said, “student.” So Mark Brutinel was the one that took him around. And during this tour, Powell asked Mark where he was going to go to school. And I forget where he had been accepted, but he said, “I really wanted to go to Stanford” and he said, “Oh? I happen to be chairman of the alumni association.” He went to Stanford. You know where Mark is now? He’s head of the Pulmonary Department for Mayo Clinic at Rochester.
GC Living: You’re kidding me. Wow. And his uncle is on the Supreme Court.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes,Bob is still working every day.
GC Living: So, how did you go talk to these guys? Did you write them a letter?
Harlyn Griffiths: I did not, but I would say that most likely the city manager maybe, I’m not sure. APS was always involved. The chamber would definitely be involved with this kind of a thing, but you know, we purchased 160 acres where that industrial park is. I was involved in that. In the first year I was vice president. The second year I was president, which is when streets and water lines, and all that kind of stuff was developed.
GC Living: Because that was a major coup to bring that company into town. Because in thick and thin, all these years, they closed other plants but they’ve always kept Casa Grande open.
Harlyn Griffiths: YesCasa Grande was a very comfortable, down-to-earth kind of community. You know, there were a lot of hard workers there. They build a lot of businesses for people. But it paid off. I mean, my God, you know, we got people involved like Bud Johns. I think I’ve bid every job that he designed over a period of 10 years. I may not have gotten them all, but I got quite a few of them. And what we would do with him is we’d call Bud, and we say, “Bud, we could save the school a fair amount of money if you make these changes.” He’d say, “bid it per the design, but give me a list of the items to be changed.” We got more of the jobs that way.
GC Living: So, you’re likely to see that in this community, most every major project from the ‘70s through part of the ‘90s has got your fingerprint on it. What in the world prompted you to start buying properties man?
Harlyn Griffiths: When I was in high school, I thought I was going to be a farmer.
GC Living: It had nothing to do with profits; you just wanted to be a farmer?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, but no, I was not a gentleman farmer. I was a poor boy – really poor as hell, from a family of eight kids that were raised in The Great Depression.
GC Living: Did you ever go out though and kick dirt from your farms? Did you ever go out and get on a tractor?
Harlyn Griffiths: No, I didn’t do that, but I did build all the irrigation ditches, wells and that kind of stuff over the years we owned five farms.
GC Living: Well , if you were out on east Kortsen you were by Ben Zinks right, because you had a farm out there as well?
Harlyn Griffiths: He didn’t at that time. I bought in ’72.Bobby Burns sold it in ’77. He also sold the Early Ranch, which we owned, to Howard Wuertz, I believe in 1978.
GC Living: And he was Howard Wuertz’s protégé wasn’t he? Didn’t Howard have a lot to do with Bobby Burns becoming as successful as he was?
Harlyn Griffiths: I would imagine. Well, hell, in those two farm sales he made approximately $225,000 in the commission.
GC Living: That was a lot of money in those days
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. He was driving a Lincoln and then he sold the farms out there and he got himself a Mercedes sports car. One day he comes around and doesn’t have his Mercedes. I said, “Where’s your car?” And he said, “We were shooting rabbits out in the fields,” and got stuck in the mud. (Laughs)
GC Living: Is there anything in your mind that really affected you or changed the course of your life in the period of time that you were in the Casa Grande Valley that really stands out? You were really a self-made man and you and Dorothy had built an empire in this community. I’m just wondering if there is anything that changed the course of your life.
Harlyn Griffiths: No. Apparently I was just aggressive. For example, in ‘74 I bought some mountain land – 710 acres,which is know asSignal Peak/Las Montanas.
GC Living: But you put that in your retirement plan.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes.
GC Living: I mean you thought of your employees.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes.
GC Living: And the first part of it is now Las Montanas.
Harlyn Griffiths: And I still have 350 acres there, actually. I have the real expensive stuff left.
GC Living: So you learned real quick that real estate is worth money?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. Well, I had 190 acres out there at a Jimmy Kerr & I-10 and sold it to Trammell Crow.
GC Living: Yes. And most people don’t know who he is, but he is a mover. That organization is a mover and a shaker.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, they’re national.
