Farewell Barbara Blackburn. Rest in Peace.

Barbara Blackburn was the reason Walt, Max and I moved to Jerome, Arizona. Greg Driver called today to say she had ‘passed.’

Barbara came to Jerome, AZ  when she left San Francisco in the arms of Dean, who was ‘throwing’ tires—vernacular for someone who repaired them. He was a handsome con man who convinced Barbara he was a talented photographer. She sold her home, bought a little travel trailer, some photo equipment for him, and off they went, landing in Sedona some months after, the money gone up their noses in a lot of cocaine.

A Sedona bartender told her she should look into Jerome. The first day in Jerome, Barbara put $15,000, the last of her money, into buying the Old Bakery and adjacent duplex, where she lived while she began to remodel the old Bakery building. It took her another six months or so to get rid of Dean.

Bakery ovens JeromeVarious_312

The old bakery ovens are still hanging around in the back yard of one of my friends. (Photo by Bob Swanson)

No Turkeys

We arrived in Jerome at 5 a.m. No cars on Main Street. No people. No sun. No nada. We’re dead-tired, think to catch a ‘motel’ in Clarkdale, which was a empty as Jerome. Turn around to explore Jerome’s ramshackle, twisty streets, for some sign of where Barbara might live. And after about ten minutes we notice a ‘NoTurkeys’ sign in a window.

Barbara greets us with a big smile and a joint. It’s nonstop party for the next three days with the hippies of Jerome. We were enchanted and totally exhausted by the time we left. Barbara invited us to stay with her when we moved.

A Magnanimous Dual Personality

Barbara was the only person I knew who had a dual  personality that she successfully kept together for years and years in San Francisco and Jerome: a banker/CEO/financial wizard by day and at night, a hippie that drank, smoke and dropped LSD, only to show up in straight work clothes the next day for whatever job she held. She was magnanimous, welcoming,  and inclusive to all she met, ready with a smile, cup of coffee, a joint, a meal.

She became CEO for John McNerney’s Jerome Instrument Corporation, and helped propel it into a four million dollar business.  Her special gift was knowing how to make a workplace easy for people to be in

JIC Circa 1980

Front step left: Nell Moffett Second Step: L-R: Paul Nonnast, Ester Burton, Darrell Fellers (Karen Fellers’ son) Third step: L-R: Iris McNerney, Kathy Davidson Fifth Step: L-R Ron Ballatore’s daughter Stephanie; Karen Gorman, Mary Nickerson, Susan Kinsella, Barbara Blackburn/ Sixth step: Lindsey Waddell (John Waddell’s son); Ed Dowling; Randy Murdock; Upper step: Sandra Strong, Carol Nesselrode, Pat Montreuil, Roger Davis Photo taken just after JIC moved from Earl Bell’s old lab near the Douglas Mansion in late 1980.

Barbara’s Acid Punch

She had a gift for making instant friends and weaving them into her life. She was a great hostess and her Bakery home became party central, for any occasion, for any friend that visited.

She was known for her acid (LSD) punch, a special for parties. Two very memorable ones were a JIC company party down at the river and a Valentines Party to commemorate a new office Barbara and I shared.

4 cans large Frozen Pink Lemonade

2 quarts gingerale

2 quarts club soda

2 bottles cheap champagne

1/2 gallon raspberry sherbert

100 hits of acid

The Great Outdoors

Many of our friends will tell you about rafting and backpacking with Barbara into many wildernesses. But our personal favorite was a ten-day backpack down Red Canyon in the Grand Canyon, with Walt and Greg Driver, to whom she was married for ten years. We hiked in the early morning hours; found a shaded cubbyholes to hide in during the heat of the day, played bridge, smoked joint after joint, and yes, dropped acid.

Would love if readers of this memorial would share favorite stories in the ‘comments’ section.

The Jerome Defense Fund

Barbara, Sue Kinsella and I formed “The Jerome Defense Fund” association and solicited donations for defendants of the Big Bust of 1985 to help them pay bail bond and legal fees. We held regular meetings, attended by many of those accused and their friends, and it became something between an information conduit and outlet for grief. We held a benefit dance, called Jail House Rock, with the help of 127 volunteers (twenty-seven of them musicians).

The Main Street stores, without exception, and many artists, made contributions for the large raffle that was held at the dance. We raised over $4,500 and split it among the defendants that needed money, including those who did not live in Jerome. Although it made a very small dent in what amounted to more than $75,000 in legal fees, the heart and solidarity behind it meant a great deal to the defendants.

Leaving Jerome
Barbara left Jerome the way she came in to it, in the arms of a con man that she met in a bar in Baja California. He claimed he was wealthy and owned a helicopter company in Tahoe that removed old growth trees. He had a special gift for cutting her off from her friends. John McNerney commented that he didn’t know any wealthy guys who had bad teeth.What was amazing was that Barbara didn’t find out just how strange he was until two years later when she got a phone call from the cops in Colorado who had arrested him with a car stolen from a dealership in Cottonwood, which he presented to her as a gift.

Last Communication: June 2016

“I have changed my life recently – moved from the mountains of Colorado to a more hospitable climate and one I could afford to live in: Albuquerque.  The medical services and doctors I can get here are wonderful and I am so in need.

