Rebirth: giving up the ghost-town image Arizona: A one-time mining community, Jerome has reinvented itself as an artists' colony, attracting an assortment of odd characters as residents -- and more than 250,000 visitors a year; Destination: The Southwest


Welcome to Jerome," says the man in the gray hat and the curly red beard.

I detect a familiar long O in his greeting. This is Dan Kimling, sidewalk storyteller, a self-made artist who blends into the old mining town's Western decor, his long hair and beard reflecting Sycamore Canyon's red rock. He was born and raised in Laurel. Now, he's somewhere else.

"It's the place, it's the attitude of the people," Kimling says, his Baltimore accent carrying an odd ring here on Cleopatra Hill. "I came here three years ago from Phoenix for a three-day job and haven't been able to leave. You've got people from all walks of life, from every end of the spectrum. We have no crime and the only drugs here are the ones we do."

The tiny town of Jerome, Ariz., is one of those tucked-away secret places an awful lot of people seem to know about. About 45 minutes from Sedona, the mile-high community hangs on the cliffs of central Arizona's Black Hills, a morning drive from Prescott or Flagstaff. But, to those who have spent any time with the town's inhabitants, it's more like the "Northern Exposure" of the Southwest.

This is the kind of town where a guy named Sequoia jams on bongos, saying things like: "It's art unfolding in the moment. It's a mutual thing." A folk singer of 70-plus years rides down the mountain road in no more than her boots and bicycle helmet, just to "wake everybody up." The pizza chef is a poet, the dishwasher a songwriter. Everyone who moves here remembers the first person they met; and that person likely had a name like Fern or Starr. Television sets are unplugged, broken or too expensive to buy. And doors and windows are unlocked, futons dragged onto porches to take advantage of a midnight breeze.

'Jeromaniacs' live here

"This is the backwash of the avant-garde of the 1970s," says Esther Burton, 68, a songwriter who says she lived in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere before settling in Jerome in 1977. Here, if she's in the mood, you may get her to sing one of her folk songs. Take this snippet from a guitar-accompanied tribute to Elvis Presley: "I gotta know that I'm dead, because I smell so bad."

Jerome locals, Burton explains one evening during an impromptu jam session, have their own moniker. "We are called Jeromaniacs, instead of Jeromians. We are maniacal about our independence."

Once known as the "Billion Dollar Copper Camp" and later "The Largest Ghost City in America," Jerome today sees more than 250,000 visitors a year. Travelers come for the panoramic view of canyons along the Verde Valley, or a taste of wicked Wild West-flavored history. More and more, they're stopping at the community's two dozen art shops and galleries.

Over the years, the one-time mining town has established its reputation as a Bohemian hideaway and a traveler's discovery. When I told people back on the East Coast about my trip, I'd hear this sort of response: "I've been to Jerome! I bought earrings there."

Visitors come here just hoping to meet an artist or two. While I was walking around the San Francisco-angled streets taking notes, a thin, gray-haired woman stopped me: "Are you sketching?" she asked breathlessly. It wouldn't be too difficult to stumble across a creative soul. Jerome's population is only about 500, counting children. The number of artists: about 150. The ghost-town image is fading.

John and Dee Ann Sullivan were out West for their daughter's wedding in Flagstaff, traveling from Huntingtown in Maryland's Calvert County. They stopped in Jerome for a day off from nuptial planning, and wandered into Esser Gallery, a shop where whimsical, buck-toothed papier-mache masks line the wall behind a counter strung with leather-crafted purses.

"This place reminds me of Provincetown, Mass.," said John Sullivan, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, class of '70, who was sporting his alma mater's jacket and cap that day. "You know, an artists' colony."

"You just never know what you'll see in the shops," said Dee Ann Sullivan. "Just look at those masks, my gosh."

In the small galleries and shops lining the town's few blocks, visitors can find innovative artwork: a wooden clock sculpture of a man running in baby shoes; palm-sized busts carved out of Ecuadorean rain-forest nuts; bold-brushed landscapes inspired by the area's carved canyons; or classic nudes in oil on large canvases.

"I don't know anybody who isn't an artist," said Nancy Weisel, manager of Raku Gallery on Hull Avenue, which represents 300 artists from Jerome and elsewhere. "I don't know how many really make a living at it."

Artistic evolution

Like other towns dotting America's West, Jerome has evolved to survive a rapidly changing century. The town's history began around 1876, with the filing of copper claims and the birth of a miners' tent city, which was later named after the New Yorker managing the enterprise. According to local historians, the 1920s boom town became one of Arizona's largest cities with a population of 15,000 - among them the legendary mix of drifters, gamblers, bootleggers, preachers, killers and, as one history book puts it, "tarts."

Over the decades, labor battles erupted, fires from the mines destroyed the town more than a few times, and what was left sometimes slid down the side of the hill. After World War II, copper prices plummeted, and the mines closed in 1953.

"There were about 75 widows and other people left after the town was abandoned," said Diane Rapaport, vice president of the Jerome Historical Society. "So in the early 1950s they started marketing themselves as America's largest ghost city. They took pictures of people in white sheets dressed as spooks and sent out a press release. It was the P.R. move to end all P.R. moves."

