My wife and I recently spent a day in the AZ hill town (also one time ghost town) of Jerome Arizona. Throughout Jerome, I found evidence of a significant motorcycle and car history. Viewed through the lens of a large time gap between Jerome’s heyday and now, cultural changes were apparent.
To those of you unfamiliar with Jerome, in the early 20thcentury Jerome was a thriving mining town, that dwindled with changing copper economies and eventually closed up shop in the 50’s. Following the mines closing, the town was largely abandoned until a collection of free thinkers and free rangers seized upon the opportunity for free housing. Eventually, the free thinking collection of inhabitants landed upon thinking of capitalism, and the town populated with artisan shops, which now thrive.
As you explore Jerome today you will find several museums and, due to the historic nature of the city, the majority of the remainder of the city can be considered something of a living museum.
Our first stop was the Douglas Mansion. Around 1900 a second main ore body for copper was found in the Jerome hill and an additional claim/mining operation sprung up largely owned and managed by James Douglas. Later in the century, after the closing of the mine, the Douglas mansion was donated to the state and now operates as a state park.
The Douglas Mansion with the Powder Box House in front (made mostly of TNT boxes)
Although the majority of the museum was dedicated to mining it quickly became apparent from the placards and pictures that when the miners returned home, they enjoyed motorcycles and cars.
I found peppered throughout the museum motorcycle and car references. One placard stated that circa 1930, thousands of automobiles were registered to the hillside city. The candid pictures of downtown in the museum centered around motorcycle clubs, and when they did not, the streets were lined with the automobiles of the time. To an auto enthusiast, these were fascinating pictures.
One picture was a photo of a young man riding an Indian up the windy city road in approximately 4 inches of mud with a big grin. The first thing that struck me about the photo is the change in attitude about what constitutes a good time on a motorcycle. Could you imagine someone on a new street bike smiling as they struggled to make it through town in four inches of mud on a steep incline? On top of that, consider the ergonomics of that Indian in the mud. The throttle was on a lever, as was the gearshift, so he couldn’t fully grasp the handlebars at all times. In addition the handlebars were bent back in a u shape that he held much like you would hold a suitcase you pick up at your side. The tires were narrow and not much better than bicycle tires. Yet, his smile was ear to ear. You can almost imagine the novelty and excitement of a bike with a motor when you see his smile.
I feel the majority of riders today, would be horrified to ride such a contraption, let alone in mud on a steep incline. Why? My guess is that comfort, safety and convenience have replaced, excitement, novelty, achievement and adventure.
The young man’s society, especially in Jerome, celebrated machine conquering environment. Consider some of the races and novels of the time (all celebrated by movies now coincidently): The Great Race of cars around the world, the airplane races from England to France (as seen in Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines), and Around the World in 80 Days. To see Europe at that time meant a month in a ship at the least, on top of the time it took for your sightseeing. The world was an adventure around 1900.
A Photo from the 1908 New York to Paris
In comparison, our society now celebrates how easy, fast and luxurious your trip to Europe can be. Machines conquering environment are soundly looked down upon for environmental impact reasons. Even in motorcycles, comfort is celebrated; consider Harley’s with their wide leather seats and back rests, reclined seating positions and windscreens.
It isn’t a hard leap to assume that the miners working with mechanical tools all day (jacks, pumps, generators, elevators, rail track, engines, etc.) would be proficient with mechanical objects and might incorporate those skills into their hobbies. It’s probably similar to our modern computer engineers who go home and play online (either gaming, trying to take down corporate websites, or attempting to steal your bank passwords).
Outside, in the garage of the Douglas mansion, both the old man Douglas chariot (as in horses; used prominently in the film Oklahoma) and the son’s pieced together pickup truck (made from an old car) still reside in the garage.
The Douglas state park also shows a video history of Jerome, on the half hour, and a significant amount of screen time is dedicated to the hillclimb races held in the late 50’s and early 60’s. After a number of years, the state of Arizona rescinded their decision to allow the races due to safety concerns.
