This early-twentieth-century company town reflects the mining industry’s importance to Arizona’s economy and its built environment. With a master plan designed in 1914, Ajo exhibits City Beautiful planning principles while also borrowing from a nineteenth-century tradition of utopian workers’ communities and model towns.
Ajo means “red-colored ore” in the native Tohono O’odham language (and “garlic” in Spanish, for the local garlic-flavored wildflowers), and a major vein of copper ore was discovered here, in the middle of the desert 118 miles southwest of Phoenix, at the end of the nineteenth century. It was only with advances in recovery technology that the Minnesota-based Calumet and Arizona Mining Company developed the New Cornelia Mine. The company sent Yale graduate John C. Greenway, one of Teddy Roosevelt’s famed Rough Riders, to Ajo to oversee mining operations. When Greenway arrived, Ajo had little housing, only a few stores, and no entertainment, but he understood that to get the new open pit mine into operation was going to require a substantial number of workers. To deal with this situation, Greenway believed it was socially responsible to build a company town.
This idea had immediate regional precedents: in 1915 architect Bertram Goodhue designed the town of Tyrone, New Mexico, for the Phelps-Dodge Copper Company to great acclaim. Mining encampments were notoriously squalid and lawless, but after 1910, reformers and labor unions put pressure on mine owners to improve workers’ living conditions. Large mining syndicates responded by creating sustainable communities along so-called scientific principles, often retaining celebrated architects and sparing no expense on construction materials. The results were sanitary housing and shops frequently designed in the most au courant architectural styles and planned along the most advanced urban theories.
The Calumet and Arizona Mining Company hired Minneapolis architects William M. Kenyon and Maurice F. Maine to design a town based on reformist principles derived from the City Beautiful movement, which espoused beautifying cities with lush parks, handsome parkways, and stately buildings to foster community pride and enrich the lives of residents. As a model planned community, Ajo provided low-cost dormitories and apartments for single workers, houses for families, a general store, a restaurant, a bank, a post office, a movie theater and, later, churches. The company also erected a hospital and a school (and paid for their operation), while maintaining the houses, streets, recreational facilities, and public utilities. It supported public events like an annual Christmas party in the town plaza and provided fire and police protection.
The centerpiece of the new town was the Spanish Colonial Revival train depot (1916), used by the Tucson, Cornelia and Gila Bend Railroad to transport both freight and passengers along a 43-mile, northbound spur connecting Ajo and its copper mines to the Southern Pacific’s main line at Gila Bend. As visitors disembarked at the station, they encountered an arcaded plaza encircling a palm-lined park. A wide avenue led to the monumental Curley School (1918–1919), designed in a Spanish Colonial Revival style by the Phoenix-based architectural firm Lescher and Kibbey. Flanking the axial line connecting the station and the school are two Mission Revival churches: the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church (1925–1926) designed by Santa Barbara architect George Washington Smith, and the Federated Church (1926–1927) by Lescher and Mahoney. The architects used these popular revival styles as a romantic device to connect the new buildings to the region’s colonial past.
Though Greenway insisted that the town center be open to everyone, housing was segregated by race. The company built three separate residential districts: an American (Anglo) town site for whites was placed near the town center, while Mexican Town and Indian Village were located farther south, closer to the mine. Streets in the American town site radiated from a central plaza, while the Mexican and Indian town sites followed a grid pattern. Workers in the American town site could choose from several wood-frame house models, each containing approximately 1,480 square feet of living space. The average house featured a living room with a fireplace, two or three bedrooms, a bath, and a kitchen. Sleeping porches were provided to take advantage of the desert’s cooler nighttime air prior to the advent of air conditioning. The most popular model was the Spanish Colonial Revival house; other options included Bungalow and Prairie-style models. Miners’ houses were built on alternate lots, with additional houses erected later as infill. Greenway hoped workers would purchase their houses, but this seldom happened since rents were so affordable, ranging from $1 to $30 a month for houses valued from $100 to $5,000. One-car, corrugated metal garages opened into an alley behind each house, but were likely added later after the Phelps Dodge Corporation took over the town.
Company officials and other important persons received large houses with views. Greenway and Michael Curley, the mine’s general superintendent, lived in sprawling hilltop residences overlooking the town and the Little Ajo Mountains; the town’s doctors occupied four comfortable, Spanish Colonial Revival–style, hilltop residences west of the hospital. Foremen, electricians, and master mechanics occupied smaller and less ostentatious houses. When the town was completely built-out, it featured approximately 967 company-owned houses.
The Phelps Dodge Corporation bought the interests of the Ajo mines from the Calumet and Arizona Mining Company, and by 1935, its New Cornelia Branch ranked as Arizona’s leading copper producer. Falling copper prices and lower grade ore led to the mine’s closing in 1984. Phelps Dodge sold most of the houses and commercial property it owned, reserving only the rights to underground mineral deposits. The Ajo town center, although no longer company-owned, retains the elements of a planned company town. The American town site still exists, but the Mexican and Indian town sites have largely disappeared because mining operations encroached on the land. A few concrete slabs from the dwellings can still be seen at the edge of the open pit that looms above the town.
With copper prices rising in the twenty-first century, current owner Freeport-McMoRan, Inc. might restart mining operations in the future. In the meantime, Ajo has seen a modest revival thanks to an influx of retirees, tourists, and, most recently, arts-oriented investment by non-profit organizations ArtPlace America and the International Sonoran Desert Alliance. The latter has recently rehabilitated the defunct Curley School into artist studios and lofts.
“Curley School Artisan Apartments.” International Sonoran Desert Alliance. Accessed August 2, 2014. http://www.curleyschool.com.
Fallows, Deborah. “Ajo, Arizona: A Small Town, Pushed to the Brink, and Coming Back.” The Atlantic, March 30, 2015.
Johns and Strittmatter Inc. “Ajo: A Model Company Town.” Historic Resources Inventory and Report prepared for the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office, Phoenix, 1995.
Patterson, Ann, and Mark Vinson. Landmark Buildings: Arizona’s Architectural Heritage.Phoenix: Arizona Highways, 2004.