Have had 4 stents placed -2 in femoral arteries and 2 in main aorta but yet have I have pulmonary arterial disease and congestive heart failure- both of which will not be corrected –-  “too much damage not enough benefit “-   have bought a sweet little home here in the old residential section of Albuquerque – and no snow!  Am on oxygen 24/7 and will always be – just trying to get my self strong enough  to walk more than ¼ block… it is a different life for me – but as an 82 year old said to me recently “at my age you do one day at a time”  ……. damn smoking finally took its toll

It’s been nice remembering the good days in Jerome.  Greg Driver called a couple of days ago – just to say hello – that was sweet.

Think of you and Walter often – hope life is still good in Oregon….hugs and kisses to you both.”

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Adios, John McNerney

Note: Trying to move posts around. Put Malheur Siege and Music Biz blogs on “Pages.”  Want to have just Home Sweet Jerome blogs appear here.  Also: will be doing a digital version of the book and will include a few blogs that did not appear in the book.  Any favorites?

John McNerney, founder of Jerome Instrument Corporation (JIC), Jerome, Arizona in 1979, died on May 20 at his home in Todos Santos, Baja, Mexico. Iris, his wife was with him, as were a few of his closest friends. The lung infection he had battled with for many years finally caught up with him. He was 78 years old.

He was a 40-year friend. The sadness I feel is compounded with the recognition that as we grow old, our friends disappear around us. They become memories we carry in our hearts, but they cannot substitute for the comradeship, wisdom, stories and laughter that wove in and out of our histories as friends.

John and Iris moved to Jerome in 1973: “We bought a house for $13,000 in a desolate and empty town,” John told me. “It was all we could afford and the view was astounding. The first winter was brutal, there was one wood stove for four rooms, and no insulation. When the wind blew, the upstairs floor rippled. The cast of characters was astounding, old school bohemians and hordes of hippies that always seemed to be talking about how stoned they were. I had a patent on a mercury detector I couldn’t sell, my geology pick, and an old rusty saw. I bought a few tools and set myself up as a furniture maker.”  (Excert from “Arrival Tales” in the book Home Sweet Jerome: http://www.amazon.com/Home-Sweet-Jerome-Rebirth-Arizonas/dp/1555664547/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1463867069&sr=8-1&keywords=home+sweet+jerome

John volunteered to help re-invent the planning and design policies and reorganize the fire department. Iris took a job waitressing at the old Candy Kitchen restaurant (now Mile High).

JIC: Lifting Jerome out of Economic Depression

JIC was one of the catalysts that lifted Jerome out its economic depression and ghost town ‘appearance.’ (The others were the beginnings of a burgeoning art colony and a guerilla marijuana growing business.)

JIC Circa 1980

Photo of John and Iris and JIC’s employees in 1980, just after they moved into the old Jeorme high school. Front step left: Nell Moffett Second Step: L-R: Paul Nonnast, Ester Burton, Darrell Fellers (Karen Fellers’ son) Third step: L-R: Iris McNerney, John McNerney, Kathy Davidson Fifth Step: L-R Ron Ballatore’s daughter Stephanie; Karen Gorman, Mary Nickerson, Susan Kinsella, Barbara Blackburn Sixth step: Lindsey Waddell (John Waddell’s son); Ed Dowling; Randy Murdock; Upper step: Sandra Strong, Carol Nesselrode, Pat Montreuil, Roger Davis. Photo courtesy John McNerney collection.

John invented and began manufacturing a superior mercury vapor detector. One of JIC’s biggest buyers was the US Navy, which installed them on its submarines. Their closed air environment meant that breakage of mercury-filled instrumentation could cause nerve disease. “There’s a reason for that ‘mad hatter,’ John used to joke. ‘The reason those hatters got shaking fits is they used mercury-laden felt. “

Between 1981 and 1983, John recruited fifty employees and many sub-contractors from the four hundred people living in Jerome. The need for paying jobs was enormous, particularly for many people who stayed on the sidelines of Jerome’s burgeoning pot industry, participated in town politics and wanted to find a way to support themselves and their eccentric life styles in this quirk of a town.

John had an instinctive knack for recognizing someone’s skills in one field and assuming they could adapt them to another. “Maybe tourists only saw hippies, but in the four years I had lived here, I knew that many of my employees would be those so-called hippies. Many were geniuses. This tiny town was able to spit out all the talent I needed.”

Barbara Blackburn was a former VP of Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco, with special skills in managing personnel and setting up computer systems for tracking them. When John hired her, the only job she had been able to find was bartending for less than minimum wage. She became president of JIC. “She was a cut-loose hippie on weekends; but an extremely sophisticated financial professional during the week. She helped us grow into a first-rate company.”

Artist Paul Nonnast designed the detector’s instrument case on the basis of a hamster cage that he designed for a child’s pet hamster—an incredible labyrinth full of spinning balls and intricate ramps all done with phenomenal craftsmanship and imagination. “I didn’t know much about Paul,” John said, “but that cage made me want to. It was as though he had gotten inside the head of a hamster and designed from there.”

