My friend Coyote Sue spends part of her year in Arizona, around the towns of Ajo and Why. She invited me to visit the next time I was in the area. When I left the 2016 RTR (the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous–read more about it here: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2016/01/23/report-on-the-2016-rubber-tramp-rendezvous/), I decided to drive down to Ajo to visit Coyote Sue and do a bit of exploring.
According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajo,_Arizona, Ajo
…is a census-designated place (CDP) in Pima County, Arizona… The population was 3,705 at the 2000 census. Ajo is located on State Route 85 just 43 miles (69 km) from the Mexican border. It is the closest community to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
If you thought, as I did, that Ajo was named for the Spanish word for garlic, you would be, as I was, wrong. Although the DesertUSA website (http://www.desertusa.com/cities/az/ajo.html)–which doesn’t site any sources–says,
In Spanish, ajo means “garlic.” Wild garlic plants (the Ajo lily or desert lily – an onion-like plant) that grew in the surrounding hills were responsible for the naming of the community…
I’m more inclined to believe the explanation on the Ajo Chamber of Commerce history webpage (http://www.ajochamber.com/explore/history-of-ajo/).
Before the community of Ajo was settled, the Tohono O’odham [the local indigenous people] used water from a series of potholes in the area they called Mu’i Wawhia or Moivavi (many wells). Mexican miners later called the site Ajo, perhaps influenced by another O’odham name for the area –-au-auho—for the pigment they obtained from the ore-rich rocks.
Ajo exists because of mining. The aforementioned Chamber of Commerce history webpage details the history of Ajo and mining. I’ll cover that information when I write about my visit to the New Cornelia Open Pit Mine Lookout.
Ajo has a lovely town plaza.
According to http://www.ajochamber.com/attractions/local-attractions/, the plaza
was built in 1917 under the direction of John Greenway’s wife Isabella. The Spanish Colonial Revival style town square features a center park surrounded by retail shops, a post office and restaurants accented with two mission-style churches. The [Immaculate Conception] Catholic Church was built in 1924 and the Federated Church in 1926…The plaza was purchased by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance in 2008 and is in the midst of a multi-year process of restoration and revitalization.
According to http://www.desertusa.com/cities/az/ajo.html, the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church
was designed by George Washington Smith, a Santa Barbara, California architect…The Protestant church [the Ajo Federated Church] was built in 1927 and influenced by the same architect. He died however before it was built and does not get full credit for it.
The Curley School is another historic building in Ajo. The Ajo Chamber of Commerce (http://www.ajochamber.com/attractions/local-attractions/) has the following to say about the Curley School:
Easily visible from the town plaza, Ajo’s Curley School is an architectural masterpiece of Spanish Colonial Revival style that harmonizes seamlessly with the rest of the historic downtown. The main building on the seven acre campus was built in 1919 with additional buildings added in 1926 and 1937. The Curley School has been renovated by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance into 30 affordable live/work rentals for artists…
A good place to start a visit to Ajo is the visitor center in the Ajo train depot, on the plaza. I found information about the New Cornelia mine and the Ajo Scenic Loop, as well as a map for a self-guided walking tour, all in that one spot.
Another place to learn about Ajo’s past is the Ajo Historical Society Museum, housed in the former St. Catherine’s Indian Mission. According to http://www.ajochamber.com/attractions/local-attractions/,
the museum houses many artifacts and mementos from Ajo’s past. The displays include a complete blacksmith shop, a dentist’s office and an early print shop.
I visited the Ajo Historical Society museum. No admission fee is charged, but donations are accepted. The first few displays, including the print shop, the dentist’s office, and blacksmith shop, are well organized and clearly labeled. However, the further back I went in the museum, the more the displays took on an elementary school social studies fair feel. Many of the displays seemed cluttered with items that were certainly old (by the standards of the Southwest) but didn’t seem necessarily significant.
Overall, I enjoyed my time in Ajo and would be pleased to visit again in the winter, when the weather in the desert is perfect.
I took all of the photos in this post.