Arizona Reprised: Ajo (Part 2)

The town of Ajo, as mentioned in an earlier blog post, sits close to the border of Mexico, and takes its name, it is said, either from the Spanish word for garlic, or perhaps from the First Nations People’s similar sounding pronunciation of the word for paint (o’oho), as they were said to have collected red pigment body paint from this area. There probably will not be an answer to this question of origin but one thing is very clear when you take a short drive just outside of town and you talk with the long-time locals. This was a mining town. High grade copper ore was “discovered” by Europeans, who assumed mining from the native Americans who lived in what is now Ajo. The town boomed in 1911 and became Arizona’s first copper mining region.

Early Phelps-Dodge open pit mine in Ajo

Copper was mined in an open pit unlike the subterranean approach which followed a gold or silver vein deep into the earth. Early pictures from the onset of mining in town show a very large open pit with concentric ringed roads dropping into the maw of the earth. On the edge of this maw, some of the remaining local tribes had their village and were hired to work within it. The mine changed hands several times and was eventually bought by Phelps Dodge in 1921, the largest copper mining company in America. A railroad was built from Gila Bend to serve the mining industry and it operated until the fateful year of 1985. The town of Ajo was fully supported by Phelps Dodge, and by this I mean everything was controlled and run by the company: schools, hospital, fire and police departments, all infrastructure. It was very much a self-sufficient, self-serving operation, employing thousands with tentacles reaching throughout the region.

There is a fine line of existence between large company operations, its workers, the economy, and the zeitgeist of attitudes of the time. The union-affiliated workers demanded more money and benefits from the company, the economy was hitting the skids in the mid 80s, dissatisfaction grew, and a labor strike devastated the workers and town. The company brought in non-union workers to fill their spots for a couple of years but the company could not sustain this arrangement. Phelps Dodge pulled out of their Ajo operations and placed their emphasis in other areas with greater return on investment.

Ajo Strike: Winning the battle, and losing the war
Recent Ajo open pit mine closed in 1985

This is a story that has been replayed many times in the saga of industry and labor, creating the inception and growth of the labor movement and with it many stories and songs that are part of Americana.

Walking through Ajo today one sees a town holding on by the strength of mostly the employment of the Border Patrol. It is close to being a ghost town. Huge segments of former mine smelting, crushing, and ore transport in town were cleared away by the company when it moved, leaving the town pockmarked with open space. Near the top of the town sits a boarded up, silent and eerie, four-acre hospital complex, now for sale at $349,000. Ruth and I joked about buying it, calling in Ghost Hunters to certify that it’s haunted, then selling tour tickets.

Abandoned and for sale Phelps-Dodge Hospital…haunted?!

Ringing the town, looming high as a small mountain and running for thousands of yards, sits the slag residue of the crushing and smelting operations from close to 70 years of mining. After long questioning of “in the know” locals, we discovered that Phelps Dodge has not completely relinquished their investment in town. They continue a very small token participation for the reason that at first, had not dawned on us. The clean-up operation of this huge debris field rivaling a Superfund site would devastate the company’s coffers if they were to pull out completely, so a small controlling ownership keeps the EPA at arms’ length.

Slag being dumped on slag mountain top

Just outside of town, at the edge of the tall barbed wire fence that keeps out those seeking danger and satiating curiosity, sits the Ajo Museum, manned by an old former mining engineer.

Ajo, Historical Society and St Catherine Indian Mission

It is a quaint, simple and educational experience for visitors with artifacts from ancient pottery, a recreation of the town’s dentist office, newspaper printing type and presses, now-antique TV broadcasting camera equipment, mining supplies, school desks, and examples of everyday town life that remain as reminders of a once better time before the company closed. One can see the very real comparison to the gold and silver mining ghost town of Bodie, California, that died when the ore dried up and everyone left en masse, leaving their personal effects spookily in situ, perfectly preserved for posterity.

In the museum I dug around in shelves of old books and papers trying to look back in time to discover the town’s soul. Several shelves contained the carefully categorized collection of the town’s high school yearbooks beginning around the end of the 1930s and progressing up to the crash of the mid 80s. I felt like a voyeur, yet was driven to read the teenagers’ inscriptions to each other next to their high school activities. There were cute names for football players, and pledges of friendship between long-skirted, carefully coiffed girls in home economics classes, and assurance to those seeking to go to war. Obvious blending between native American, Latino, and Caucasian students. The ubiquitous prom kings, queens, and courts, proclamations of hope and promise for the future from the high school principal in the forward of each year’s book. Most faces, pictures, and lives long passed, from a town with hope, now gone, school no longer present, building repurposed.

The old museum docent approached me to ask if there were any questions. Thinking for a second, I asked if he went to high school in Ajo. He replied that he had. Holding up a year book, I asked him for his year and he and I dug through the stacks to find the book, look up his name in the index, and I held the book up to his face to compare the picture to the man before me, whose eyes had seen so much since those halcyon days of anticipation of future rewards and success.

Ajo Museum Docent Jose
Docent Jose’s 1958 Year Book picture

Next to his yearbook picture was his sister’s face as well, beaming in high school hope. As is often the case, next to each portrait is listed their aspirations. My docent, Jose, and his sister never fulfilled their high school dreams, yet both still survive, rich in memory, family, and success in their own right. For Jose, the years and mine labor had taken its toll, and had changed his countenance reflecting a hard life, yet with eyes that shone bright in wisdom.

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Ben Macri

Lived in hippie commune for 12 years, studied hotel and restaurant management and co-managed coop owned restaurants in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Boston, Massachusetts. Practiced body therapies professionally; managed YMCA Health Club in Wichita, Kansas. Graduated in first paramedic class of the University of Alabama, Birmingham; taught first aid in the Red Cross in Guatemala. Feeding operation manager of Kao I Dang refuge camp, Thailand; immigration processor for refugees in Bangkok, Thailand, for the US Embassy. Professor emeritus-department chair of Industrial Arts, City College San Francisco. Retired artist seeking the marrow in the bones of life.

One thought on “Arizona Reprised: Ajo (Part 2)”

  1. A hard life,mining. You spend your life literally ripping your living from the Earth. Tons of ore are reduced to a few pounds of copper. The residual is melted into a “slag”and unceremoniously dumped down a man-made mound of regurgitated, burned rock. The Church and the local Bar help the laborers get through. The graveyards tell more than the few libraries. Thanks for writing about this way of life. The coal miners’ plight is at least occasionally alluded to. Not so “low Mineros” de las minas in the Southwest.

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