JIC hired my company to write their manuals and provide advertising and public relations services. (I got my promotional and writing skills in the music business when I worked as an artist’s manager for Bill Graham’s Fillmore Management.) My business partner was artist Gary Romig, my partner, who was known for his watercolors of birds (http://www.artofbirds.com/Gary-Romig.html).

jic-poster-4-x-6-51

The poster for Jerome Instrument Corporation was created by my advertising agency and illustrated by Pam Fullerton (pamelajeanpress.com). The Einstein quote fit John McNerney’s philosophy throughout his life.

Jamie Moffett, a renegade computer engineer, put together wiring harnesses and internal software. Jewelers and artists were hired for assembly work. “Engineers who visited JIC and looked inside the instrument were always amazed at the meticulousness of the work,” John said. “Many commented it looked like a piece of art.”

Hiring an all-Jerome crew did have an unexpected downside. “I soon found that I was hiring not just their skills but their idiosyncrasies, many of which I couldn’t even have imagined existed,” John said. “Nothing was secret; everyone hung out their eccentricities like so much laundry on a line. After work I’d meet my employees and their friends in one of the town’s two bars. A few hours later, I’d be at a meeting to figure out how to raise money for fire safety equipment. To live and work in Jerome was to experience togetherness on a scale you’ve never even dreamed of.”

In 1989 John sold his company to Arizona Instrument Corporation in Phoenix. They continue to sell the mercury analyzer: http://www.azic.com

New Life for the McNerneys

After selling JIC, John pursued his dream of building a sailboat to use on the bays near Seattle, Washington and Baja, California. I wish I had a photo of that beautiful hand-made boat. My husband and I sailed on it when we went ‘boat camping’ with John and Iris on some of the islands near La Paz. That’s where I learned the term, ‘ fishing with pesetas. ‘ John would approach a fishermen camped out on one of the shores and ask to buy one of the fish they caught for our dinner.

In the nineties, John built a new home in Todos Santos, now a somewhat quirky tourist and art haven, not unlike Jerome. Many of the old timers that still live in Jerome knew of the beaches there as surfer heaven. We knew them for their emptiness and for the whales that would come up close to shore and say hello if we stood on the beach long enough. It was as though we had summoned them.

McNerney the Activist Against Gold Mining 

While living in Todos Santos, John and Iris became activists against two major threats to the well-being of Todos Santos. One was a gold mine that would have been built close to the location of the water sources for the town and in a biosphere reserve. “The proposed mine near Todos Santos was a preposterous idea: the mine would have needed to move a million pounds of rock to get a pound of gold,” said John. The ‘rallying’ slogan was Agua Vale Mas Que Oro!” (Water is Worth more than Gold!).” Carlos Mendoza Davis, the governor of Baja Sur, who was elected in October 2015, put the final governmental kabash on the mine. He agreed with protesters that it threatened to suck up water reserves and potentially pollute the aquifer with processing chemicals and mining wastes.

The other was an ambitious building development that proposes to double to size of Todos Santos. The audacious plan began with the bulldozing of thousands of mangroves flanking the beautiful crescent shaped beach at Punta Lobos and flattening the sloping dunes. Developers built a 1000-foot long, low concrete sea wall and buttressed it with large rocks on the ocean side. Not twenty-five feet from the sea wall, they began constructing the hotel and a few homes.

The beach all but disappeared. In less than a day, hundreds of years of nature’s work was destroyed by a construction boondoggle, and with it, the livelihood that had sustained many generations of fishermen and their families. The damage is irreversible. The fishermen refer to the developers as ‘tres cucarachas’ (three cockroaches).

punta_lobos

The old beach at Punta Lobos, Todos Santos, Baja CA

sea wall:rocksP9129082

No more beach. Walls and rock. The proposed development at Punta Lobos.

Last October, a strong storm surge—not unusual there— washed away the beach right up to the large rocks and wall. “The sea wall is like the Footprint of Godzilla—blocking the drainage from a large watershed to the east and interrupting the natural ebb and flow of the sea,” said John McNerney. “Thirty foot waves from new storms will wash away the sea wall and surge right into the new hotel. Hotel owners will need to supply life preservers in the guest rooms.”

That was John: he had an uncanny ability to capsulize the absurdity of the developers in a pithy, funny statement. 

Adios

Adios, amigo. I like to think you are floating somewhere up there among the giants in the Milky Way and have found some landing for your great soul among the stars. Muchos besos. Que te vaya bien.

During the early nineteen seventies, John McNerney prospected for gold in the northern Nevada deserts during summers. He came up with an idea to use accurate measurements of mercury vapor to find gold. “Mercury and gold ore often exist near one another,” John said. “Mercury is easier to detect because it lets off gasses— volatilizes—in the soil. Under a hot desert sun, the soil heats up, causing the mercury vapor to rise upward. If I figure out how to accurately measure the amount of mercury vapor, I would have a window deep down into the earth that could lead to a deeply buried gold deposit.” After many experiments, he wasn’t having any luck translating his idea into a practical system.

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Audrey Headframe, Jerome, AZ. In the nineten eighties, a small gold strike deep under this head frame cause new mining to occur for a very brief few year.

