The Wickedest Town in the West
December 2, 2008 2:37 PM   Subscribe

The town of Jerome was incorporated on March 8, 1889 when Arizona was still a territory. A mining town of the real 'wild west' variety, Jerome was incorporated after three devastating fires within an eighteen month period that nearly destroyed the town. Jerome was a wild town with little law enforcement, building codes, or real government. It earned the title "The Wickedest Town in America" by the New York Sun in 1903 for being a hotbed of gambling, prostitution, and vice.

Jerome is the town of stories. The same fires that plagued the town plagued the mine. Strikes at the United Verde Mine lead to forced deportation of the miners at gunpoint. Capitalizing women opened bordellos. The population grew to a then-staggering 15,000 residents before the price of copper dropped and the mines went bust. In 1953 they closed, and the population dropped.
Jerome is now known as an art destination, with more than 30 galleries and working studios. The Old Jerome High School is home to many artists and their open studios. The few hotels there are rumored to be haunted. The town currently boasts a population of 343, including Maynard James Kennan of Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer fame. He resides in the small town full time... making wine.
posted by Bageena (23 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I've been thinking about what my first FPP would be for a long while now. After recently visiting the town of Jerome for the third time in my life, I decided this would be perfect to share. I personally think the first link is the best if you're really interested in learning more about the coolest little town in Arizona.
posted by Bageena at 2:39 PM on December 2, 2008

I love hearing about places like this - remote little villages with some long and sordid history. I'll enjoy making my way through these links, thanks.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:43 PM on December 2, 2008

Wow - a member for over two years and this is your first FPP. Very interesting post!

Apparently Keenan has lived in AZ since 1995, and compares the specific area to traditional European wine grape-growing regions. He's even gone on signing tours for his wine (which I first read as singing tour).
posted by filthy light thief at 2:58 PM on December 2, 2008

I've been holding back because I've been afraid that I'd misspell or put up too many Youtube links or make a run-on sentence or make some other mistake that might lead to a lynching. I've read Mefi daily for two years - I know how you people get. That's right - I said 'you people'.
Maynard is actually going to be here in town (Phoenix, AZ) on 12/10 to do wine bottle signings. I'm going to get a few bottles signed, a few for me and a few for a friend of mine who's a sommelier up in Colorado. I've also done a bit of artwork I'm hoping he'll sign, but we'll see - I've heard he won't sign anything but his wine bottles at these things. *shrugs*
posted by Bageena at 3:10 PM on December 2, 2008

That's right - I said 'you people'.

'You people'?
Get a rope.
posted by cimbrog at 3:13 PM on December 2, 2008

I've been to Jerome! Once, I was working in Prescott during some event or other and the nearest hotel with rooms was in Cottonwood, so I had to drive back and forth for a few days. I found Jerome quite interesting, as well as the drive through the national forest. The abandoned mining sites littering the sides of the valleys were an unusual sight for me. Around here, all the mine workings are gone and plugged.

I found it sort of like Eureka Springs, but with a checkered past and even more rugged terrain.

One night, after work, I stopped and had a margarita at a bar there. It wasn't a wise idea for someone used to drinking at 1000 feet to drink at 6000 feet and then drive down the mountain into Cottonwood.

The next morning I had breakfast at one of the places there. That was much more relaxing, to say the least. The steep drops on the edge of the road didn't seem so bad sober and during daylight hours.

And the high school? Pretty neat how it's perched on the hillside and the highway runs around it below the grade of the building, thus necessitating a substantial retaining wall. Looking at the orthophotos on Google, it's amazing how the extreme differences in elevation become obscured, making the roads look very oddly laid out.

One thing I still don't understand is why anybody would choose to live in Cottonwood over Prescott (or Jerome!). It can be beautifully pleasant up in the hills, while down in Cottonwood, it's oppressively hot.
posted by wierdo at 3:49 PM on December 2, 2008

Sounds like the setting for a Dashiell Hammett story.
posted by robcorr at 3:50 PM on December 2, 2008

Wow. There really WERE towns like this.

Great post. welcome to the gang.
posted by salishsea at 3:51 PM on December 2, 2008

Wow, Maynard lives in Jerome?

I was mostly unimpressed with the art when I was there. It was pretty standard happy hippy tourist souvenir shit. Lots of shiny beads and suchlike, some average landscape or Native-American themed paintings, lots of t-shirts. It's a lot like Sedona except without the pretty giant rocks.

Jerome as a historical town is fascinating, though. The damn thing is barely perched on the edge of a hill. The climb up to Jerome out of Cottonwood is brutal. It may kill your car if it isn't up for it.

If you make it there make sure you check out the excellent museum they have just outside of town. It's worth it just for the scale model they have of the copper mines - which are very large and very complicated, so much so that you really can't grasp how deep and wide they were mining without the large 3D model of all the shafts. The model looks like a 3D visualization of a particularly complicated computer network. There's so many balsa wood struts in it that from a distance it looks like a fuzzy wad of sticks and strings.

They still mine in the area, too. It's pretty easy to find unpaved access roads around the town and go look at some really huge piles of crushed rocks - some of which are so large they're mountains themselves, complete with roads and switchbacks.