Rather than attempt to describe the exciting event, I’ll leave it to the internet and our instant access to information to fill that role. I found the blog at the link listed here:
My consideration of the Ghost City races as quidessential racing cool grew exponentially as I looked at the pictures in the above blog. Just check out the pictures; how could you not want to be there?!
Did society gain from growing safer with actions such as ending the Ghost City races? On one hand, people that aren’t racing can’t get hurt racing. But on the other hand, people that crave adventure and excitement will either find it, or long for it. If a vast majority of those activities that could be used to fill that need are considered illegal, they are either going to do illegal things (underground late night racing, driving recklessly on public roads, etc.) or long for that excitement and adventure as they recline in their clean, comfortable, safety (perhaps causing a generation of fashion loving moody hipsters?).
But not all is lost. I’m happy to report that hillclimbs are alive and well in the Northwest.
The Maryhill museum of Art allows groups to rent their hillclimb track.
Also, the Northwest Hillclimb Association organizes hillclimb events around the state.
Both are great opportunities to enjoy an exciting event. As soon as I have a car capable of participating, I’m going to give it a shot.
Other gearhead highlights of Jerome included:
The old auto dealership has an old plymouth jammed into it amongst the shops. As my wife purchased artisan necklaces I read through the signs on the wall chronicling the old dealership (and how they placed cars in the shop).
The mid-town museum also has more detail about the Ghost City races as well as a really cool old bicycle.
I will note, that it was interesting to me that, although the gearhead culture was one of the predominant historical references to the town of Jerome in picture, both the Douglas and mid-city museum chose to focus on the prostitution that existed in the town, although there seemed to be far fewer pictures and details available for those exhibits. It’s interesting what we celebrate as a society. Also in Jerome, it seemed that in every bookstore we walked in there were novels written about, or from the point of view of, a Jerome prostitute. Yet I didn’t see as much as a poem about any of the gentlemen smiling with their motorcycles, pulling their new car our of the dealership, or screaming up the hill in their Austin Healey.
I think this micro look at the celebrated prostitution history of Jerome also matches the macro view of America’s history. Although we all know that celebrated men who believed in God helped guide this country, now the belief in God is generally derided in film, and characters such as Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and etc. are celebrated.
I can’t help that wonder if we are seeing the effects of the seeds we’ve sown as mass shootings rock the nation this week. I think it’s foolish to be surprised when evil expands its presence when it's been invited into entertainment. How my soul longs for men and women to know the joy, goodness, love, justice and righteousness of Christ. He stands against all of this that breaks your heart, and He can change those hearts that anti-depressants and counseling can’t.
My apologies for the side comment, it’s been a tough week and it’s hard to not drift back to thoughts regarding the tragedies, especially when one of them occurred in your city (Portland, OR).
Back to Jerome.
At the top of the hill, the old asylum now houses both a Packard limo (with an interesting wheel chair access setup) and a Rolls Royce Phantom. Little detail is given as to why the vehicles are there, or where they came from and internet searches have provided little information. I would love to hear if someone knows more about these vehicles. If your taste in gears expands beyond transportation, there are some neat antique clocks in the hallways of the hotel.
Rolls Royce Phantom
A local antique shop has ean arly 20th century gas pump decorating it’s sidewalk in a patina only the Arizona desert could produce.
Also, the vehicles that are used in the city reflect the history. A local mine museum advertises with a vintage water truck. I noted a local deliveryman using a very odd, interesting flatbed Jeep I’d never seen before doing. A little internet research told me it's a FC (forward control).
If your tastes run more modern, Jerome is still the hill of choice for rich men and their exotica. I’ve seen more than one supercar parked along the streets of Jerome, no doubt driven up from snooty southward Scottsdale.
The city of Jerome is a fascinating place for people that enjoy machines. I’d highly recommend a visit. But the space of 100 years also reveals some cultural differences, even in the context of motorcycles and cars, between now and then.