John’s chance encounter with an entomologist in a bar in Tuscarora, Nevada supplied a possible solution. “He was counting bug populations by driving down the highway with a large tube stuck out of the window of his truck,” John said. “At the end of the tube was an electrified screen. As bugs stuck to the screen, the electrical resistance of the screen increased and he was able to measure their concentrations. Who knows how he came up with this novel idea. I got to thinking about it when it occurred to me that the bugs were like the mercury gas atoms. Maybe their adsorption onto a gold-plated screen would cause an electrical interference that could be measured.”

It was John’s eureka moment.

With the help of some Arizona State University (ASU) professors, John put together some gold-plated screens and headed back out into the desert. He would use the screens to collect mercury vapor. As he headed into the desert on his motorbike, he had the ingenious idea for collecting higher concentrations of mercury vapor over the soil by hooking up the gold screens to a portable car vacuum cleaner.

“This seemed to be working quite well,” John told me. “I’m out there vaccuming the desert, looking for mercury vapor. “

Then, out in the distance I notice two cowboys on horses. I figure they’re looking for stray cattle. They notice me on my hands and knees and start coming closer. Maybe they think I need help. Maybe they’re flashing on those Western movies where some bedraggled guy is dragging his ass across a sandy desert because he’s out of water. They urge their horses closer.

“That’s when the cowboys notice I have a vacuum cleaner in my hands and seem to be hosing the desert. The cowboys are dumbfounded. Nobody could think of anything to say. There is no common language for what is happening. The cowboys turn and ride away.”

(Excerpted from my book: Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Richest Copper Mining City http://www.amazon.com/Home-Sweet-Jerome-Rebirth-Arizonas/dp/1555664547/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1463867069&sr=8-1&keywords=home+sweet+jerome

The Incredible Hamster Cage

The previous blog told about how John noticed qualities in people that would help him with his manufacturing processes. John hired artist Paul Nonnast to design the detector’s case based on a hamster cage that Paul had designed for a child’s pet—an incredible labyrinth full of spinning balls and intricate ramps all done with phenomenal craftsmanship and imagination. “I didn’t know much about Paul,” John said, “but that cage made me want to. It was as though he had gotten inside the head of a hamster and designed from there.”

Paul was working as an apprentice for master sculptor John Waddell in Cornville www.artbywaddell.com/  His daughter Amy tells this story.

“Ah, that hamster cage,” said Amy Waddell. “You don’t know how many times I’ve told this story of a tall man—whose intensity scared me as a kid—eyes fixed on whatever he was working on, always sweating a little from that innate focus. I remember tiptoeing up the steep narrow splintered steps to his apprentice studio and pushed open the trap door to see all of his colorful spheres floating above me. He created magic worlds.

“Perhaps it was his idea to make it, perhaps mine, and perhaps I knew nothing about it until the moment I walked upstairs to his room one day and he unveiled it. I was very young, maybe seven or eight years old. The circular cage was a thing of beauty—about two feet in height and two and a half feet in diameter. A thin mesh ran all the way around the circular top and bottom plywood plates. There was a pole up the middle of the cage, and tiny pegs created a circular staircase from top to bottom with little kidney bean-shaped platforms that extended out at various levels. there was a large gourd strung up about an inch from the bottom, acting as a little womblike screen. Paul made a rather large habit trail in there, as well. A find ramp start at floor level, then wound up all the way around the cage.

“I was beyond thrilled. It was so beautiful. I couldn’t wait to put my hamster inside.

The hamster was in Nonnast heaven. It ran the habit-trail, drank from the large botle ffixrd to the side of his cage, ventured up the rap I rmember his little black eye and his ktle pik ears and the little fuzzy body as he traispe around his magnificangt  new digs—from pauper to royalty for no apparent reason.” https://www.flickr.com/people/paulnonnast/

 Prospecting for Gold

Two ironies  here. The first is that although John’s mercury detector was useful as a prospecting tool, the market wasn’t large enough to bring in big sales. Nor was the market dentistry, where John’s brother Rick thought the detector might sell. In those years dentists used a lot of mercury in their fillings, and there was a big suicide rate among them. The big market turned out to be U.S. Navy submarines.

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First ad created when JIC rigured the market was dentists and gold prospectors.

The second irony was that when John retired from Jerome Instrument Corporation, he turned against gold mining. One of his biggest regrets is finding the Jerritt gold mining prospect near Elko, Nevada, which John described as a most beautiful canyon that began filling with mining waste as soon as the mine opened. The Jerritt mine was shut down after it contaminated the Owyhee River and other streams with atmospheric mercury used in gold processing. The mine could re-open when it installed better mercury emission control equipment. “By that time the damage was done,” said John.

And by that time, John was living in Todos Santos, Baja, Mexico, where a large corporation wanted to mine for gold. John helped spearhead a successful grass roots movement against it. https://homesweetjeromedrapaport.wordpress.com/tag/john-mcnerney-mercury-manufacturing-jerome-az/ “You could say that my life has come full circle,” John McNerney said. “I used to be involved in helping mining companies find new sources of gold. The world needs metals, but mined responsibly. No one needs any more gold.”

(If you like this story,you may want to read about the Jerome that John helped rebuild: Home Sweet Jerome: http://www.amazon.com/Home-Sweet-Jerome-Rebirth-Arizonas/dp/1555664547/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1463867069&sr=8-1&keywords=home+sweet+jerome

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.

