Blooming Agave Parryi near Jerome AZ—Candles of Flame

In April and May, thick maroon shafts grow from the wild hearts of the Agave, plump and erotic. The plant resembles a giant artichoke. Agave stalks can grow as fast as two-to-three inches a day and as high as fourteen to sixteen feet.

Young Agave parryi stalk

Photo of a young Agave stalk by Ivette Soler, who calls herself the ‘germinatrix,‘ (a play on the word gemination or spark of creation). She has written many delightful garden blogs. http://thegerminatrix.com

Agave Parryi near Jerome Arizona

Diane Sward Rapaport standing close to a very large Agave parryi stalk near Perkinsville Road about a mile from Jerome AZ. Photo by JoAnn Braheny.

During May, and early June, the shaft of the agave sends out horizontal stalks that hold blooming candelabras on each end, with dozens of little candles of yellow and red flames on each. You can see hundreds of flowering agave about one mile out of Jerome on Perkinsville Road in the limestone formations above the Gold King Mine and many dozens in the same formations as you drive up to Jerome from Clarkdale on Highway 89A just as you near Jerome.

Candles of fire: Agave parryi in bloom.

The flowering candelabras of the Agave parryi hold dozens of candles of fire.

Agave parryi in bloom

The Agave parryi blooms once every twenty to twenty-five years.

You’ll also see the agave’s cactus companions: yellow flowering prickly pear cactus and carmine flowers of the hedgehog cactus. It’s been a bonanza year! The desert is blooming.

The Agave flowers only once every twenty to twenty-five years (longer in colder climates) and then dies, leaving the brown withered central stalk and candelabras, the candles of flame now upright stems. New plants grow from the root systems.

Some species of agaves are also called century plants, even though they flower much sooner than once every hundred years.

In the Verde Valley, the agave is officially called Agave parryi. The genus ‘Agave’ is from the Greek word ‘agavos’ for admirable, noble, splendid and refers to its noble appearance. The genus ‘parryi’ honors the botanist Charles C. Parry (1823-1890), a highly respected doctor, explorer and naturalist, who was highly acclaimed as a collector of botanical plants.)

The Agave Parryi is not Native to the Verde Valley

The Agave parryi is a cultivar that was imported and planted by the Sinagua (700 to 1125 A.D.) to complement the planting of squash, corn and beans, flax and cotton. The agave plants were brought up from Southern Arizona. The methods of planting and irrigation were learned from their Hohokam neighbors.

The Sinagua planted the agave on the outskirts of gardens by making a large hollow in the soil, planting it, then filling the hollow with rocks.  The method had two beneficial effects: it helped retain water and stopped rodents from digging them up. The agave was also planted in the rocky, fast draining, south facing hills surrounding large gardens in such places as Cow Flats (near Henderson Ranch) and Beaver Flat.

Roasting Agave

The Sinagua and the Yavapai that migrated into the Verde Valley from the West around 1600 dug up the agave and roasted the heartas one of their staple foods. They dug up the agave when the stalk was ten or twelve inches high and the outer leaves green and fleshy. This ensured that maximum plant sugars are concentrated in the crown, making for a sweeter, juicier agave heart once cooked.

According to an account written by William H. Corbusier, an assistant surgeon with the US Army stationed on the Rio Verde Reservation from 1872 to 1875, wrote about the method used by the Yavapai as noted by Corbusier.

When a supply if it is needed, the women go in charge of some of the men, or the whole party moves to the mescal fields, and sufficient is cut and baked to last several weeks. They choose those plants which are at least eighteen inches highand cut them close to the ground, then trim off projecting ends of the leaves, so that each plant forms a large ball composed of the thick bases of the leaves, and the crown on which they are crowded.They then carry them in their baskets to a suitable spot in a ravine or a canon where they dig a pit, or if an old one be in the neighborhood, as is frequently the case, they resort to it. The earth taken out is banked up to deepen the pit, which varies from, the size varying from three to ten feet in diameter, and from two to four feet deep, according to the number in the party. A large fire is built in it, on which are thrown basketfuls of stones. When these are hot, the mescal is piled on them in the form of a pyramid and covered with grass and earth. It is allowed to remain undisturbed about forty-eight hours, the women watching the pit in order to repair occasional breaks in the covering. When the mescal is baked, the pit is opened, and each woman takes out her own which she recognizes by her private mark. The plants in baking shrink and turn brown. The fibres [sic], which are coarse in the leaves and fine in the crown, receptacle, become tougher, but the fleshy part is converted into a sweet juicy pulp. Those which are not to be used soon are torn to pieces and spread on sticks in large cakes, which, when dry, are folded up for convenience in carrying. When kept for some time, the mescal becomes hard and tough, and requires soaking in water before it can be eaten. Mescal-water, made by dissolving the pulp in water, is a favorite beverage, and constitutes the exclusive diet of the sick. It frequently acts as a purge, and when dysentery or diarrhea exists often aggravates the disease. If the plant is not well cooked, or if too young, it produces the same effect.” (American Antiquarian, Volume 8, pages 276-84 and 325-39)

There is no evidence that the Agave parryi was used by the Sinagua or the Yavapai to brew mescal.