GC Living: Out of Texas.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes.
GC Living: They are big shots.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, that was a big deal to make.
GC Living: Now that’s where that huge truck facility is, once you go under the underpass, under I-10 on the way to Eloy. It’s on the right-hand side.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes and they built that in conjunction with somebody else, but then they sold the balance of 104 acres to Ritchie brothers.
GC Living: Yes. That’s when the economy went to hell.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, they backed off. I know they still own it, but I don’t know if it’s for sale or not. I still have 50 acres there too.
GC Living: Someday that’s going to come into its own.
Harlyn Griffiths: Well, it already is really.
GC Living: Well, you also are the major partner in Toltec Road and I-10 on the northeast corner?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes.
GC Living: Do you also still own property on Florence Boulevard? Because you built the Chevron station.
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. The Griffith family owns the Chevron.
GC Living: And you also own the AM/PM convenience store/gas station on Florence.
Harlyn Griffiths: It’s Harlyn’s business [Harlyn’s son Harlyn]
GC Living (Bea): Let me ask a question. As you drive around town, is there a building that sticks out in your mind where you think, “Wow, yeah I built that?”
Harlyn Griffiths: I would have to say it would be the Wells Fargo Bank, because that was the first very visible building of some size, and the hospital. You know, that was a quite a fete. We were just a small company, and here we are, the watchdog for the community over the contractor. We had a guy that was overseeing that end of it. He was also involved in reviewing the building and the pricing of it. The builder was a Kitchell, and we picked up enough changes to pay our whole fee.
GC Living: Wow. And for people don’t know who Kitchell is, Kitchell is a major player worldwide.
Harlyn Griffiths: Well they just built the new Harkins Theatre and half the stuff up there in Scottsdale Fashion Square.
[Harlyn Griffiths now looks at some old newspaper clippings during the interview and reflects on the past.]
Harlyn Griffiths: I’ll give you an example of how smart I was. I was involved with the superintendent of the high school when I was a senior and I don’t why I was with him, but I was in a car with him and I had gone to Minneapolis with him. We were outside of Minneapolis about 10 minutes or so and he says, “What are you going to do when you get out of high school?” I said, “I don’t know.” He says, “Why don’t you be a bum?”(Laughs) I think he meant travel a little bit before you get too tied down. (Laughs) Why would you want to be a bum? I’ll never forget that.
Harlyn Griffiths: Well, here in this photo is when I was running for City Council. I think it says “1967”. GC Living: Good Lord, look at you! You’re a kid.
Harlyn Griffiths: I was 32 years old.
GC Living: That is really something.
Harlyn Griffiths: [Pointing at clipping] This is the first house in Mi Casa Estates. That was my home. It had a swimming pool and a tennis court.
GC Living: That was the very first house?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, then right next to me was Bill Stanfield’s house.
GC Living: I know right where it is. And Coxon lived right across the street from you?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes
GC Living: And the fireplace that you built for Coxon was with bricks from the Central School, did you know that?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes, I most likely did.
GC Living: Before you go, let me ask you one last question. Of the group, who do you miss?
Harlyn Griffiths: I do miss Monsignor Ross, of course. He retired and he moved into a house I had built, in Rancho Grande, and that’s another cute story, because he made one of the bedrooms in the house a little chapel. And for quite a period of time I would go and he and I would have mass together.
GC Living: I have to tell you last Sunday I was in the Sistine Chapel and looking up and it’s amazing.
Harlyn Griffiths: We’ve been there. I’ve been to Rome at least three times, but when I go to Europe I like to get into the smaller towns and old churches.
GC Living: That’s what we do.
Harlyn Griffiths: I look at them and wonder, “How in the hell did they get those big blocks up?”
GC Living: Well, and having been in the construction business, you wonder how in the hell did these people do this?
Harlyn Griffiths: Yes. Dorothy and I actually did travel a lot.
GC Living: Well you owned a travel agency. You guys did a lot of traveling.
Harlyn Griffiths: And it was fun. We only had one major trip since 9/11. When we first started going to New York, we would go several times at Christmas and spend typically four or five days to go to the plays. I was running in those days, and I was running in Central Park when it was supposedly not safe.