Open Pit Mining: The Protest that Worked

In 2009, Vista Gold Corporation,  a Canadian-owned company that was headquartered in Denver Colorado, announced plans for an open pit gold mine in the watershed of the Sierra Laguna, above the town of Todos Santos, in Baja, California.  The water for Todos Santos and adjacent villages came fro a dam that was very close to the location of the the proposed mine.  There are no other water sources. and the risk of contamination by mining waste was high. The value of the mine was estimated at 1.2 million ounces of gold over a 9.3-year period.

“The proposed mine near Todos Santos was a preposterous idea: the mine would have needed to move a million pounds of rock to get a pound of gold,” said John McNerney, known to many in Jerome as the founder of  Jerome Instrument Corporation in 1979.

John knows a lot about gold mines. He spent many summers prospecting in Northern Nevada and that’s where he got his idea for designing a detector that could accurately measure mercury vapor. He knew just how nasty the consequences of open pit gold mining could be.

One of his biggest regrets is finding the Jerritt gold mining prospect near Elko, Nevada, which John described as a most beautiful canyon that began filling with mining waste as soon as the mine opened. The Jerritt mine was shut down after it contaminated the Owyhee River and other streams with atmospheric mercury used in the processing of gold. It could re-open when it installed better mercury emission control equipment. “By that time the damage was done,” said John.

After John McNerney sold his company in 1988, he and his wife Iris moved to Port Townsend, Washington where John built a most beautiful boat that took them on many voyages. A favorite was sailing the islands that were near La Paz, Baja, California.Eventually they moved to Todos Santos, in Baja California (a tourist town not unlike Jerome, AZ), where John built a home. He joined Niparaja, an organization which is devoted to marine conservation and the protection of many of the sensitive environmental coastal areas and islands that he grew to love while sailing. (niparaja.org)

When Vista Gold announced the potential for a new open pit mine above the town he lived in, John helped spearhead the grass roots movement against it.

Virtually as soon as announcements of a new mine were made and permits applied for, a new website, vistagoldno.com, was put up and. During the first year, the articles were about the terrible working conditions and environmental disasters that attached to open pit mines. The first year also coined its ‘rallying’ slogan : Agua Vale mas que Oro! (Water is Worth more than Gold!).

The first article that was put up on vistagoldno website was: “Water vs 3700 tons of arsenic.” This short, concise, article made clear that the biggest threat to water sources was arsenic contamination. The article put up some graphic photos of the health problems that workers had due to working with arsenic. “With every hurricane or heavy rain, this exposed arsenic will leach into the aquifers for generations.” (Arsenic is a major component of acid mine tailing in and around Jerome.)

Hands and feet contaminated with arsenic.
Hands and feet full of arsenic poisoning.
John’s said that putting up these types  articles was part of the process of educating the community that had very little real knowledge about the effects of big mining in the communities surrounding them. “The information is all over the internet, John said. “We just had to find the best and start putting them up.”
The website shows the interesting sequence of activities that culminated in the protest that shut down the mine. The organization of the protest is clear and could easily serve as a model for virtually any other mine protest.

As the protest grew, so did the promises of Vista Gold—jobs (400 to 600 workers during construction and 300 full-time employees for the project’s life) and proper work-safety practices. Vista Gold also promised to use “environmental sensitive, state-of-the-art mining technology and practices, and uphold the highest international standards.” The company promised to build a desalination plant to ensure long-term, fresh water. (This was probably a just-in-case they wrecked the water sources for Todos Santos and nearby villages.)

Vistagoldno kept the pressure up. They put up stories about damage to Mexican communities that had ongoing mining operations. They featured a story about a few American companies that were protesting ‘dirty gold’ operations in other parts of the world. They summarized and provided links to a series of articles in the New York Times about contamination that resulted from the operations of global mining companies.

“When the residents of Todos Santos began to realize, ‘Hey that’s our lives they’re going to take away’—the protest picked up the momentum of a snowball careening downhill” John said.

The protest began to draw in leaders and residents in the communities that would be affected.  It was beginning to be so effective that. They wrote letters of protest to the mine and to Mexican officials.

Within a year, Vista Gold decided to change the name of the project from Paredones Amarillos (literally “yellow walls)” to the “Concordia” project “because it believed “that this will better reflect the integration of the project with the environmental, social and economic priorities of the region. The name Concordia (translated as “agreement” or “oneness”) was selected after “a wide-ranging dialogue with local communities and other project stakeholders.” which you could translate into community leaders were beginning be increasingly concerned about the nature of mining dirty gold. According to Vista Gold, “The name change is part of a broad program intended to communicate Vista’s commitment to developing the Concordia gold project in a way that is consistent with contemporary standards for sustainable development, environmental stewardship, and the health and safety of the communities in which the Company operates.”

Don’t you just love public relations mining speak!

In 2011, more than 8500 people chanting “Agua Vale mas que Oro! “ at a protest rally near Los Cabos. It included the entire town of Todos Santos — the cops, the school kids, the teachers, firemen, business owners, carpenters and plumbers and many others in neighboring communities. See a video about this march: http://www.bajainsider.com/environment/goldminevideo.htm

Support against the gold mining project drew .

Support against the gold mining project drew .

The following day, director of SERMANAT (environmental agency of Mexico) announced they would not issue the required permits for this mine.

