By J.J. Lamb

Orange flames rose high into the starlit sky, crackling and hissing, as they consumed the dry planks of the board and batten building that housed Otto Schley & Co. General Store and Post Office. The Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR) water tank car was the only source of water. Vail had no well in 1908. The SPRR Night Operator at the Vail Depot, only 150’ away, pulled the long canvas hose attached to the water tank car toward the burning building. The hose would not reach.

Asleep inside the store, Andrew Duffy, the store’s clerk, narrowly escaped with his life. Fleeing the fire, he grabbed the ledger book and managed to save the new, special order, 200-pound National cash register. Otto Schey & Co. had been proudly cast in bronze on the register’s name plate. Mr. Duffy had no idea how he had managed to save the heavy register. A few moments later he could not pick up more than a few pounds.

A message was quickly telegraphed to Otto Schley who was in Tucson. He was attending the Pima County Democratic Convection who was meeting to select delegates for the Territorial Legislature. Otto raced back, He made it in only an hour. This was half the normal time. Smoldering ashes greeted him where his thriving business had stood. The terrible news was reported in the Tucson Citizen newspaper.

Store of Otto W.H. Schley Is Destroyed by Flames
Mr. Schley Was in Tucson Attending the Convention at the Time.

Fire from an unknown origin destroyed the big store of Otto W.H. Schley late yesterday afternoon at Vails station. Mr. Schley at the time was in Tucson attending the Democratic county convention as a delegate from Vails. The flames which consumed his building were not discovered until considerable headway had been made. Everything possible to extinguish the blaze was done, but it was without avail and the store with all of the goods placed there was destroyed. The Schley store was one of the largest of the country stores in this section as [V]ails is a trading point for the Helvetia camp.

An effort was made today to reach Vails by telephone but this was impossible as the fire temporarily put the telephone wires to that place out of business.  It is reported here that Mr. Schley carried some insurance on his property but the amount could not be learned.     

Tucson Citizen, Friday, May 22, 1908

Otto had insurance on the contents of his store. By his estimation there had been between $10,000 and $12,000 in merchandise inside when it burned. An optimist, Schley declared the very next day that he would rebuild, and “this time it would be of brick.” Only $6,000 of the loss was coveredby his insurance policy. On May 27, 1908, Otto said he would “…begin operations following the settlement of insurance matters.” Rising from the ashes, the store was open for business by August 1908. The new store was constructed of adobe bricks, stone rubble, repurposed railroad shipping crates marked Vail A.T. (Arizona Territory), and lumber salvaged from the original store. Nothing was wasted. Probably, the only store-bought items were the windows, doors, nails and hinges. Otto and his wife Evie decided to build themselves a new home as well. The November 11th Arizona Daily Star newspaper reported that they had hired a well-known local contractor who was “putting up a fine family residence for Otto Schley at Vail.”

Otto and his wife Evie called their new home, surrounded by a white picket fence, Casa Blanca. They had encountered adversity beyond their control. Fire had completely destroyed their business.  They persevered, and didn’t give up. Otto and Evie raised their family in Vail. They helped found the Vail School District, and made their store available as the Precinct voting location. Otto served as Constable, Postmaster, and “Mayor” of Vail. Their home became the Vail School District “Teacherage”, a home for Vail teachers and staff for many years. The beautiful 1907 National Cash Register is currently in the Vail Preservation Society Collections. The humble adobe between the railroad tracks in Vail is Otto and Evie’s “new” store. It is the last physical reminder of the strength of Vail’s early settlers. Their actions laid the foundation for the Vail values that define our community today.   

Find information about the rehabilitation of the 1908 Old Vail Store & Post Office at Vail Preservation Society’s Facebook page

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J.J. Lamb