Thursday, March 8, 2018

Who was W.W. Midgley?

W.W. Midgley

By Platt Cline,  "Coconino Sun"  October 1939

"I was born in Minnesota, matured in California, and expect to die someday in Arizona," gives you the autobiography, in one sentence, of Major Wilmot Whitworth Midgley, Arizona's premier road-booster, in whose honor Midgley bridge in Oak Creek canyon will be dedicated Sunday.

The bridge dedication, a part of the ceremonies dedicating Highway 79 will follow a program of entertainment and speeches and a barbecue dinner at Sedona, starting at noon Sunday.  The Major will cut the blue and gold ribbons at 4 p.m. at the bridge entrance, officially opening it to traffic--the high point in a lifetime of boosting for better roads.

Most people have hobbies: stamp collecting, hunting, fishing, flower culture, etc.; Major Midgley's hobby, avocation, fancy and pastime is, and has been for many years, boosting for better roads.  The roads must start somewhere and end somewhere, but outside of that the Major doesn't particularly care, just as long as they are better roads.  He started his road boosting career many years ago at Pomona, California--first president of the Association of Chambers of Commerce of Southern California, later second president of the Arizona Good Roads Association, county supervisor in Yavapai County, at present president of the Highway 79 Association--always working for better roads.

The Major's story starts on March 17, 1872, at Excelsior, Minnesota, when the morning sun shone for the first time on the Southwest's greatest booster for good roads.  At the age of three the Major (he was called "Billy" in those days) moved with his parents to Gadsden, Alabama. His father was engaged in the pig-iron smelting business in Gadsden.  As far as we know, the Major never showed any inclination to go into the iron business; however, some of that iron of his father's went into the character of the Major; when the Major goes after a road-improvement appropriation, the legislators remember what Benjamin Franklin said, "there's nothing sure but death and taxes," and add, "northern Arizona's Midgley."

The Major graduated from high school in Gadsden, and in 1888 heeded the words of Horace Greeley and went west, where he not only grew up with the country, but had a substantial part to play in it's growth.

Besides his hobby of better roads, years ago the Major had a whole stable of hobbies, one of which--that of the National Guard--gained him his title of "Major."  It really should be Lieutenant Colonel, for that is the rank that the Major held in the National Guard in Pomona years before he moved to Arizona.

Settling in Pomona, the Major became one of the leading dry-goods merchants and a citrus farmers.  Enlisting in the National Guard, the Major was promoted step by step to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.  In 1905 the citizens of Pomona presented to him a fine beautifully engraved officer's dress saber, as a token of their appreciation of the work of the Major in the Guard.  He was instrumental in having an armory built at Pomona, and was commanding officer of the unit for several years.

The people of Pomona might well have presented him also with a souvenir steamshovel, for already Major Midgley was a name which meant a tireless booster for better roads.  He observed the ceremonies of dumping the first load of rock on the highway between El Monte and Puenta, California; that was the actual beginning of the improvement of the nation's ocean-to-ocean highway; Flagstaff's Main Street; Highway 66, the Will Rogers Highway.

In 1912, the Major moved to Valinda Rancho in the Williamson Valley near Prescott, where he engaged in the livestock business. While there the Major met Harold Bell Wright, the then comparatively unknown novelist, who wrote the famous story "When a Man's a Man" while visiting at the ranch.

In 1917, the Major moved to Clarkdale, where he renewed his interest in the National Guard.  It was here that he first engaged in the grocery business. 

He became second president of the Arizona Good Roads Association in 1920, during which he covered every mile of road in the entire state. He was also instrumental in bringing about the first drafts of the bills which created the State Highway Commission.

The grocery store here (in Flagstaff) was opened about 12 years ago (1927 +/-) with the Major's only son, Gerry, in charge.  The major moved here (to Flagstaff) 10 years ago from Clarkdale. (circa 1929).

The Major is a life member of the Elks Lodge, has been a member of Knights of Pythias and Masons for almost 46 years.  He served one tern as State Senator from Coconino County.  The Major has enough sharpshooter and expert rifleman medals to decorate a fair sized Christmas tree.

Not as active as he once was, the Major still keeps two pets; his horse, Captain, the last of a long line of fine mounts, and a police dog, Jimmy, also the last of a long line of dogs.

Everybody knows the Major' and all agree that he is a lovable character, a real booster, and the most desirable type of public-spirited citizen.

It is indeed fitting that the Major's lifetime of boosting for better roads should be observed and honored with the naming and dedication Sunday  of Midgley  Bridge.

Click here to read Midgley's Speech at the bridge dedication:

(Editor's Note: The above was transcribed from the original newspaper clipping on file at the NAU Cline Library Special Collections. Flagstaff's Most Famous Citizen, Platt Cline was a mere 28 years old when he wrote the above article.  He and his wife had moved to Flagstaff just the year before in 1938. Read an article written shortly after Cline's death in 2001 at the age of 90:
Archive Credit for this article goes to the Northern Arizona University Cline Library Special Collections, call number AHS.ND.854 See:;query=;brand=default

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