Protesting a large mining operation can be done with committed leaders, their ability to inspire volunteers, a long-range plan to attract a strong following, and a catchy rallying slogan.

“You could say that my life has come full circle,” John McNerney said. “I used to be involved in helping mining companies find new sources of gold. The world needs metals, but mined responsibly. No one needs any more gold.”

The 7-Up Billboard Bites the Dust—Love in the Wild 70’s

I interviewed Charles Matheus in 1996; he had come back to Jerome to visit his mother. I asked him about what it was like to grow up here with the hippies. He chose to tell me this story about his parents and their friends, part of the older generation of eccentrics that had moved there in the sixtiesl

“I felt like I was surrounded by love. Before I talk about love, I have to talk about the billboard. In 1973, one of the focal points of conversations among my family’s friends was how to get rid of the billboard. It was the only billboard for 50 miles around and it was right at the apex of the curves. It took up the whole of our friend’s Larry Ahern’s living room window, a hideous “7-Up Power” ad in paisley flowers of Day-Glo orange/green/fuchsia. In an election year, the ad was temporarily replaced by an ugly mug of a sheriff running for the county spot against the USA’s red white and blue.

“One day, the billboard was gone. Most people thought it was Katie Lee who took it down. She was considered a radical before anyone knew the width of that word. In those years, she was a Western singer who sang about cows, horses, prostitutes and the disappearance of real cowboys.

“Ten years later, I was reminiscing with my Mom, just before I went to college. 
‘Wasn’t it great when Katie Lee cut the billboard down.

‘That wasn’t Katie, that was your father,’ said Mom. ‘One night he and his buddy Larry were sitting at the dinner table getting pissed off and they decided to do something about it. They went into the coal shed and got the blue chain saw they used to cut wood from up on Mingus. They made three cuts and toppled the billboard into the weeds, where it still lays.’

During an investigation of the crime, Winnie Foster, one of our friends that had moved to Jerome in the 1960s, confessed that she had done it, but the cops didn’t believe her. By that time, she was getting on in age and had broken a hip. She told us she wanted to spend a night in jail as part of her ‘bucket list.’ Winnie lived in a blue and white house across from the Methodist Church that her friends and family called “Foster’s Folly” because they thought she was crazy to buy a home in Jerome.

“My father died when I was young. I can’t describe what it is to feel proud of someone I hardly knew, nor can I tell you what’s it’s like to love someone who’s gone, but that’s love and love is hard to talk about.”

The Case of the Azure-Colored Water: Jerome AZ

Jerome’s mining wealth in the first half of the twentieth century came at a big cost to the surrounding environment. The mountains were denuded for wood to build 88 miles of mining tunnels and other infrastructure. Mining wastes and tailings that are contaminated with a large toxic cocktail are visible from most every part of town.

Mining has always been a dirty business.

The biggest environmental threat to citizens in Jerome was the flow of azure-colored water during heavy rains in drainages on Perkinsville Road between what is now the Gold King Mine and Jerome. Moreover, the large slag heap and tailings on Sunshine Hill, just above the Daisy Hotel and other nearby residences, would leach blue water into Bitter Creek, which flowed directly into Jerome ‘s newly renovated sewage treatment plant, potentially contaminating it and groundwater resources below it.

The blue water was laced with a heavy potion of copper sulfate. In that watery mix were also found cadmium, selenium, arsenic and other nasty substances.

Kids liked to throw nails and car parts into it and watch them turn copper. They liked touching it. Jerome citizens loved to take their dogs walking out on Sunshine Hill or out Perkins Road. The owners had to restrain the dogs form drinking the water.

Drop a metal part into copper sulfate water and watch it become coated with copper.

Drop a metal part into copper sulfate water and watch it become coated with copper.

A major characteristic of sulfide ores is that they oxidize when exposed to air and water, e.g. they turn to sulfates. The toxic cocktail of blue water resulted in the oxidation of copper sulfides still present in the tailings piles that were created by the United Verde Mine and its successor, Phelps Dodge Corporation. Today, the colors showing in the unmined portions of the open pit above town—vivid oranges, yellows, dark reds—are evidence of the oxidation process, as well as indication that some of the ores still exist.

That characteristic was the clue that led Native Americans sometime prior to the 1600s up to what is now called Cleopatra to dig up the blue colored ore that was exposed there. Today, the colors showing in the open pit above town—vivid oranges, yellows, dark reds—are evidence of the oxidation process, as well as indication that some of the ores still exist there.

Often found near the top of massive sulfide copper ores is azurite, a deliciously colored blue minerals used in jewelry. The Hopis used pigments for their pictographs and the Yavapai used it for body adornment. Specimens collected from Jerome mines can be found in the Mine Museum on Main Street and at the Jerome State Park (Douglas Mansion).

Often found near the top of massive sulfide copper ores is azurite, a deliciously colored blue minerals used in jewelry. The Hopis used pigments for their pictographs and the Yavapai used it for body adornment. Specimens collected from Jerome mines can be found in the Mine Museum on Main Street and at the Jerome State Park (Douglas Mansion).

(More information about Jerome’s massive sulfide ores are discussed in in the previous blog, “The Future of Mining in Jerome Az.”)