In the early 1970s, as the counterculture movement propelled people across the country, some ended up in Jerome, creating an organic creative colony similar to that of Taos, N.M. Jerome's newcomers moved into crumbling mining executives' houses, setting up pottery wheels and easels and mixing with the old ghost town advocates. "People were getting into VW buses and looking for a cheap place to live," Rapaport said. "Jerome began to have an influx of really wacked-out migrating hippies."

One of those was Tracy Weisel, a one-time sidewalk potter who started his career in the back of a yellow van (which has since been replaced by a sleek Jaguar): "When you are on the sidewalk putting yourself out, people will stop and talk to you. They want to help you," the Raku Gallery owner told me as he sipped coffee in an outdoor cafe. "The best advertising here has been by word of mouth."

At the Jerome Artists Cooperative Gallery in the town center, jeweler Christy Fisher sometimes sits behind the counter, answering tourists' questions about Jerome's "normal" business hours: "If people feel like it, they open up," Fisher told a couple from Scottsdale. "If there's a vibe that they'll be getting some business, then maybe the owner might show up."

With a gem's glint in her eye, Fisher talked about the first time she saw Jerome, in the early 1990s. "I flew in from San Francisco, and instead of turning left on 89-A to go to Sedona, I ended up here. It looked like Europe. I talked to people and said, 'Hey, they are like me.' So I said this is where I belong, cool. Then a guy named Starr was walking across the street with a For Rent sign. It was cosmic."

Creative freedom

The Jerome Artists Cooperative Gallery, which opened two years ago, shows the work of 33 local artists. Manager Rex Peters, who specializes in crafted wood bowls, says the operation, which rents space inexpensively from the city, is financially in the black. The artists themselves run the co-op, and don't be surprised if they fumble with the foam wrap or don't know how to run credit cards or figure sales tax. As Peters says: "This place is the best of socialism and the best of capitalism in some kind of weird way."

By most accounts, the town supports the colony. Artists admit there are disputes over whether they can live in their studios or do renovations outside guidelines created by the town's historic designation. "There are so many rules and regulations," said potter Tracy Weisel. "The whole reason we came here was for the freedom, and that is changing." Among other things, locals here told me the town's growing popularity is doubling and tripling home prices, and shutting out cash-poor artists.

It's not over yet. Painters such as Alberta Titonis-King, 50, can still work in studio space above the co-op for $71 a month plus utilities. "If I didn't have this studio space subsidized by the town, I would be on the fringe," she said. During the summers, artists can work in town-sponsored Art Park.

Individuals also lead efforts to incorporate art into Jerome's daily life. Sculptors set up children's art workshops. The town pizza parlor, Wedge on the Edge, features a pizza-box art show. A golf course that spans a few bachelor artists' rocky back yards marks the 18-plus holes with found-art sculptures (hub caps wed to car radiators). Even a town Dumpster bears the yin and yang symbols.

Many of the artists have displayed their work in more formal settings - here in Jerome, throughout Arizona and, increasingly, across the country. There are several nationally recognized art galleries in town, the best-known being the Jerome Gallery, Queen's Neighbor Gallery, Raku Gallery and the studios of Margo Mandette and Robin Anderson, who lists President Gerald R. Ford as one of its outstanding clients. The Anderson-Mandette Art Studios is one of several fashioned out of the Old Jerome High School.

Based at the former school complex is also one of the town's most beloved artists, found-art sculptor Don Bassett, whose work -- a humorous blend of cow skulls, car parts, chairs and other recycled pieces - has brought as much as $20,000 and has been featured in shows at Arizona State University, the Scottsdale Center for the Arts and at fine art centers across Arizona, New Mexico and elsewhere.

Bassett, now 83, puts it this way one afternoon: "I was dabbling in art a lot of years, and Jerome seemed the ideal spot for an artist. The people are individuals and artists are really individuals."

Getting there: About 45 minutes southwest of Sedona; or a morning's drive from either Prescott (to the southwest) or Flagstaff (to the northeast). Most visitors to Jerome will fly into Phoenix (currently America West and TWA are offering round trip airfare for $196 out of BWI). From there, you can rent a car and make the drive due north on Interstate 17 to Arizona 260. Turn left (northwest) and continue on 260 to Arizona Alternate 89, where you will go left (east) to Jerome.

Where to stay: The Jerome Grand Hotel (520-634-8200) at 200 Hill St. has rooms available for $70 to $100. Surgeon's House (520-639-1452), a bed and breakfast at 100 Hill St., also has rates ranging from $70 to $100. The Jerome View Inn (520-639-2824) is located at 894 N. Hampshire Ave. and has rooms for $60 to $80.

Where to eat: The Flatiron Cafe at 416 Main St. (520-634-2733) serves breakfast and lunch priced from $5 to $8. The English Kitchen at 119 N. Jerome Ave. (520-634-2132) serves breakfast and lunch for $5 to $8; closed Mondays. The House of Joy, 416 N. Hull Ave. (520-634-5339), is open weekends only for dinner and serves dishes priced $18 to $25.

For information: The Jerome Chamber of Commerce (520-634-2900) is a volunteer organization, which is sometimes closed.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

Randi Kest

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