End of an Egg Era

A few weeks ago, the last stop closed in what was once a market run that produced some of the best huevos rancheros in west Phoenix.

Nearly 30 years back, mothers and grandmothers -- or abuelas -- made a frequent trek that took them first to Hickman's Egg Ranch on 91st Avenue, in the shadow of what will soon be the Phoenix Coyotes' hockey arena. There they would buy freshly laid eggs, and if they bought more than an armload, a young Ignacio "Nacho" Morales would graciously carry the eggs to grandma's car.

Around the corner and west on Northern Avenue, at Happy Our's Dairy, the abuelas bought raw milk sold in glass bottles with foil tops.

At either place, the abuelas could pick up Red Eagle Brand tortillas. Or they made a third stop at the tortilleria in Surprise for a fresh pack.

Some serious home cooking ensued.

Times have changed. The Happy Our's Dairy milk flow ended in '83, and today the dizzying variety of tortillas in the supermarket has flattened Red Eagle's punch. But the little egg store -- which stood in front of rows of giant chicken houses -- continued to sell eggs to loyal and longtime customers.

More than a few abuelas were saddened a few weeks ago, when the Hickman family finally called it quits.

They are moving their 20-acre ranch as part of a deal with Glendale to make way for further expansion in the already sprawling northwest Valley. "After a long legal battle, we've come to a mutually agreeable settlement," says Clint Hickman, the youngest of three sons who run the business. (The fourth is a biochemist.)

Many customers are crying foul -- or should we say fowl? -- over Hickman's move to Maricopa and Arlington, west of Buckeye. But it's the permanent closing of the egg shop that really signals the end of an era.

"Qué tristeza," says 73-year-old Mila Vasquez. (I want to cry!) "I've bought eggs there since they opened [in 1972]. My sister used to buy eggs to feed the workers in the fields. We bought them there because they were más sabrosos [more delicious] than the store."

The history goes back even further. Fresh Hickman eggs were first sold in 1944 from a back porch on Lateral 19, a gravel road near 67th Avenue and Bethany Home. "When I got back from the service in '57, we opened a store in the backyard to free up mom's porch," says Bill Hickman Sr. Hickman's wife, then Gertie Valenzuela (her father was Mexican, mother German and Dutch), had an egg route before they were married. The young Valenzuela girl peddled eggs to her father's customers at a chain of department stores he owned in Glendale, Peoria and Tolleson.

The move to 91st Avenue attracted a diverse crowd. "There'd be a guy with dirt on his knees from pulling onions, maybe. He'd come in and buy the best jumbo eggs we had, the most for his money. Then a guy would come in a Cadillac and buy medium eggs," Hickman Sr. says, laughing.

"They're still coming in," says Jennifer Bossack, a Hickman employee whose background is as mixed as Gertie's -- her mother is Mexican, dad is Austrian. The abuelas and others tell her, "We have to have them."

"The marquee says the store is closed. The front door has permanently closed' signs," Bossack says. "They walk around and come in the office and ask, Can you sell me one dozen? Where are we going to get our eggs now?' It's amazing."

The way Bossack describes it, Hickman's sounds more like a crack house than an egg house.

Joking aside, Bossack says the whole experience is depressing. "These people have been coming here for 20 and 30 years. They ask over and over, When are you going to reopen? Where is the new store going to be?' Some people will go out and read the sign again and then just sit in their car. They're in shock."

They have a reason to be. The closure wasn't unexpected, but it came sooner than anticipated. "Everybody was upset. Everyone," says Martha Nevarez, who was the store cashier. "They tell me, I've been coming here all of my life. Please don't close the store.'" The day the store closed, Morales, now 58, retired after 34 years of loyal service.

Lately, Gertie Hickman has been sharing a lot of memories. She recalls her youngest son coming home frustrated after starting a new school in the first grade. "Clint would come home and say, I couldn't play with the kids because they said I'm not Mexican.' I'd tell him he was and he'd say, I tell them, but they don't believe me.'" She laughs heartily, but you can sense a little sadness.

Years later, many of those same kids would go on to work at the ranch whenever the chicken houses needed be loaded and unloaded. And next month, a couple of them are going to be in Clint's wedding when he marries a pretty girl who used to sell eggs at Hickman's. Her name is Jennifer Gomez Bossack.

Like father, like son. The eggs on the west side may not be so fresh anymore, but some other things never change.

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Dan Cortez