The Mining Act of 1872 regulated little in the way of potential environmental degradation. Mining companies had a virtual free pass to mine gold, copper, coal as profitably as possible. Up until the nineteen seventies, pollution caused by mining, whether it was caused by what the mines left behind, or practices that were ongoing, were largely ignored.

In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded. In 1972, amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, now known as the Clean Water Act,  establishes guidelies for regulating the discharges of pollutants into ground and surface water. This meant that the EPA could mandate the clean up degraded and hazardous mining sites. The laws were strengthened when the The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund) was passed in 1980 which gave the EPA authority over sites contaminated with hazardous substances, as well as other pollutants or contaminants.

Citizens, most old hippies, began complaining to the town of Jerome and the town responded by contacting the EPA.  The new sets of laws gave EPA officials a mandate to investigate complaints. They came to Jerome, took photographs, and passed complaints on to officials at Phelps Dodge, then owner of the UV property on which the blue water was found, and hoped for voluntary compliance. It did not happen. Instead, PD stalled the process by claiming that there were broken water pipes under the affected lands and that the town was responsible for maintaining them, a claim that was untrue.

Finally, in 2003 that the EPA finally issued a Complaint and Consent Decree against Phelps Dodge for discharging acid mine drainage (e.g. the blue water) in violation of the Clean Water Act. PD was fined a civil penalty of $220,141.00 and told to formulate a reclamation plan to avoid seepage into Bitter Creek and other groundwater resources downstream. The EPA threatened to make name the PD site a Superfund site, which would have meant many more millions in fines and cleanup costs.

Once ground and surface waters are contaminated, they are virtually impossible to adequately restore to even drinkable use with any available technology in any time-frame that is within most people’s life spans. They best solution is to prevent contaminants from reaching water sources.

Phelps Dodge formulated a remediation plan and and spent close to $12 million to control the seepage, not entirely successfully.

In 2006, Phelps Dodge Corporation was sold to Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold, Inc. (Freeport) the largest publicly traded copper producer in the world and one of the world’s largest producers of gold. The deal created the world’s largest publicly traded copper company.[1]

In 2008, Freeport continued the remediation plan begun by Phelps Dodge and spent tens of millions of more dollars in extensive voluntary reclamation to control the seepage and improve water resources. Part of that project was to build a new drainage system on their property to ensure that mining wastes containing potential contaminants did not escape into groundwater resources.

The blue water stopped flowing.

Freeport also paved and put street lighting into a much-appreciated parking lot for tourists just outside of Jerome on the road heading towards the Gold King Mine. They provide buildings at that location to both the Town of Jerome for vehicle and equipment storage and a studio to sculptor Scott Owens.

So far, they have been good neighbors.

[1] Business Wire, November 19, 2006

Rescuing The Fire Department: Jerome AZ 1970’s

By the early nineteen seventies, many of Jerome’s residences and commercial business had badly deteriorated and fear of fire was constant. The condition of abandoned wooden houses made them fire hazards and continued to be an invitation to vandalism and pilfering, The fifteen Victorian-looking homes up on the hill and across from the Catholic Church were particularly vulnerable because they were unoccupied and no one lived in them.

In the early seventies, there was a rash of fires; an old grocery store in Deception Gulch caught fire; a house on School Street burned down to the foundation; another on 4th or 5th Street. Rumors were high that there was an arsonist running around. Two houses burned in Deception Gulch, largely attributed to a hippie woman’s carelessness with candles. Another fire flared in the candle maker’s shop up on Main Street.

“The rash of fires were the turnaround that made younger people like me feel we had to get in there and participate,” said Dave Hall. “I said to myself, If I’m going to live in a town this hazardous, I should be willing to join the fire department and help put out fires. And I have to tell you this: I was afraid of fire. Fire scared the hell out of me.” [1]

When Hall and some of his hippie peers started showing up at fire department meetings that were held at the bar, the old-timers met them with antipathy.

“They weren’t too happy with the hippies joining up or criticizing them for not being progressive or safety-oriented enough,” said Hall. They’d say, ‘We fought fires in t-shirts. What’s wrong with that?’”

Sometimes tensions ran high. Frank Ferrell, one of the old-timers and a big wig at the historical society, would sit at Paul and Jerry’s bar and say, “If my house caught on fire, I wouldn’t let one of those damn hippies near it. I would let it burn.”

According to Hall, there was a real culture clash, but no physical violence. “In all fairness, those old-timers knew to get in there and use what they had,” Hall said. They kept the town from burning down in the lean years. I was told of a fire near my house several years before I moved there. The house got struck by lightning in an August monsoon storm. Robert Sandoval, one of the old-timers who was chief then, got there, took one of the hoses out of a nearby hose box, hooked one end to the hydrant and the other to a smooth bore nozzle, and put out that fire by himself.”

In 1975, Phil Tovrea was nominated for Fire Chief against Tony Lozano, one of the old-timers. Although Tovrea was a member of one of Arizona’s most illustrious cattle baron families, he was a renegade who ran away to Jerome to get away. Robert Sandoval, the fire chief up to then, moved to Cottonwood. Phil remembers that when he won the election, the old timers seemed somewhat relieved to not have the sole responsibility of protecting the town from fire. Phil instituted a policy of instructional training every week and dismissed people who didn’t show up. By 1977 there were no old-timers on the fire department.

