11/12/2014 – Ajo, Arizona

First off, the name.  Yes, Ajo means ‘garlic’ in Spanish.  But this isn’t a garlic-growing region and, reportedly, never has been.  It is, however, an area that is rich in copper deposits.  Early Native Americans (O’odhams) used to dig the copper out of the ground and use it, along with other minerals, to make dyes and paint.  The O’odham word for paint was o’oho.  The most popular opinion as to how Ajo got its present day name is that the early Spanish explorers in the region couldn’t pronounce the word that the locals were calling the place so they grabbed the closest-sounding Spanish word they could think of and that was Ajo.  O’oho, Ajo, sounds reasonable to me.

In 1884,  Tom Childs, Sr. returned to Ajo and started developing an old abandoned Spanish mine that he’d discovered in 1847.  This mine became the open-pit operation that basically built Ajo.  The mine was shut down in 1985 but the company still owns it and keeps a skeleton crew on for various maintenance and bookkeeping duties.  The rumors are always circulating that the mine is going to reopen soon as there is still plenty of copper to be had. 

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The pit is 1000 feet deep and getting fairly close at the bottom.  Further mining might require making the pit wider so that the area in the bottom can be widened.  At any rate, it seems so far that the possible profits to be made by reopening the mine are outweighed by the profits that can be made by some of the company’s other mines.  

Until things were shut down back in ’85, this was a company town.  Dodge-Phelps owns the mine and owned most of the property in Ajo as well. They had built houses for their workers to rent and most of those are still standing.  Many are circa 1949 but a few are newer.  At the end of the 80s the company decided to sell the homes.  There were reportedly 900 that were put on the market all at once.  The first ones were sold for a set price of $8000.

Ajo sits pretty much out of the way of normal traffic unless you happen to be going to Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Mexico.  How did we happen across it?  Our friends Bill and Elli, who we met when we were moored in Puerto Peñasco a couple years ago, were giving us a ride to the Phoenix airport after we’d spent a few days with them at their condo outside Rocky Point.  We crossed the Mexico/US border at Sonoyta/Lukeville.  Forty-three miles up the highway we passed through this cute little town.  Turned out to be Ajo.  I remember being kind of impressed when I saw it for the first time.  Seemed fairly lively for such an out-of-the-way spot and it also looked clean and well-maintained.  As we were just passing through, I was hoping to get back to explore it a little more sometime in the future.

Last spring, you may recall that Lulu flew up to Oregon before I did.  I stayed behind to get Siempre Sabado all squared away for storage on the hard in San Carlos.  Towards the end of May, I jumped in Flipper and headed north to join her.  I decided to take my time getting to Oregon and so, crossed the border at Sonoyta/Lukeville instead of the more expeditious route through Nogales.  You can read the original post, but the long and short of it was that my muffler parted ways with my exhaust header and I had to pull into the first town for repairs.  That town was Ajo.  I stayed at the Belly Acres RV park right next to the Napa store and auto mechanic.  While getting the rig fixed, I had time to wander around a little.  Didn’t have bike with me then so I didn’t wander real far.  But, from what I saw, this looked like it could be a contender for a place we may choose to light after we get to the point where we might kind of want to have a home base somewhere.  Yes, it gets god-awful hot here in the summer but the summer is an excellent time to visit the kids and grandkids in Oregon.

Part of what this road trip is about is exploring various places we might like to consider for a home base.  Ajo is the first place we’ve been where the climate right now gives us confidence that winters would be to our liking.  We decided to check it out a little deeper.

Upon pulling into town from the south, the first thing you see is 100 Estrella with signs out front touting their beer and burgers as being ‘the best’.  It was lunchtime and we were done driving for the day so we stopped in.  They had really good burgers and a huge selection of craft and import beers, pretty much none of which we had ever heard of before.  We had lunch and some kind of overpriced, not really very cold lager.  After lunch we headed off to find an RV park.  We pulled into the Shadow Ridge RV Resort.  I was a little skeptical when I saw “Resort” in the name.  That has usually meant high prices. This time, however, with our Good Sam discount it was only $24/night and that’s with nice showers, restrooms, and full hookups.  And, if you pay for 6 nights you get the 7th for free which brings it down to only $20.57/night.  We were told that we could just keep paying day-by-day if we wanted and, once we’d paid for 6, the next night would be free.  No need to decide in advance if we wanted to stay that long.  Seemed pretty darn fair to us.  We paid for 3 days, found our spot and then drove down to Olsen’s IGA for some supplies.

Once back at the park settled in, I started perusing Zillow to check out houses in Ajo.  I set our upper limit at an asking price of $60K.  Found quite a few empty lots and a lot of houses in that price range.  I wrote down the bare essentials of each and then found them on a map we’d been given at the chamber of commerce office.  We decided we’d spend part of the day on Saturday riding our bikes around, checking the houses out and whittling down the list of places we’d ask the realtor to show us on Monday.  It was early enough and a couple were near the RV park so we walked up the hill and saw a couple and then walked towards downtown and saw a couple more.

