Jerome AZ History: Riches to Rags to Riches

Marshall Terrill, an author and a reporter for the East Valley Tribune, emailed me and said he loved my book Home Sweet Jerome, a modern Jerome AZ history, and wanted to write something about it.  It’s every author’s dream. After I got his email, I looked him up. He is noted for his biographies of Elvis Presley, Steve McQueen and Pete Maravich, basketball great. Wow, I thought to myself, what an honor. Terrill wrote me questions and asked me to write the answers and to please stick to two paragraphs. They were good questions and I thought a long time about how to answer them. The article Terrill posted was wonderful. My answers, way too long, were shortened. Here’s his article, which was generous and praiseworthy: http://eastvalleytribune.com/eedition/page_42427fd9-1903-594e-9f23-e06eb4f4ee05.html#page_a14

For the historical record, here’s the long version of my answers.

Difference between Aboveground and Below Ground Jerome AZ

Terrill: 1.) Give us a taste of what Jerome when it was a thriving copper town before 1953?’

 The major boom years were 1895 to about 1930 with a population peaking at about 15,000. Two mines worked full time, employing about 4000 people, and pulling out some of the richest copper ore ever seen in America. Aboveground, Jerome AZ was a rich and glamorous city, the center of Northern Arizona with the finest hospitals and schools; and plenty of social activities, not all savory. Below ground, in the city of 88 miles of tunnels, life was not so glamorous. For the working miner, it was a 12-hour hardscrabble life, with plenty of dust to infect your lungs, and where being able to shower after work on company time was considered a ‘perk.’

The Dry

“The Dry” at the 500 level, Jerome AZ. Here miners trudged after work, showered together with their clothes on, took them off and hoisted them up to the rafters. where the clothes swayed like headless ghosts of the men showering below. Photo by Bob Swanson: www.swansonimages.com

In the nineteen thirties, a number of events began to turn Jerome in a downward direction, including the depression, the sale of the United Verde to Phelps Dodge, and the drop of copper prices after World War II.

Environmental Degradation: Mining’s Biggest Insensitivity

Terrill 2) You cite 1953 as a sort of Ground Zero for Jerome when Phelps Dodge discontinued mining. My jaw dropped when I read about how the company not only pulled out of town, but salvaged parts of buildings and took anything of value before leaving Jerome. Was this sort of behavior par for the course with other copper mining towns or was Jerome’s case particularly insensitive?

It was standard operating procedure, however insensitive and cruel it was. You close down a mine and salvage what can be re-used. If you could give employees jobs in your other mines, you did. The rest of the people you forgot about and took no responsibility for. Move or stay was their problem. The Mexican laborers and their families who had built their own houses, pulled them down, salvaging what they could, and went to find jobs elsewhere. The houses that Phelps Dodge built for employees, usually management and middle management, were either torn down or shut down or put on flatbeds and carted away to other towns. The hospital, United Verde apartments and company hills houses were boarded up and the electricity shut off. The 4-story Miller Building, the company store, was pulled down to avoid taxes and potential liabilities from what Phelps Dodge called ‘safety issues.’ Nor was their any expectation that the 140 or so adults and 86 children that stayed behind, would have the wherewithal, the money or the will, to continue living in Jerome and maintain the infrastructure. “Jerome is finished,” one mining official said. “Within a year grass will grow on Main Street.”

Perhaps the biggest insensitivity, if you could put that rather bland word on it, was the immense environmental degradation Phelps Dodge walked away from. Not just in Jerome, but in the Verde Valley. But remember, this was the fifties. There were no environmental laws in place. No law equaled no responsibility.

Contaminated mining tailings Jerome AZ

The mining tailings in Jerome AZ are full of pollutants. When it rained, water flowed through the tailings and came out as blue water that flowed into Bitter Creek, turning the water azure. Photo by Bob Swanson (www.swansonimages.com)

Supernatural Attachment

Terrrill 3.) Jerome was literally a ghost town in the 1950s and 1960s. For the few people who stayed behind, what did they state their reasons were given the poor conditions of homes, sewer, water and power?

First, Jerome was never a ghost town. That was an invention of the Jerome Historical Society as a way of encouraging tourism. Jerome was a village that 220-300 people lived in, with perhaps 100 houses and maybe eight buildings that weren’t being lived in. The high school, with the exception of a few years, was still operating in 1972. If you stayed in Jerome after the fifties, you kept up your house as much as you could. The houses that were not lived—such as those on Company Hill— in deteriorated pretty fast. And the big problem that emerged with advertising Jerome as a ghost town was that many tourists became predators who thought they somehow entitled to the ‘leavings.’ They would wander into houses that obviously looked lived in and become entirely surprised to find someone quite offended.

Spooks On Main Street

Jerome Historical Society members dressed up as “Spooks: on Main Street in the nineteen fifties to help publicize Jerome as a ghost city. Courtesy Jerome Historical Society

Virtually everyone that stayed, or moved there in the fifties and sixties, talked about the love they had for Jerome, one that I characterize as a supernatural attachment. They always talked of the superb views. People that left and came to visit told me they always wanted to come back to live there again. And people that did live there in the fifties and sixties told me what how peaceful, enjoyable and quiet village life was. For sure the kids had a superb life, the mines, the tunnels, the empty buildings and homes were just one big massive playground that was entirely open to them.

And then, layered into all that, was the sense that everyone was working towards the town’s restoration, and there was some sense of hope that someday, Jerome would become a history Mecca, and later, an art Mecca—even though towards the end of the sixties, the town needed something of a miracle to stay alive, not just in terms of fixing its deteriorating infrastructure but its very poor economy. In those years, Jerome was one of the poorest towns in the state.