Other Uses

The leaves yield a very strong fiber from which baskets and sandals can be woven; the thorns can be used for needles and pins; and soap can be made from the leaves.

Musicians in Jerome sometimes make didgeridoos from the dried-up stalk. This wind instrument produces a deep, vibrating drone.

Didgeridoo of agave and zebra wood

Didgeridoo of agave and zebra wood designed by Jeff Lohr http://www.hallowedsounds.com

My friend Katie Lee likes to cut down the stalk of a dead agave every year and decorate it as a Christmas tree.

 

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Jerome, Arizona: Spook Hall and the Ghost City that Never Existed

Visitors to the 49th Annual Home Tour of historic homes and buildings in Jerome on May 17 and 18 reported many treats: homes beautifully restored by their owners and furnished as miniature museums of their lives. Because Spook Hall was a hub of this tour, readers might like to know how it got its name how Jerome became a ghost city.

Jerome, Arizona 1953

In 1953, less than a dozen businesses were still open in Jerome, Arizona— two bars, one Chinese restaurant, and two small grocery stores uptown. There was a mortuary near the elementary school, a small grocery store and gas station in the Gulch, and a pig farm out on the hogback.

The town was dying. Less than three hundred buildings remained. A population of 15,000 had dwindled to two hundred and nineteen people, 87 of them children, uncertain of what the future would bring. An eerie quiet settled into the town. No more explosions. No smoke wafted up from the Clarkdale smelter. No trains and whistles. Not much traffic, especially at night. No birds sang.

Jerome, Arizona, a ghost city that never existed.ver

View of Jerome, Arizona and Cleopatra Hill from the old cemetary. Photograph by Bob Swanson (Swanson Images.com)

And into that silence came the question, “What now?”

Spooks of Jerome, Arizona

In 1953, the Jerome Historical Society was formed and opened a mine museum, right where it still is on Main Street.

Society members spent their evenings gathered in the “Salt Mine,” their term for the saloon that had been located in the basement of the new museum. They churned out signs and brochures. They joked among themselves that they were a bunch of spooks. Once the word “spooks” was mentioned, the members jumped on it as part of the theme for promoting Jerome.

They made new hand routed ‘spook’ signage. The letters were white on a black background: “Spook’s Crossing” on Main Street across from the Mine Museum and “Luke the Spook,” their adopted mascot. Society members wrapped themselves in sheets and were photographed with the signs. The photographs appeared in newspapers and brochures.

The Spooks of the Jerome, Arizona  Historical Society

Jerome ‘Spooks’ on Main Street, Jerome, Arizona in the nineteen fifties. Courtesy Jerome HIstorical Society.

At the August 1953 meeting, society members discussed plans for an annual event. They gave it an official name: “Annual Spooks Homecoming, Potluck, and Dance” and invited present and former Jerome families. The free event was held in the Salt Mine.

The second Spook Night was held in Lawrence Hall (previously the J.C. Penney store), which the Jerome Historical Society purchased in 1954. The old wooden floor was a wreck and members worked many nights to make new flooring and nail it down. Some of the kids helped strip the old wood. The building became affectionately known as Spook Hall. Although faded, the J.C. Penney sign still remains. Today the hall is officially named the Richard Lawrence Memorial Hall, in memory of Jerome’s postmaster and first member of the society’s executive board, but those of us who live in Jerome call it “Spook Hall.”

The Invention of a Ghost City in Jerome, Arizona

One evening, some society member, nobody remembers who, dreamed up a sign that cemented the words “Jerome” and “ghost city” in visitors’ minds. The sign dramatized Jerome’s dwindling population in a sequence of descending numbers, each with a line crossed through it: 15,000, 10,000, 5,000, 1,000. At the end of the sequence were the words, “GHOST CITY.”

The ghost city of Jerome, Arizona that never existed.

The sign showed zero population in Jerome, Arizona, part of the Jerome Historical Society’s invention of a ghost city. Photo courtesy Jerome HIstorical Society.

Two signs were made and society members placed one on the hogback road that led out of town towards Clarkdale and one at the top of town. From either direction, the town looked desolate.

The signs were photographed and sent out with a press release that proclaimed Jerome, Arizona as “America’s First Ghost City.” Hundreds of newspapers and magazines picked up the story. Postcards of the image were sold in the Mine Museum.

Jerome Historical Society members that had never worked in an advertising agency had accomplished the most difficult marketing task of all. They branded Jerome as a ghost city.

Magazine and newspaper writers loved the ghost town moniker and readers of their articles never saw the name of the town without it.

Tourists told Mine Museum personnel for decades after that they had come to Jerome because of the ghost town stories. They took photographs of each other next to the signs. The signs disappeared sometime during the 1970s. . .

Thus, the history of a wealthy mining mecca became intertwined with the mythology of a ghost city that never really existed.

Excerpts from Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Richest Copper Mining City (www.homesweetjerome.net)

Diane Sward Rapaport's history of Jerome. Arizona after 1953

Book Cover of Diane Sward Rapaport’s history of Jerome. Arizona after 1953.