Saturday we rode around town checking things out and looking at houses.

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We also rode up to the museum but it was closed as the volunteer who was supposed to be there had to attend a funeral.  But the sign said it would be open on Sunday.  By this time we were pretty much ready for a cold beer.  Trouble was, where to find one?  100 Estrella not only had not-cold, overpriced beer, but it was also CLOSED ON WEEKENDS!!!  Can you imagine?  It’s the only place the tourists driving through will even see.  The few restaurants that used to be here are all closed up.  100 Estrella is pretty much the only one left.  OK, we were pretty sure there had to be a little quiet workingman’s bar somewhere around here but we sure hadn’t seen one.  We pretty much gave up and went back to the camper.  Later we decided to ride our bikes down to Olsen’s for groceries.  Along the way we noticed this place:

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We also saw the VFW hall and the bowling alley and thought either one might be a possibility.  On the way back from the store, we stopped in at the “American Citizens Social Club” aka “Chu Chu’s”.  Weren’t sure if it was OK to go in but decided to take a chance.  There were a few guys inside watching Arizona have its way with Notre Dame and a couple of ladies and another guy at the bar.  We ordered a couple of Bud Light drafts and the bartender had no problem serving us.  Ah…… !    It may be Bud Light, but at least it’s icy cold and cheap.  We saw signs behind the bar about members and such but we just kept quiet.  When we ordered a second round, she asked if we were members.  We said we weren’t so she had us sign in as guests.  Apparently you can do that 4 times before you’re expected to join the club.  Dues are $35/year and would probably be well worth it seeing as how the pickings are pretty slim in Ajo.  Later we found out that they’re only open on Friday and Saturday and for the occasional special event, so maybe not.

On Sunday we rode up to the museum and got quite an education.  Louie, the docent, is a retired teacher and has lived in Ajo for 37 years, just slightly over half of his life.  Met an Ajo woman years ago and the rest is history.  He told us a lot about the mine, the town, the O’odham people, etc.  We asked things about city government (There’s no lawmaking body – just an advisory council. Ajo is unincorporated and so, falls under Pima County’s wing.), the water and wastewater systems (The mine treats and provides water for the properties in Ajo proper and also sells water to the agency that supplies the “outer” neighborhoods.  The mine also collects and treats Ajo’s wastewater but the outer neighborhoods are on septic systems), building codes (“Building codes?”  It’s pretty loose.  Pima County has jurisdiction but is unlikely to send anyone out to Ajo unless a neighbor calls and complains about something.).  We learned that the main portion of Ajo that has all the old company houses is on the sewer system and the mine’s water system.  The rest of the town, part of which is called Gibson”, was not under the mine’s controls and doesn’t get any of the mine’s benefits, either.  It was all very enlightening.

Afterwards, we decided to check out the VFW.  The bowling alley always looked closed but apparently we just need to get used to seeing these heavy-duty “screen” doors.  They look like something you’d lock up outside your regular doors when you close up and, indeed, they are.  But, they are also used by them selves just as regular screen doors.  They’re heavy-duty so they can be locked up with the regular doors open when it’s just too hot to completely close things up.  Sort of like all the barred windows and doors we see in La Paz.  Anyhow, I’ve never been to a VFW hall before but the sign said “Welcome all Veterans and their guests”.  Well, I’m a veteran, of a foreign war, no less, and had a copy of my DD214 (separation from active duty papers) in my wallet to prove it.  So, in we went.  There were only a half dozen or so folks around the bar.  Pam, the bartender, asked to see my card.  I told her I didn’t have a card but showed her my DD214.  She said, “if you have all this, why haven’t you just filled out the paperwork and joined?”  I told her this was my first time in a VFW hall ever.  She got us our beers (cold! cheap! light!) and a form to join the VFW.  I figured, what the heck, there’s a VFW hall in pretty much every town in the U.S. so this might be a good way to go.  The bar was open 7 days a week from 3 PM until 7 PM “unless there was a pretty good crowd at 7:00”.  We had a very enjoyable time visiting with the various old codgers around the bar and especially liked Pam, the bartender.  She’s about my age and was born in Ajo, although she’s lived all over the world as she was married to an Army lifer.  The only downside is that, this being a private club, smoking is allowed and it seems that pretty much everyone there smokes.

