By Douglas Towne
“If all the roads that W.R. Skousen Construction paved were taken up, Arizona would be in pretty rough condition,” Ed Erck says. The 87-year-old worked for the company for 25 years, starting as a truck driver and finishing as an asphalt plant foreman. “We probably laid 25 million tons of asphalt.”
W.R. Skousen Jr., 1969.
But W.R. wasn’t the only Skousen in the construction industry. Three generations of the Skousen family, Willard, W.R., and Bob, along with other family members, were transportation contractors. Each had different talents, but the firm hit its apex under W.R., whose tenure coincided with the Interstate highway system's construction in the 1960s. "Over the years, we paved almost every mile of Interstate 10 from New Mexico to Casa Grande," Erck says.
The Skousen contracting story begins with Willard Skousen, a Danish immigrant who arrived in Draper, Utah with his father, Jenes Skousen, in 1864. Willard moved to Joseph City, Arizona, in 1877 and became a railroad and highway contractor. His first significant job was building a section of the Santa Fe railroad line in northeastern Arizona in the early 1900s.
Willard’s job could get exciting, as revealed in an article in the Tucson Citizen in 1906. While working in Mexico as a sub-contractor under R.R. Coleman on a Southern Pacific Railroad project along the Guaymas-Guadalajara road, two thieves stole his horse and fled across the Yaqui River. They ignored Willard's calls, but not the warning shot from his Winchester rifle. They dismounted, and his horse returned.
His contracting company, Skousen Bros., did road work across Arizona. Projects included portions of the Phoenix-Yuma road, the Douglas-Rodeo highway, the Pine-Winslow highway, and stretches of Route 66 from Kingman to Williams. During this time, 1926-1935, Skousen Bros. was located in Mesa, El Paso, and four locations in New Mexico: Albuquerque, Glenwood, Santa Fe, and Silver City.
Road construction was dangerous work. At the Skousen Bros. camp on Route 66, a driver’s truck rolled on him in 1934, according to the Williams News. Another accident involved a 1929 Ford coupe that caught fire. Soon after the employees abandoned the vehicle, the gas tank exploded, scattering car parts.
In 1947, Willard died at age 87 in Mesa. Two sons, Jess E. and Willard R. (W.R.) Skousen Jr., operated the contracting firm that he had started nearly 50 years ago, according to his obituary in The Arizona Republic. W.R. graduated from Mesa High School in 1933. A talented athlete, he was All-State in football and basketball and later attended Utah State College.
Three years previously, W.R. took over the company. His brothers, Jess and Nate, became contractors in Albuquerque, and W.R. allowed them to bid using his license. This transition came during a massive expansion of the nation’s road system. Skousen did road construction in Arizona, California, and New Mexico.
Former Skousen employees give a thumbs up to the company. “A lot of outfits hated the owner, but W.R. was a good, very outspoken guy,” says John Baehr, who was a crusher operator and electrician from 1968-1978. “He put together a good company, and we just clicked. We were the third largest asphalt road building firm in Arizona.”
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 1.