Gilbert Road

Brief statements are easily forgotten. “Gilbert was named after a homesteader, Mr. William (Bobby) M. Gilbert,” briefly states “Gilbert’s Mini-History,” an article found inside the Gilbert Historical Society Museum. From small beginnings, the town of Gilbert eventually grew into the sprawling mass of human beings that is today, most of whom don’t know who Bobby Gilbert was or why anyone would name a main street after him. He seems to be merely a brief statement, a footnote, someone unimportant.

Stories strung around the Gilbert Historical Society Museum walls talk briefly of the personality of Bobby Gilbert. One story told of how Bobby was riding the range when he noticed “five Indians shooting at me.” During the conflict he was shot three times, in the shoulder, the side and the leg, but in the end he killed three of them. According to an article that interviewed Mr. Gilbert, he walked around for three years with the bullet still in his leg, and one day it just “fell out.”

Bobby Gilbert was born on December 14, 1857 and was raised in Missouri. Then, at just 16, he was taken on as a groom for race horses and traveled not only all around the United States but also to Mexico and even to London. After traveling, he worked cattle ranches in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and California for almost six years. Finally, he purchased a ranch in what was then east of Chandler, destined to become the town of Gilbert.

It seems only fair to talk about the railroad depot that ran through early Gilbert. It was built in 1913, and ran right through the heart of Bobby Gilbert’s land. Gilbert granted the Arizona Eastern Railway the right to lay tracks through his property. Later a depot was built that offered maintenance to the trains that needed it. It also became “the center for shipping the products from the community’s farms; cattle and sheep, dairy products, grains, melons, and most importantly alfalfa hay.” The ability to ship hay out to the cavalry horses in World War I was crucial to the town’s economy, and the railroad depot made that shipping possible.

Gilbert Road wasn’t always called Gilbert Road. It first developed as a dirt road without a name. Residents would refer to it by the homes on the road rather than by an actual name, but once the town’s population grew, the road could no longer be described by the families living along that road. There were two men who each owned 16,000 acres of land: Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Pine. Some of this land was the same land the railroad company needed to continue the tracks. The town could just as easily have been named Pine, but since there was already a town called Pine, the railroad company called the stop Gilbert Station, and eventually the town and Main Street also were called Gilbert. It was like a coin flip. Heads or tails, Gilbert or Pine. It almost could have been anyone, it just happened to be William M. Gilbert.

The town of Gilbert was first officially established in 1910. There were no paved streets, no electricity, and no running water. “Most people built sleeping porches onto their homes because there were no cooling devices.” Even though it was a simple town, Gilbert would be known as the hay capital of the world until about the 1920’s. During that same year the town was established, Gilbert’s first grocery store was built, named Ayer’s Grocery Store. It was followed by the town’s first Post Office, which was originally located inside the grocery store but was later moved to the east side of downtown Gilbert Road.

While the town was growing and becoming more and more important, Bobby Gilbert eventually sold his land to Dr. A. J. Chandler for only 10 dollars an acre. This could be seen as a foolish action since what was once Mr. Gilbert’s land is now worth millions of dollars. He died in Mesa, having had no family and spending the last few months of his life as a homeless man. He was one of the last of the real cowboys, complete with the hat, the bandana and the high heeled boots. Although he didn’t leave behind a rich heritage or children to carry on his name, he was at least well-liked. He “never refused an invitation to meet in Everybody’s Drug Store for a sandwich and coffee,” and often received such invitations from leading citizens.

It should have perhaps been Mr. Pine who had the road named after him. He was the enterprising citizen who convinced the railroad to come build their tracks through town, better connecting the people to the outside world and giving them the means to export goods and create the successful city that exists now. Regardless, the road is named Gilbert, not after a man who accomplished anything universally significant, but after someone who was ultimately just being himself. It may in fact be the most appropriate name for the road—not a major highway or a link to civilization, but simply a road that is uniquely Gilbert.

By Amanda Kroy & Sandra Ligocki