Monday, we called Copper Crown Realty and told Daisy that we’d like to look at some listings.  Daisy was more than happy to show us around and particularly happy that we wanted to look at a few listings from another agency as she’d been wanting to see them herself.  She drove us around for a good 2 hours.  We looked at everything from total dumps to some fairly nice places.  This one really looked good from the outside:

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It had new aluminum siding, a new metal roof, and a new electrical service.  And, it was only $22K.  Well, all the good stuff was definitely on the outside.  It had no foundation although some concrete had been poured around the perimeter to look like a foundation.  The floors sagged and were about worn through in places.  It was pretty much of a wreck inside although it looked really good from the outside.  One thing we found out from Daisy was about the “mine houses”.  Like I said before, some 900 houses had been built by the mine for its workers.  These were all pretty much the same house.  Two or three bedrooms, one bath, a little over 900 square feet, built on a concrete slab, galley kitchen.  As we drove around we got better and better at identifying the mine houses.  Generally, all else being equal, they seem to be a better bet than the others, at least in the price range we’re entertaining.  Many of the non-mine houses were built with floor joists set on concrete pier blocks; no foundation other than that, whereas all the mine houses have a concrete slab under them.  The mine houses are all stick-built using rot-resistant redwood lumber.  Most, but not all, have been stucco’ed over.  Here’s one we looked at that we really liked.  It’sa  typical mine house and, although we would want to do a lot to it, it doesn’t need anything done before moving in, unlike a lot of the places we saw.

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Even had a house for Flipper in the backyard.  This one was priced at $53K.  Here are some other examples of what owners have done to their mine houses to make them unique.  Keep in mind that they all started out looking like the house in the photo above, and most still do.  But there are a few gems out there:

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We had a good time looking at houses and seeing what to expect for what we want to pay.  Not quite ready to buy yet as the house would have to sit empty for another couple of years and that’s not really a good idea.  We’re just hoping that, if Ajo turns out to be our place, the mine won’t reopen in the meantime and cause all the prices to go way up.

We have been loving the weather here. It’s been in the mid-80s during the day and cooling down into the 60s at night.  Been a little windy the last couple of nights and even a little breezy during the day but we’re told this only happens when a front is moving through.  We’re outa here on Friday, headed east towards Bisbee, Tombstone, Douglas, etc.

I just realized that I haven’t blogged since the south rim of the Grand Canyon.  Did a little updating on Facebook but I know not everyone reads that.  So, just to bring you up to-date:

Grand Canyon Village (south rim) to Prescott, AZ: 122 miles

Prescott, AZ to Gila Bend, AZ via Avondale, AZ (to hit Camping World): 181 miles

Gila Bend, AZ to Maricopa, AZ: 43 miles

Maricopa, AZ to Ajo AZ: 136 miles

Total to-date: 4.954 miles


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About sryoder

Steve & Lulu... retired. Had enough of the cold wet dreary fall/winter/spring in the Pacific Northwest. Bought a boat, fixed it up, sold our home and sailed to Mexico in November, 2010. Been here ever since except for occasional forays to the States (summer only, thank you) to visit the kids, parents and siblings. If you're looking for a sailing blog, this is the wrong place. This is a traveling, hunkering in, eating blog. Sailing is just how we get from place to place when we can't walk.
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8 Responses to 11/12/2014 – Ajo, Arizona

  1. Al Foster says:

    Steve and Lulu, we could be neighbors someday, well almost. We just bought a townhouse in Green Valley AZ, 50 miles north of Nogales, and about 300 miles north of San Carlos. Plan is to haul out in San Carlos summers starting next June. It was time to find a land base somewhere and this place just kinda stuck on us. We are about 148 mi on highway 86 east of Ajo. Come see us some time. Need to get to la paz soon to get s/v solana back in the water. We’ll be reverse snowbirds MX in the winters and Pima County AZ in the summers.

    • sryoder says:

      Al, are you guys there now? We’re heading east from Ajo this Friday, bound for Tombstone, Bisbee, etc. Might have to dip down to Green Valley to see what it looks like.

      • Al Foster says:

        We are in Green Valley. Rented a little one bedroom condo to live in while we looked for a place to buy, that was a month and one week ago today. We are still in the condo and I’m doing some projects at the townhouse in preparation for leaving for La Paz for the winter (roof maintenance, insulating some outside pipes, fixing a broken oven door etc.) You know, just like living on a boat, the only thing so far that hasn’t required me being on my knees is the oven door project. We left some things in long term storage in WA State when we sold our place and went cruising and we’re trying to decide when to move it down here. Sharon’s been shopping garage sales and consignment stores for some minimal furnishings before we move in to make it kinda livable in the meantime. Still need a bed, maybe a air mattress on the floor for a while. Please stop by, we can have that beer we almost had last July when we came through Oregon on the way north. Call if you decide to stop, 360 305 0797

    • Shucks thought you would have moved into Ajo. You did a good job of summarizing the history and area of Ajo. Glad you came to the Ajo Museum. Louie Walters, Curator.

      • sryoder says:

        Thanks Louie. As it turns out, we ended up in another former mining town: Bisbee. You know, the town that Ajo recently beat out for the title of Best Small Town In Arizona or somesuch thing.

  2. joan yoder says:

    Looks like a pretty clean area.

  3. jamesdane says:

    Steve,
    Ajo is an interesting little town. We will be there in January on our way to Organ Pipe NP and will check out the VFW. I will have to bring a copy of my DD214. I think some of the VFW’s have RV parking close. I know Yuma has a RV area next door without utilities. When we were there last winter they had a country western band going with dancing at 3:00pm on a Monday and everyone was having a great time. Enjoy your travels and stay warm this winter. Great blog.
    Jim

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