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Jerome embodies spirit of Wild West even as its buildings slide downhill toward Verde Valley.
JEROME, Ariz. — This town was hopping at about 3 p.m on the last Sunday in March when I drove in on my way from Prescott to Sedona. The live band was rocking in the Spirit Room on Main Street, and libations were flowing freely. An online review of the place said it had “a friendly staff and even friendlier patrons,” and that seemed on the mark.
Jerome offers a welcome respite on the mountainous road. Set at 5,200 feet above sea level, its historic old buildings peer down on the valley where Sedona sits, nearly 1,000 feet below. The town boasts a population of only 450 souls, but it attracts more than 1 million visitors a year. They come to see what was once a booming mining town, then a scarcely populated ghost town, then a revived haven for artists, motorcyclists, pot-smokers, drinkers and cowboys and hippies from across the West and beyond.
The spirit of the town, once known as “the wickedest in the West,” was captured, so to speak, when 100 law enforcement officers swarmed in at 5 a.m. on Oct. 15, 1985, to arrest many marijuana devotees.
As the Huffington Post recalled in a 2013 article, Jerome was then “an artsy, bohemian enclave [that] loved its pot. Residents grew the drug in the nearby hills, and legalization sympathizers had taken over the local government. Jerome officials took a live-and-let-live approach to marijuana. That is, until an informant moved in and began recording his conversations around town for state and federal anti-drug agencies.”
The army of state cops and federal agents confiscated some 50 pounds of marijuana that day. And they arrested more than 20 people, including the police chief, two city council members and the former mayor. A spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety was quoted as saying: “It’s a town that would like to secede and carry on its own lifestyle. The people there strongly believe in an individual’s freedom, above all else.”
Today, the cops are still on the lookout for marijuana, not to mention stronger drugs. It’s now legal to possess cannabis for medicinal purposes but not for recreation. And, as The Arizona Republic reported in a newly updated Q&A about marijuana laws in the Grand Canyon State, “The Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that police can still use the odor of marijuana as probable cause to search a car or a premises.” One can be arrested for driving under the influence.
For such a small place, Jerome boasts a pretty large police department: four full-time, two part-time and three reserve officers. (The Spirit Room is open until 1 a.m.) The department has been headed since 1999 by Allen Muma, an Air Force veteran who was the youngest police chief in Michigan before heading west, and also has worked for the UN’s Civilian Policing program. He is a consultant on policing issues for many small towns, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The Police Department has a sense of humor, or so its website would suggest. The site shows Muma getting an award, and features a hilarious country and western song about the highway patrol. “My hours are long and my pay is low,” the singer croons. He continues:
“I’ve got a gun on my hip and the right to arrest,
I’m the guy who’s the boss on this highway
So you better watch what you’re doin’ when you’re drivin’ my way.”
Muma is also president of the Jerome Historical Society, which has served as the principal economic engine of the town for more than half a century. Jerome saw its heyday as a mining town in the 1920s, when its population peaked at 15,000. Demand for copper was heavy during World War II, but saw a steady decline after the war ended. Phelps Dodge closed its mine in 1953, the same year that the historical society was founded. At the time, fewer than 100 people were left in Jerome, and they decided to promote it “as a historic ghost town,” according to Jerome’s official website.
“Today, the mines are silent, and Jerome has become the largest ghost town in America,” says the website. “Haunted” tours of Jerome are promoted on Expedia, and there’s a Gold King Mine and Ghost Town a few miles up the valley.
The historical society struggled to keep Jerome alive. In 1956 it reached an agreement with Phelps Dodge assuring that no more buildings would be torn down in the main part of “Ghost City.” In addition, the society succeeded in purchasing most of uptown Jerome, securing Main Street. Over the years, it has transferred many buildings back to private ownership, but still has title to eight commercial buildings.
Jerome also promotes itself as “America’s Most Vertical City.” Indeed, it is built on a steep slope, and, in the view of some experts, is gradually sliding downhill. While to my eye the town didn’t seem on the verge of collapsing into the valley, I did see the infamous “sliding jail,” an old lockup that was shifting downhill until it was stabilized some 30 years ago. It had slipped some 200 feet before the stabilization work.
The historic buildings of Jerome seem to be what mainly interests the local media. The Verde Independent, serving the Verde Valley, last month covered the decision by the city council to approve a plan by the Jerome Historical Society to rehab the historic sliding jail and also to shore up a sliding parking area nearby, which cost the town two dozen precious parking spots when it began to move a few years ago.
Jerome also made news in early March when another historic building, the former Cuban Queen Bordello, collapsed on a windy Sunday afternoon. The bordello and its Madam, Anita Gonzales, were celebrated in a 2011 book, “The Ghost of the Cuban Queen Bordello.” The famous jazz artist Jelly Roll Morton, was a regular at the Cuban Queen.
Jerome was replete with amusing scenes as I walked its streets late last month. Ladies in the Spirit Room were decked out to dance, in beautiful dresses that evoked the old West. Men sported cowboy hats and boots. Just up the street an oddball store called Puscifer offered all sorts of stuff and a drop-dead view of the Verde Valley. Parked outside the Spirit Room was an ancient truck whose body was an inch above the ground but could be lifted, I was told, by a hydraulic system. And across the street, an outlandish three wheeled open-air vehicle resembling a huge motorcycle had space for two passengers who might want a motorized tour of the classic old ghost city.
Timothy B. Clark is Editor at Large for Government Executive's Route Fifty.
(Top photo by Ken Lund / Flickr via CC BY 2.0)
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