Razing the T.F Miller Building: Jerome, AZ 1953

In early 1953, speculation ran high that the entire town of Jerome, AZ would be razed. According to a former official of Phelps Dodge, “WITHIN A YEAR – GRASS WILL GROW ON THE MAIN STREET OF JEROME—JEROME IS FINISHED.”[1]

It was an easy time for the mining companies that abandoned Jerome to begin bulldozing town buildings. Phelps Dodge Corporation (PD) and United Verde Exploration (UVX) owned the land underneath Jerome, many lots and buildings on Main Street, the schools and hospital and much of the land surrounding the town for many miles.

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The iconic T.F. Miller building was ordered to be torn down by Phelps Dodge in 1953. “Jerome is finished,” a mine official said. Kids were paid a penny a piece to clean the bricks. (Photo courtesy: Jerome Historical Society)

In early 1953, bulldozing began. First to go was the T.F. Miller company store, which held sentinel at the top of town, facing down Main Street, a handsome four-story building, with its brick and sandstone façade. The building was the lifeblood of the mining community—a symbol of the dominant place it occupied in the lives of its residents. William Andrews Clark, founder of the United Verde Mine, built it in 1899 at a cost of $100,000, a grand price in those days. The large fire of 1899 caused only some warping of the I-Beams on the fourth floor and these were quickly repaired. It had been handsomely maintained. Jerome resident Joe Selna was still operating the commissary in the first part of 1953.

By the end of 1953, only rubble remained.

In October, Phelps Dodge Corporation sold the building to Joel Baldwin, Yavapai County Assessor in Prescott, AZ, for fifty dollars with the agreement that he tear it down. PD said the building was a ‘fire trap’ and that the Con OKeefe building next to was pushing dangerously against it. The Town of Jerome granted Baldwin a demolition permit with the agreement that he clean up the lot after the building was torn down and asked for $200 check as a guarantee. Baldwin sold the materials at salvage prices to a company in Los Angeles.

Baldwin also demolished the Ewing Transfer Building on Lower Main Street. Verde Exploration Ltd. pulled down The Con O’Keefe Building . It looked like the gloomy prophecy about uptown Jerome turning to grass might be coming to pass.

Although the O’Keefe building lot was cleaned up to the satisfaction of the town, Baldwin left a large rubble at the site of the T.F. Miller and Ewing buildings. Town letters of complaint to Baldwin and PD were stonewalled and the Town had to eventually clean up the rubble. To add insult to injury, Baldwin’s cleanup guarantee check bounced.[2]

Robert Sandoval, who was born in Jerome, had this to say in an interview with me: “When the Miller building was demolished, my brother Jesse and me cleaned bricks. They were stacked on pallets, 500 per pallet. We got a penny a brick. We’d use a small hatchet to get the mortar off. We got so we could clean a pallet of bricks an hour. I remember ten to fifteen kids cleaning bricks., even some girls. Everyone had their own pallet

The demolition of those buildings served as a wakeup call for the Jerome Historical Society. During the Society’s December 5 meeting, “Mr. McMillan moved that the secretary write the Verde Exploration[3] and the Phelps Dodge Corporation asking that we be given a chance to discuss the sale of any building that may be put up for sale in Jerome. We don’t want to remove them, but will assume taxation and liability for any damage.”[4] The society also appointed a committee to investigate acquiring buildings in Jerome.

In February 1954, The Society wrote to Verde Exploration asking if they could purchase the Mine Museum building, which they had been renting for fifteen dollars a month. Verde Exploration Manager, Clarence J. Beale wrote that the company would be willing to sell the building at a salvage price of seventy-five dollars and the paid-up rentals would be considered as payment for the lot. The Society voted to send $150.00 to purchase the building.

For the first time, Society took a giant step towards leveraging itself into becoming stewards of Main Street buildings. Board members worked closely together in signage, repairs, promotion, welded together strongly by a single goal— community building on a scale they hardly imagined when they began the society. Night after night, members met to rescue a shipwreck of a town and, at the same time, sail themselves out of the doldrums.

The Society began to replace PD’s threat of grass growing on Main Street with their motto, “The Past is our Future.”

In those days, neither money nor power drove their dreams forward, particularly remarkable when you look at a very wealthy town whose values today seem to be solely defined by money and power.

Excerpts from Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Richest Copper Mining City by Diane Sward Rapaport

[1] News Bulletin, Jerome Historical Society newsletter, 1955.

[2] The Jerome Chronicle, Summer 1987, ‘The T.F. Miller company Building; Margaret Heyer Mason, “The 1950’s, “Jerome in Transition”, paper presented for the Jerome Historical Society Symposium, 1982.

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