An abridged history of Mill Avenue: A secret cultural hub of Tempe

Perhaps Tempe’s most historic cultural hub and landmark is Mill Avenue. To students, residents and tourists Mill Avenue may just look like a strip mall littered with bars, restaurants, boutiques and other shops, but a rich history lies in the 1.2 miles between Gammage Auditorium and the Hayden Flour Mill. 

In this series, I will be exploring the backstories of Mill from the perspectives of the local business owner, historians and residents. By the end of this series, my goal is to create a timeline of Tempe’s hottest spots and their humble, historical origins. 

The Hackett House has always been a melting pot of Tempe’s cultural identity from its days as Tempe’s first bakery to its current, multifaceted use. Sitting pretty on 4th Street behind Fuzzy’s Tacos and catty-corner from the Shops on Mill Avenue, is the two-building historical site joined together by a courtyard where many of Tempe’s community and personal events are hosted. 

William Hilge

The Hackett House was built in 1888 by William Hilge, one of Tempe’s first German immigrants. It is Tempe’s oldest fired brick building and remains, for the most part, true to its historical finesse. Hilge purchased the land from the Tempe Land and Improvement Co. who had laid out blocks for tenants after the 1885 establishment of the Territorial Normal schools and the advancement that the railroads brought in 1877.

The Hackett House’s convenient proximity to the Hayden Flour Mill wasn’t accidental, and Hilge took advantage of the local production. The two buildings which make up the Hackett House had different purposes. The East building, was a showroom and a shop where Hilge sold baked goods, and the ovens were located in the back of the West building. Hilge would also deliver baked goods to the residents of Tempe and Mesa by carriage.

In 1905, after struggling with fits of depression, Hilge allegedly killed himself via handgun. It has been remarked that Hilge started one of the first complete business in Tempe.

The Craig and Hackett Families

After Hilge’s death, the ownership of the Hackett House was passed around many times in a few short years. Many tenants came and went until 1908, when The Craig Family purchased the property and converted into their personal residence and later into a boarding house.

The Craig parents passed the property to their daughter Estelle Craig, one of Tempe’s first telephone operators. She married a man named Roy Hackett, hence the current name. The two had days jobs, but ran the boarding house and rented a room for $10 a month.

Hackett passed away in 1959, but Estelle continued to live in the Hackett House until 1974.

The City of Tempe

In 1974, Estelle sold the Hackett House to Tempe. Two years later, the city began restoration back to the Territorial aesthetic that the Hackett Building had in 1912. Today, it has the highest percentage of original material from its construction and 1912 redesign of any building Maricopa County.

A current volunteer for the Hackett House, Lynn Etter, discussed how the Hackett House ultimately choose the Tempe Sister Cities as the organization to set up headquarters inside the historical site.

“There was a contest to submit a repurpose of the building, and Tempe Sister Cities was one of the ones that submitted a proposal as it being a place for events and a gathering place for our organization,” Etter said. “We won the contest to use the building with the agreement that part of what we do we give back to the city of Tempe.”

The Tempe Sister Cities

The Tempe Sister Cities organization is a volunteer organization is much larger than the Hackett House. In fact, The Hackett House is only a small portion of what the Tempe Sister Cities brings to Tempe and the world.

At the Hackett House resides a gift shop and the building is used for luncheons, cooking classes, children's programs and many other community events. The main room of the Hackett House is outfitted with original shelves and cabinets from 1888 building and serves as a gift shop with seasonal knick-knacks. Another volunteer, Foram Totdar, mentions the many other uses of the Hackett House. 

“We also raise funds via rental,” Totdar said. “We have a big patio out there and we rent it out for weddings, birthday parties, graduation parties — any kind of event.”

All the money that is raised by theses events, and the Tempe Sister Cities' largest event Oktoberfest, goes back to the community in the form of creating an intimate global culture with Tempe’s 10 sister cities.  

Every year a group of Tempe high school students are sent abroad to study and share our culture completely sponsored by the Tempe Sister Cities. For five weeks, a Tempe teen will live in a host family in one of the sister cities towns and when they come home, they will come with a teen ambassador from said sister city. Hackett House volunteer, Becky Thriry, recalls the permanent relationship created by her daughter’s experiences in Regensburg, Germany.

“(The year after the exchange) our German daughter’s parents invited us to come, so all three of us went over there this past summer and we stayed with them for about 10 days in Germany,” said Thiry. “Jenny, our daughter and Judith, our German daughter, showed us all around. When we were there, we were in the Bavarian area of Germany so we got to see the lederhosen and dirndls they used to wear.”

In the back room of the Hackett House are artifacts and pictures from many of the excursions abroad. Besides sharing of culture, Tempe Sister Cities also share resources by doing humanitarian projects abroad like assisting Timbuktu and sending over 700 wheelchairs to Timbuktu, Mali; Skopje, Macedonia; and Zhenjiang, China.

A Locked Door

As sister city programs become a key to learning about other cultures and a friendly diplomacy around the world, one question regarding the Hackett House is left unresolved. 

The two-story facades feature balconies that face each other. The Tempe Sister Cities use the second floor of the East building for storage, but Etter, the Hackett House volunteer, remarks that the other building’s top floor hasn’t been used in years.

“There is a door, but we had a guy who tried to get in there, but he couldn’t figure out how or what it was,” Etter said. “You can see that it is all boarded up, but there’s a door! We aren’t really sure what that was ever used for, except that maybe Mr. Hilge put storage up there.”

Related links:

An abridged history of Mill Avenue: The hauntings of Casa Loma Building

Gringo Star, LSD and hippies: The history of Mill Avenue's Laird and Dines building

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