Old West Stays Vibrant

In the Arizona Desert, an Eccentric Town Moves Forward While Preserving its Colorful Past

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8, 2009; Page P01

Students of that classic desert feud, Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote, have long pondered where in the Wild West Coyote procured all the oddball products he used in schemes to ensnare the mercurial bird.

A partial list: Batman outfit, earthquake pills, female roadrunner costume, invisible paint, jet-propelled unicycle, bumblebees and high-speed tonic. (All of that, of course, before the advent of Wal-Mart.)

The answer may be the eclectic town of Bisbee, Ariz., a picturesque collection of artists, shopkeepers and vagrants in the high desert nine miles north of the Mexican border. Bisbee's merchants hawk all sorts of curios, from life-size, wire-frame donkeys and antique pinup calendars to bohemian glassware and killer-bee honey. You never know what you'll find in Bisbee, although it almost certainly won't be what you came for.

"No last name," the vendor tells me. "Just 'Joseph the coffee guy.' I used to be Joseph the candle guy. Before that I was Joseph the naked bartender." He is selling bags of roasted coffee beans among a handful of craft and food stands in a long, narrow courtyard in Bisbee.

I came to southern Arizona looking for an older West, one that has managed, by luck or design, to preserve some of its past without becoming either museum or amusement park. Anti-examples abound: Phoenix long ago surrendered to generica, with strip malls and gated communities splaying endlessly outward from a nucleus of skyscrapers. Tombstone, the site of the shootout at the OK Corral, over-hyped its history; it now has a Disney slime, dominated by schlock souvenirs and reenactments. Bisbee has moseyed into the 21st century without shedding its history or selling out. Like the best of the Old West, Bisbee was a center of commerce, debauchery and colorful characters, claiming distinctions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as home of the second most productive copper mine in the United States and one of the West's rowdier party towns.

"This was the biggest city on the train route from El Paso to San Francisco," Michael London says as we walk the hilly streets. London, an archivist, leads public tours dressed in period Western garb, which he insists is also his non-working wardrobe.

Facts tumble off his tongue: The miners came after the Civil War seeking gold but found a heck of a lot more copper. The town was incorporated in 1880, named for DeWitt Bisbee, a San Francisco judge who financed the mine's first smelter. By World War I Bisbee was selling tons of copper to the U.S. government for use as bullet casings.

At its peak Bisbee registered north of 100 liquor licenses and close to 30,000 residents. Given the town's isolation in the Mule Mountains (at 5,300 feet and 30 miles from the nearest sizable settlement), the booze and brothels were predictable.

"All the miners wanted to do was drink and drill and fight in between," London says. "So the Phelps Dodge Mining Company" -- which owned the copper mine -- "built churches, of all denominations, so these guys would have something else to do." Phelps Dodge also brought in fraternal organizations and the YMCA, and built a world-class library. "They were very Presbyterian," London explains. "They wanted the men to marry and have family activities."

They may have partially succeeded, but then the eccentrics found Bisbee.

"Bisbee attracts a certain kind of person," says Gayla Dickson, who runs Gloria's Jewelry and Gemstones and has perhaps the best turquoise collection on Main Street. "Done with civilization, done with malls and theaters, and a real 'live and let live' attitude. If you can't do that, you can't live here. We have a huge gay, lesbian and transsexual community." As if on cue, a person of indeterminate gender breezes in and asks Gayla to put a World AIDS Day flier in the window.

Bisbee's umbilical to the past, the Queen Mine, remains semi-active (the gaping terraced mine pit sits across the road from historic Bisbee), and many of the old miners' descendants still live here.

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