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Tucson architect recreating Eloy Icons

CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — Local artist and architect Chuck Wright is recreating relics from the past and bringing them back to life circa 1950s through his “Eloy Icons” series. Recently, he has unveiled the Toltec Tavern as the third in his collection of the five to come.

In mid-2011, a Facebook page titled “Tales of Eloy” was created by Bill Carnell, a Tucson architect and former resident of Eloy. The page promotes discussion on growing up in Eloy. Several of the group’s members offered different glimpses of the historical references of the “Toltec Tavern” along different time frames. The result of this page has been the creation of the “Eloy Icons”, digital watercolor paintings of iconic buildings of the Eloy area during the 1960s.

Prior to the Tavern, Wright brought us his artistic renditions of Eloy’s Mercantile Store and Dust Bowl Theater.

For many in and around Eloy, the Toltec Tavern was a way of life. The “tavern,” as many referred to it, was a local restaurant and “watering hole” for Eloyans and residents of the Casa Grande Valley.

“Before the opening of the I-10 freeway, State Highway 284 was the main thoroughfare from Eloy to Casa Grande, from Tucson to Phoenix,” Wright said. “This little restaurant, like many “mom and pop” restaurants located on heavily traveled state routes, were easy access to traveling passers-by both local and national who were always looking for a good place to eat.”

For Wright and his family, it became an icon where they regularly went for entertainment.

“Growing up, I remember my parents frequently going there on Friday and Saturday evenings with their friends, for food and drinks, and the tavern also had regular entertainment,” Wright said. “As I grew up into adulthood, I regularly went there for lunch and dinner. It was a special place.”

“The scene of the painting is set on a Saturday in December of 1964,” Wright explained about his latest artistic project. “Walt had the place decorated for the holidays and is standing out front with his Santa hat, greeting everyone in. Gladys Wright is standing out in front of her Lincoln, talking to her friend Wilma Pretzer. Their husbands are already in the bar.”

The Toltec Tavern dates back to the early 1920s during prohibition. Frank Shedd Sr. owned a lot of land around the Toltec area, including the parcel where the Tavern was to be located, according to Wright. Shedd envisioned a general store in the area and wanted to build one at that spot. So, he made a proposition to his California friends Ralpha and Milton Sellers. Shedd proposed to them that if they came out to Arizona and ran the store, he would build it and give them the property.

The general store also had a deli to make sandwiches for folks passing by on State Route 84. After prohibition was repealed in 1933 with the 21st amendment, the Sellers converted the general store to a bar and restaurant over the next few years. In the mid-1940s, farming was beginning to boom again in the area and the Sellers wanted to get into farming production. They struck a deal with Shedd to trade him the tavern for some farmland in the area. The deal was made and Shedd become the owner of the property again.

Shedd sold the property to J.O. Sheridan, and she expanded the bar and restaurant and added the dining room to the east. The room on the west side of the bar was used as Ms. Sheridan’s residence. Sheridan also added the three small apartments to the west.

In 1964, Sheridan sold the tavern to Walt Karolak. He successfully ran the tavern for nine years. Karolak’s daughter, 14-year-old Michelle, began waiting tables to help out. Jerry Furr tended the bar during all this time. Mary Jo McHaney, who started out as dishwasher, became the head cook and continued after Karolak sold the tavern until she retired in 2003. Karolak butchered all of his own meat for the restaurant and had a room set up in the rear of the building which he converted to storage.

Karolak developed the rear portion of the building for a large dining/banquet room. The well-run establishment was a hit with the locals and their patronage made his “tavern” a very popular place. The weekends were very busy. Entertainment was regularly provided on Saturday nights, with the likes of the duo Joyce and Ray Cartwright and others providing music for the locals.

In 1973, Karolak sold the “tavern” to Tom and Irene Camilis. The Camilises continued on the tradition of the “tavern” with fine food and entertainment until it burned down in 2010.

Wright thanks Tiffany Shedd, whose father-in-law is the grandson of Frank Shedd Sr. Michelle Karolak, daughter of Walt Karolak, Lynn Daley Altfillisch, granddaughter of Ralpha and Milton Sellers, Dick Myers, former resident of Eloy and president of the Santa Cruz Valley Historical Museum Board in Toltec for also providing historical photographs and references of the building. Mary Jo McHaney, retired cook from the tavern, as well as many other Eloy residents also offered their recollections through Tales of Eloy on Facebook that contributed to the project.

Sadly, all that remains of the “Tavern” after the fire is the old sign standing out front. Word has it that Irene Camilis has donated the sign to the Santa Cruz Valley Historical Museum.

“We hope it can find a home there.” Wright said. “Fortunately, we still have our memories through our eyes. Many of us still have fond mental memories of what it used to be.”

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Information from: Casa Grande Dispatch.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.