Also, just outside of Cottonwood towards Jerome in a place called "Patio Town" by the locals is an abandoned smelter which is quite suitable for urban exploration and abandoned structure spelunking. I'm not going to tell you exactly how to get there - if you're an explorer you'll figure it out. Look for the giant black mountain of smelter slag on Google Earth or Maps. If you're driving you'll want to park in the brush in that area, but be aware that it's a hangout for local kids that like to smash things. Hike around the north side of the slag pile (yeah, it's the long way) to approach the smelter. Watch out for the on-site security guard. Also watch out for the slag - it's like broken glass, you don't want to trip and fall on the stuff. Wear really good boots. Avoid getting dust and dirt in or on you - it may contain arsenic or cyanide.

Also, I haven't had a chance to see if it's mentioned in any of the links but Jerome has been almost entirely lost at least once from simply falling off the mountain. It's a really steep place to build a town.
posted by loquacious at 4:03 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've lived in Arizona my entire life but haven't been to Jerome yet. I've talked about going for the past couple months and this post has convinced me that I HAVE to go.

posted by TurquoiseZebra at 4:14 PM on December 2, 2008

Oh, man I love Jerome. Not the gallery-ish aspect of it, just the thing itself, a little crumbly, perched on the cliffs like that. And the view across the Verde Valley is fucking spectacular. Thanks for this.
posted by dersins at 4:17 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

More photos of Jerome here, here and here (select "Jerome" from the drop-down menu).
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:34 PM on December 2, 2008

This was a fun post because I've been watching Deadwood reruns lately.
posted by sfts2 at 4:55 PM on December 2, 2008

If you have a chance to go to one of Maynard's wine tastings, you should absolutely do it! We went to one in Scottsdale in August and it was a blast chatting with him over a glass about the merits of various grape varietels. He actually makes the wines too, he mentioned that they schedule concerts so that he can be back in AZ ever year for harvest. I'm not sure if he'll sign anything other than wine though, before the tasting they asked everyone to only talk to him about the wines (which are quite tasty).

Thanks for the post Bageena, I've been meaning to visit Jerome forever, now I'll have to make it up there for sure.
posted by TungstenChef at 6:32 PM on December 2, 2008

I agree that the town of Jerome is much more interesting than its current art-colony incarnation. I love the drive from Sedona to Cottonwood, looking up at the J on the hill. (There really is a J, made from white stone above the town.) On a clear day, you can see it from Airport Mesa in Sedona itself.
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 7:15 PM on December 2, 2008

jerome is also the finish for the annual pines-to-the-mines bicycle race. more. more. more.
posted by RockyChrysler at 9:17 PM on December 2, 2008

I have been to Jerome many times. I recommend that you stay at the Grand Hotel which was a hospital back in the day. Also it is one of the few buildings built on solid rock and has not slumped like most of the building in the town. Also you should eat at the Asylum which is the restaurant at the Grand Hotel. Apparently it used to be the mental ward at the hospital. They have an excellent wine list. Including one of my favorites, Far Niete. I have relatives that have grown up in Jerome and I must say the lifestyle should be a model for the world. The citizens are non-judgmental, helpful and friendly. Would visit again ++++++.
posted by Mr_Zero at 10:20 PM on December 2, 2008

Enjoying the post- I liked Jerome too- great setting, not much of a stretch of the imagination to be transported back to a bleak town full of rough-necks, but it's hard to turn a blind eye to the craft shops, and galleries flogging earnest local "art".
posted by marvin at 10:34 PM on December 2, 2008

Great post! I visited Jerome a few years ago over Thanksgiving weekend - the views across the valley were really beautiful on a very clear day. I had a great burger at the Haunted Burger, perched right on the switchback main road through town. There were also a couple neat glass blowing shops in town. The drive to / from Phoenix was also spectacular, though the prospect of doing it on a bike is out of the question.

I waited quite a while before posting for the first time, too, also out of mild fear of the others.
posted by pkingdesign at 12:13 AM on December 3, 2008

Let me know if you get a penny in the safe
posted by A189Nut at 10:49 AM on December 3, 2008

I just visited Jerome a month ago! Fun little town. My photos from the place complete with views across the valley.

We picked up a "History of Jerome" book from the museum while there -- according to it, the title of "Wickedest Town in the West" was probably a misnomer, and it was hotly denied by the town at the time. Drinking, gambling and prostitution were open, thriving industries in town alongside mining, but Jerome had not nearly the level of ultra-violence and murders of other "lawless" wild west towns. It was a wicked place to be sure, but not the wickedest."

That said, it was rather sobering to see that violence toward and murder of prostitutes was common. For all the cute "bordello"-themed restaurants and shops in town now, prostitution was not a glamorous profession, and was very, very dangerous.
posted by electrasteph at 4:45 AM on December 4, 2008

Also -- Jerome wouldn't still be around without the hippy artists and touristy shops. After the mine closed, the population of the town dwindled to less than 50 people in 1955. It was the artists and hippies moving from California looking for a place to set up a collective that saved the town. They brought in tourists, restored buildings, preserved the town's history, set up the museum and revived the population.
posted by electrasteph at 5:19 AM on December 4, 2008

Nifty post! Both my grandmother and mother (and her siblings) are natives of Jerome. My maternal grandfather was born and raised in Verde Valley (just down the mountain).
posted by deborah at 11:34 AM on December 8, 2008

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