Work Is Electric, Setting Idyllic For Childs, Irving Residents

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Down a grueling 10 miles of twisting, turning, narrow gravel road from Highway 87 and Strawberry sits the little community of Irving.

Seven neat bungalows surrounded by manicured lawns and flower gardens are nestled in a clearing in the pines below Fossil Creek Road. This has been the home and workplace of the operators of the Childs-Irving Hydroelectric Plant for 90 years.

A community garden, a flagpole, and a meeting hall make the area look like any little neighborhood in any small town in America. But the residential area sits beside an historic power house where a turbine engine cranks away at a steady pace. The resident-workers and some who commute are responsible for that process.

This remote little enclave was carved out of the wilderness nearly 100 years ago by 400 laborers and a pack of mules, as part of an ingenious engineering plan that created electricity for all of Yavapai County and most of Phoenix.

Nine miles farther down this same gravel road is another power plant, Childs, which sits beside the Verde River.

On Friday, Irving was a scene of unusual activity. Visitors came from near and far to Arizona Public Service Company's smallest, most remote electric plant to celebrate Childs-Irving's 90th anniversary.

Mike Stewart, the plant manager, was host to about 75 people. Some were former workers at the Childs-Irving Hydroelectric Plant and their families, and others had been a part of its long history.

Stewart is in his third year as manager at Childs-Irving. He lives at Irving with his wife, Shirley. They are square dancers and travel all over the state. "We're in and out of here all the time," Shirley Stewart said.

Former manager Cliff Johnson, who worked at the plant from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, was one of the guests, along with two other former plant managers, Bud Gillum and Gary Wendt, who worked there from the mid-1980s to 1994, and from 1994 to 1996, respectively.

Caterer John Reynolds of Babe's Roundup in Camp Verde had made the dusty trip before. Reynolds said he knew how to handle the road with the big rig that hauled all his catering equipment. He was there in plenty of time to set up and barbecue hamburgers and hot dogs for the group, which he would serve with all the fixin's.

While they waited for lunch, many sat beneath the shade of the big white tent and talked about the old days and the friends they'd made. They looked at the old scrapbooks. Those who live there now talked about the pleasures of getting away from the rat race.

Debbie Plant lives at Irving with her husband, Greg. "It's been 2 1/2 years," she said. "The children are all grown. I love it here. Once a week, at least, we go to town."

Weekly trips to town
Greg Plant is a production specialist whose job it is to walk the flume that diverts the water from Fossil Creek to the two plants, inspecting for leaks. "I started here 18 years ago," he said. "Basically, I lived here the whole time."

The Plants were married 2 1/2 years ago, but didn't have their wedding at Irving. "It's kinda hard to get people out here," Greg said.

Three other workers live at Childs, which is nine miles farther down the winding, narrow gravel road and even more remote.

Seventeen people live at both Childs and Irving, seven having children ranging in age from 10 to 20.

"If they're still in school, they go to Payson or Pine," Greg Plant said. "A couple are in school at the UA. The best thing about living here is being away from the rat race."

He said the company has always had a good bunch of people working at Childs-Irving. "So, it's been easy to get along," he said.

Every year the workers and their families have a big Christmas party and fry up some steaks at Irving. "And we have fish fries when we catch catfish (by the Childs Plant) right down on the Verde River."

Monthly safety meetings are another time for the workers and their families to get together and socialize. "We decide some of the stuff we need to do around here," Plant said.

He couldn't think of any big problem they've had at either Childs or Irving since he's been there. "In 18 years, work has gone so smooth," he said.

Work may have gone smoothly for the Childs-Irving residents, but getting in and out of the plants has always created some problems. In 1987, the road was closed for seven months due to a landslide. Plant said the Forest Service didn't want to reopen Fossil Creek Road, but eventually fixed it, piling large rocks in metal mesh-terraced fences to keep the rocks from sliding.

"At that time, some of us were living in Pine for our kids. We had to go around the other way, a 52-mile drive one way," he said.

As the guests lined up for the cowboy barbecue on Friday, Richard Hamilton watched his 2-year-old daughter, Sydney, climb a boulder. Hamilton works at the plant as a utility worker, but he and his family live in Payson. He said he doesn't mind the 45-minute commute to work.

Pat Wren spent time looking through one of the many scrapbooks filled with pictures of the workers and their families. Her husband, Jerry, was a flume man in the 1960s. She pointed to the first neat little house in the row of seven houses around the plant. "We lived in this very house," she said.

It had been a good time, she said. They lived there with their young daughter, and moved to Childs, where their son was born. "We were there two years, and then moved back here about in '71, and stayed two years more."

Wren said when the kids got old enough to go to school, she and her husband moved their young family to Pine. "We'd live here on weekends. He'd get off in the middle of the week. He'd come and stay while he was working, so we were only separated a day or two during the week. It worked out pretty good."

Wren looked at the large tree behind the tent full of people and recalled a time when the family dog chased a bear up that tree.

She searched through the scrapbook, looking for pictures of her husband. "Does that guy look familiar to you?" she asked him.

Jerry Wren's smile reflected memories of times gone by and he said, "Yeah."

Cliff Johnson was plant superintendent from 1966 to 1968. "We enjoyed it," said his wife, Joyce. "A son, Nicky Johnson, also worked here."

Kathleen Johnson hugged her friend and former neighbor, Joyce Johnson, and explained that they shared the same last name, but were not related.

She had been the couple's neighbor when they all lived at the Childs plant.

"Cliff and Joyce were like Mom and Pop to us," she said. "We had some mighty good parties -- UFOs and hippies."

UFOs and hippies
Kathleen Johnson said the story of the UFOs and the hippies was a long one, one that might be better put off for another day, maybe for another anniversary.

There are probably many such stories. Ninety years is a long time for people who have lived together and worked together and traveled that long, twisting, turning gravel road together, 10 miles from the main highway and the nearest town.

John Denman, vice president of fossil generation for APS, took the microphone and wished the group 90 more years "of continued success."

Stewart talked briefly about APS' eight-year effort to relicense the facility to keep the plants intact and the continuing meetings with environmental groups that have held up the process.

"I have to tell you, we don't have any plans to shut this operation down," he said. "This stuff is pretty reliable stuff. It's been here since 1909."

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