Love, Need and Hope in Jerome, AZ

Terrill 5.) The late 1960s and early 1970s saw an invasion of dissatisfied hippies move into town and had to not only intermingle with the old-timers, but had to come together in planning the future of Jerome. How did that happen?

Well, that’s the whole book and more, and it’s the question that impelled me to writing it, and what probably makes the book a fascinating read. Love, need and hope make powerful allies. That’s what binds uncommon people together, overcomes antipathy and impels them forward in a common mission. Virtually everyone shared a love of the town, a need to make sure it didn’t fall down the mountain, and a hope that it could become a viable place to live.

Diane Sward Rapaport

Front cover, Home Sweet Jerome by Diane Sward Rapaport. Illustration by Anne Bassett, Jerome Artist

“The way I felt about it, I kind of resented it at first, this hippie group moving in,” said John McMillan, one of the most respected of the town elders. “But I found there were some pretty smart kids among them and they got into the politics of Jerome and took over the Town Council and did a pretty good job. I don’t resent that at all because these old timers, they can’t run the damn place forever.” Restoration didn’t happen all at once, but what made it start to happen, is that the hippies became ‘joiners.’ Some joined the fire department; some joined the historical society; some ran for town council, and so on. And it wasn’t so much that there was a plan, but a need to get infrastructure in order, town accounting organized in order to get grants. And the other piece, the one that’s the most controversial, is that the hippies began to grow large marijuana gardens that brought cash into town and enabled everything from artists starting their own businesses to having the money to rebuild their houses. When you add income to love, hope and need, and begin to build a viable economy, then suddenly a future for Jerome became a whole lot more possible.

Riches to Rags: Jerome AZ history

Terrill 5.) What inspired you to research the history of Jerome and make you want to put it all down in book form?

I wanted to know the history of where I had chosen to live. When I moved to Jerome in 1979, several layers of history were entirely visible and wove in and out of each other, but without context. There were large amounts of mining wastes and a big open pit; a denuded mountain; large houses on Company Hill that looked like they were ready to fall apart and were emblematic of what I heard was a ghost town; large, boarded buildings, such as the hospital, or the Daisy Hotel which was windowless and roofless. And because the town was encompassed in about one square mile of real estate and only had about 400 people living there, my first question was how did Jerome swing from rich to decrepit.

Arriaga House Jerome AZ

My favorite ruin in 1885 was the Arriaga House up near Company Hill. The photo became the cover of Roberto Rabago’s book, Rich Town Poor Town. Photograph by Bob Swanson, www.Swansonimages.com

Although there was a fair amount written about the boomtown mining days, what happened afterwards was scant. So I started asking. Old-timers and newcomers began telling me stories that edged on preposterous—how Jerome’s mortician flew over the town in the sixties and threw out seeds of paradise trees; how the historical society acquired most of downtown for $10; how the biggest theft in Jerome was money hidden in the church and discovered after the priest died in 1979. So if you were a historian, like me by education and curiosity, you became a detective that was sucked into researching the veracity of those stories. I became hooked. And the more I heard and studied, the more devilishly contradictory and intriguing it all became. It was as though I found myself in the middle of a movie, in which I was playing some role that wasn’t quite clear to me, with a cast of extraordinary heroes and scoundrels that had already been part of many dramas. So there we all were, careening towards a future for Jerome that was not possible to predict, in a falling down town. Better than any novel you could concoct.

Rags to Riches in Jerome AZ: America’s Loveliest Town

Terrill 6.) What is your view of Jerome today, and has it reached its full maturity?

I would use the word restoration instead of maturity. With a few exceptions, Jerome has reached full restoration. Jerome has become the art and history Mecca that residents had hoped for. The town draws more than a million visitors a year. Business is booming. If you visit Jerome in the early morning or even after five when the visitors more or less disappear, what you would see is an astonishing lovely village, perhaps one of the most beautiful in America, surrounded by empty land that is beginning to be reforested and a breathtakingly beautiful eighty mile panoramic view of valleys and canyons that changes with the weather and time of day—“heaven on earth” as photographer Ron Chilston likes to say. Buildings on Main Street, the Grand Hotel, Douglas Mansion, The Little Daisy, have been lavishly restored. Many rebuilt homes are beautiful and comfortable. Those old decrepit Company Hill houses are now jewels on the hill. The whole town has become an oasis—one huge garden of flowers with thousands of pine and fruit trees. A variety of activities can accommodate visitors of every taste and age, from looking for ghosts to sipping wine or cappuccino, to visiting art galleries, to dancing to rock ‘n roll, to visiting Jerome’s mining museums, to going to the quirky museum of old trucks at the Gold King Mine (which was never a gold mine).

Fall in Jerome by Mark Hemleben

Oil painting, Fall in Jerome, by Jerome Arizona plein air painter Mark Hemleben (www.markhemleben.com)

But for many residents, there is a downside to success. Lots of cars and motorcycles go up and down the hill daily and with them a lot of noise and low rumble. Quite a few people own homes right on the main highway and noise and fumes from cars creeping into the houses are intolerable. A kind of frenetic people bedlam makes it less pleasant to be uptown or even near it during the day. And then there is some fear that the income that can now be commanded from vacation rentals will mean a decrease in residential population, a decrease in taxes coming into the town, and a degradation of the community spirit that once re-built the town.

Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Richest Copper Mining City by Diane Sward Rapaport

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