Fighting Fires with No Water and Poor Equipment

When Tovrea took over, the town’s water system was in near collapse. A large concern was to maintain regular flow of water into Jerome was making sure there was enough of it to put out for fires. John McMillan, PD’s agent and mayor after the mines closed, remembers how fires “drain those tanks when they were plumb full of water.” There were times when water wasn’t coming into Jerome at all. “We had to have tankers of trucks bringing water up here because the lines were so holey the water wasn’t getting to town.”[2]

The second concern was having a fire department adequately equipped to put out a fire. When Tovrea took over, there were two antique 1928 and 1937 Dodge fire trucks, four sets of petrified fire coats, no radio equipment, brittle hoses from the nineteen twenties and an unregulated high pressure hydrant system with rotten pipes. There was a public phone on the outside wall of Paul and Jerry’s Saloon that rang when citizens reported a fire. Whoever was nearby would call a firemen to tell him to set off the fire alarm sirens on the roofs of Town Hall and the Hotel Jerome and alert the firemen to get the trucks. The phone also rang at the fire chiefs home, in case the fire was in the middle of night and no one was uptown.

“It was all so inadequate and scary.” said Hall. “To his credit, when Tony Lozano was fire chief, he did start some movement towards modernization. He began a fundraiser called Mining Daze, with contests and a dance afterwards, and that money got put aside to buy a new truck. By 1974, other community organizations threw in money and in 1975, when Tovrea was elected, the fire department had enough money to buy a brand new green Ford ¾ ton pickup truck. We installed a pump and tank in the bed.”

During that year, Peggy Tovrea, Jane Moore and Debbie Hall, some of the wives of the firemen, started an auxiliary to help raise money for new equipment. They started a fund-raising Halloween Dance (still a money maker for the fire department) and silk-screened t-shirts at the Tovrea house.

Carmen Kotting was one of two new firefighters that volunteered in the late seventies. “Just after I got on the department there was a fire on Diaz Street. Nobody showed up when the alarm went off, so I jumped on the ‘28 truck. It had a bent seat and I had to stand up on the pedals. Going down hill, I had to double-clutch and pray the brakes would hold. By the time I got to the fire, my knees were jelly. Then others came and we hosed the fire out.”

The antique 1928 Dodge Brothers Fire Truck was one of two antiques that were still in use in the nineteen seventies when the hippies took over the Jerome Volunteer Fire Department. The 1928 truck is still used to deliver Santa Clause at the annual Jerome Christmas party.  Photo courtesy Jerome Volunteer Fire Department

The antique 1928 Dodge Brothers Fire Truck was one of two antiques that were still in use in the nineteen seventies when the hippies took over the Jerome Volunteer Fire Department. The 1928 truck is still used to deliver Santa Clause at the annual Jerome Christmas party. Photo courtesy Jerome Volunteer Fire Department

The Fire That Could Have Spelled Disaster

The first big fire that was fought by the new department was in 1976. The fire was down at the Hostetter’s home near the Douglas Mansion. Artist Jim Rome and Jerry Vojnic, Paul and Jerry’s bar owner, who weren’t members of the fire department, were in the bar when the siren went off. They grabbed the new truck and sped down the hill. The other firemen grabbed the older trucks. Dave Hall described what happened.

“The whole place was in flames when they got there. Minnie Hostetter was leaning out the second story window and had to jump because no one could get the ladder up to her in time and she broke an ankle. The truck’s pump had lost its prime and no one knew how to re-prime it. Guy Henley burned his hand.

“Doc Moore and I grabbed a line from the small truck and Tovrea hooked it up to the hydrant only to find there was no water,” Hall said.  “The fire just kept right on burning. Two firemen almost got into the house with a hose when one of the door lintels fell in. We did manage to get several dogs out of the basement before we started hearing the pop pop pop of bullets going off from the fire’s heat and we just ran and hid in a gulley. Finally, the Cottonwood and Clarkdale fire trucks showed up. We extended some hose lines down to a hydrant by the Douglas Mansion and finally got some water. The fire burned through the night and finally went out early in the morning.

That fire was a real comedy of errors, but it served as a huge wake-up call. It  showed everyone how much we had to learn and how much our old, very substandard equipment had to be repaired or replaced. Phil was the driving force for rescuing the fire department and getting us trained up and lobbying for better equipment. He did the community a real service.”


[1] Author interview with Dave Hall, with additional interviews with Richard Martin, Mimi Currier and Jane Moore. Dave Hall served as Jerome’s Fire Chief from the early eighties until June of 2001. Under his leadership, the department evolved into a modern, well equipped, well trained unit with a selfless team spirit that allowed it to handle various structural and brush fires during the eighties and nineties that, in the past, might have burned large sections of town.

[2] Interview with John McMillan, Jerome Historical Society archives.

[3] Author’s  interview with Jane Moore, who was a member of the Town Council for 12 years, (1982-1984 and 1998-2008, which included being Mayor from 2004-2006) and member of  Planning and Zoning for ten years.  She has made pottery and worked for Made in Jerome pottery for over 33 years. The business is now housed in a handsome new building on Main Street.