Fifteen hundred retaining walls and fifteen hundred feet of elevation separate the house known as the Eagle’s Nest at the entrance into Jerome AZ from Prescott to its lowest residences—a couple of twisty miles as you follow the highway through town. They are Jerome’s most impressive, and sadly, most overlooked, architectural treasures. Many are works of art.
Retaining walls knit the town together and keep it from pitching down the steep mountain. They edge highways and driveways. In some parts of town, retaining walls keep homes from toppling into those of their neighbors.
Many foundations and building walls are made of native rock, such as the pillars of the old Bartlett Hotel, the only ruin remaining on Main Street.
Woven into these walls are the hearts of the people who built and repaired them, binding them to one another, bridging generations and ethnicities.
“I became a wall builder out of necessity,” said Jerome resident Jane Moore. “The day I signed the papers from the woman who sold me the house was the day I was underneath the house cleaning some of her stuff out and the rock wall under there completely fell over! There were SO many old walls all over this property in various states of disrepair, that it seems it’s a never ending project! But never mind… it’s a job I enjoy, as long as my back holds out!”
Many generations of residents can echo Jane’s words.
Many retaining walls are hand-stacked, one stone over two, much like those built by the ancient Anasazi. Most have no mortar between them. Properly built, the walls “weep” and act as natural drains. They have an elasticity that enables them to gracefully shift and settle.
In 1976, a small earthquake shook glasses in Paul and Jerry’s Saloon. Another small one occurred in 1984, just five miles outside of town. I was standing outside my old Verde Street house looking at the first wall we repaired. The earthquake sounded like an underground train ambling through the town’s underbelly. A few rocks tumbled, but the large walls held.
The stone for Jerome’s walls can be found within a seven-mile radius of town, many from the same colorful formations that are dominant in the Grand Canyon—1.8 billion-year old copper colored schist (Cleopatra formation), maroon Tapeats sandstone, grey Martin dolomite (A type of limestone), cherry-streaked Redwall sandstone, ruby-colored Supai sandstone and black lava basalt. The rocks tell of the ancient seas that once covered the area and the tumult of ancient volcanoes and earthquakes.
Then there are walls built of coarse caliche (the white cement like calcium carbonate), which are found on the Dundee hogback and make digging there a nightmare.
Not all Jerome’s walls are made of rock. Concrete walls flank the old Mingus High School and a large highway wall flanking the road that does up to The Surgeon’s House Bed and Breakfast and the Grand Hotel. Parts of the large wall on Holly Street is built of giant steel sheets that were used to form up the shaft that goes 4200 feet into the mountain. Other walls are built with railroad ties and old telephone poles.
Some of my favorites use bedsprings and old car engine blocks, woodstove doors, corrugated tin, pipes, 25-gallon laundry buckets, and discarded refrigerators filled with stones and discarded tires. Old timers knew the term recycling long before it became fashionable.
Virtually all Jerome’s residents have put their hands to fixing and uilding walls. These walls have a lot to say about the resourcefulness, stubbornness, tenacity, aesthetics and even quirky natures of their builders. My hats off to them—the great leaverite artists of Jerome AZ.