The Tucson Mountains welcomed Alice Vail with precipitous, rocky roads, dark skies and crawly creatures.
In the summer of 1929, Vail spent her first night in the unfinished frame of a house that would become her home for the next 12 years.
“At the threshold of the monkey cage, I found a visitor, waiting to welcome me with his tail curled up over his back ready to strike,” Vail wrote in curly cursive prose. “The largest scorpion I have beheld.”
It’s one of the tales Vail recorded of life on a 40-acre homestead south of West Anklam Road, just east of where it intersects West Speedway.
The written account and the homestead site now belong to four great-nieces and nephews, who inherited the property after their mother, Vail’s niece, died two years ago.
Prickly pear and creosote have overtaken the road that winds up to the homestead. The house walls have been knocked down, but a fractured foundation of brick, concrete and chicken wire shows where the homely but hardy “monkey cage” stood.
Family finances and the property’s zoning prevented the family from building on the lot in recent decades.
Last week, siblings David Stowell, 66, and Gloria Stueland, 61, endured an hours-long Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting to hear their application for rezoning approved.
The family is one step closer to selling the historic property or building on it themselves.
“Well, it’s been in the family since 1935,” Stueland said. “So, there’s no big rush.”
Alice Vail moved to Tucson in 1916 to head the English department at Tucson High School.
“I can lay no claim to the word fearless in the little I have used here,” Vail wrote of herself. “I love the bright lights of the city and the comforts of home. The Call of the Wild has never lured me into the wide, open spaces as a place of habitation.”
Vail’s family still can’t explain what possessed her to move to Tucson from Michigan, a trip that required travel by train and stagecoach.
Shortly after Vail’s migration, her sister, Ethel Vasey, and soon-to-be brother-in-law followed. The trio shared the same residence for much of their time in Tucson.
During the Great Depression, Vail and her family couldn’t afford to pay for their home in town, so they rented it out and decided to try their hand at homesteading. The location was Vasey’s choice.
“Just why anyone should want to own a mountain, I never could understand,” Vail wrote.
Vail described Vasey as the more adventurous of the two sisters, with a “pioneering spirit” in her veins.
But it was Vail who braved the first night sleeping on an army cot under a tarpaulin after she evaded the giant scorpion with a “standing broad jump.”
“I could hear the howling and yelping of the coyotes,” Vail wrote. “Surely Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, even Hannibal crossing the Alps, could not have had as many thrills and chills going up and down their celebrated spines as I had.”
In order to earn the deed, the family had to spend the majority of three years living on the land. They far exceeded the minimum and, with the addition of Vail’s niece, Emily, spent 12 years in the house Vail described as a “monkey cage.”
Vail used much of her 20- page account of the homestead to discuss the trials and tribulations of desert life, like a skunk in the closet or the intrusion of tarantulas and centipedes. But she also pointed out the beauty.
“There were glorious sunsets when not only was the sky a riot of unbelievable colors, but the near and the far mountains joined the pageant. The purple, violet and heliotrope of the majestic Catalinas quickly faded in kaleidoscopic succession to the distant, mysterious blue of the far, far mountains while the night came like a breath.”
Her eloquent sunset description is followed by a much more frank conclusion about desert life.
“It was a great experience and I wouldn’t take anything for it — but I would never want to do it again!”
The family left the homestead in the 1940s, and it has been unoccupied for many of the last 50 years. Vail never married and continued to live with her sister and brother-and law.
“(She) always maintained a separate residence in case she needed to occupy, to maintain her potential independence, should it become inconvenient,” Stowell said of his great aunt.
Though Vail was, in her own words, “a fraidy-cat,” when her sister Vasey was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she cared for her until a few months shy of her own death in 1967.
Just memories remain
The homestead was the beloved childhood home of Stowell and Stueland’s mother, Emily Stowell Stratton, the daughter of Ethel Vasey.
Stratton inherited the original 40 acres in 1967, but the family could not pay the estate taxes and auctioned the property to make up the difference. The new owners agreed to give Stratton the acre where the foundations of the homestead lie.
The property is accessible by foot from Anklam Road, and now several custom stucco homes are perched on the same hillside.
For Stueland and Stowell, the site brings back childhood memories of adventures to hidden caves and the constant discovery of artifacts from their relatives’ lives.
Stowell found the head of an old hatchet, repainted it and now uses it regularly. Stueland salvaged the fragments of one of her grandmother’s dishes in her favorite color, mint green.
“When I was a kid, we used to go up off and on and just sit up there at the lot and watch the sun go down,” Stueland said. “I just dreamt about building a new home up there.”
But the cost to zone the property and arrange utilities is a financial and time strain on the family.
“We may just end up selling it, and that would be kind of a sad thing,” Stueland said.
Vail and Vasey transformed a rocky hillside into a home. Alongside the spears of spiky ocotillo, they put up a swing set for little Emily Stratton Stowell. They banished snakes, bobcats and other crawlers from their home.
“My great aunt and my grandmother were like turbine engines,” Stowell said. “They had to be conquering something, solving some problem for someone, somewhere.”
The homestead, or what’s left of it, is a testament to the family’s intrepid spirit. For Stowell, the biggest losses are the ordinary tales of the day to day.
“People tell stories they think are either interesting to somebody else,” Stowell said. “But everyday life might be a greater accomplishment in actual fact.”