Downtown Bisbee blends with the desert's hills.
For its first 100 years, Bisbee was a mining town, but one more substantial ― and more notorious ― than most of those spattered about the mountain West. In the early 1900s it had the air of a cosmopolitan, if not refined, city. A 1917-18 city directory listed about 15,000 residents, including miners from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Serbia. It was one of the largest burgs in Arizona. But brothels and bars lined Brewery Gulch, and floods, fires, and epidemics beset Bisbee as if by subscription. In a fond memoir, Going Back to Bisbee, writer Richard Shelton termed it "a town built directly in the path of disaster."
But in an effort to convince investors that Bisbee was for real, the mining companies commissioned a few architectural landmarks that echoed Boston or Philadelphia, albeit at dollhouse scale. The Italian villa-style Copper Queen Hotel, opened in 1902, still presides over the town with baronial dignity. The 1905 Muheim Block boasts a Roman temple portico ― except that over the columns, instead of a sculptural frieze depicting gods at play, there's a bold proclamation: brewery. A mining town reveres its beer. And its machismo. Bisbee's sculptural centerpiece is a 1935 socialist-realist statue of a bare-chested miner with Superman pecs and an expression of world-dominating confidence. The inscription reads: "Dedicated to those virile men―the copper miners..."
The last mine closed in 1975, and for a while, that looked like Bisbee's final disaster. Most of the remaining 8,000 miners and merchants dribbled away, and their homes ― spindly rooming houses, teetering cottages, and substantial Craftsman bungalows ― tumbled onto the market at preposterously low prices. Word spread, and a wave of late-blooming hippies lapped into town. Judy Perry arrived in 1976 and became a poster child for the wildly unstructured opportunities of Bisbee.
"I bought a house for $7,000 and paid it off in seven years at $100 a month," she recalls. "I didn't have a car for 12 years, but I had a garage, and people tended to leave their cars in it and let me drive them. I played in a comedy band, started a satirical vaudeville troupe, learned to paint, and opened a gallery. I did things here that I never would have done in Tucson or anyplace else, because I didn't have the credentials. People would have laughed at me." Today Perry paints fetching acrylic pictures of a cozy, cluttered Bisbee, makes less than $10,000 a year, and seems profoundly happy with her life. "I want to paint what makes me happy, not what will sell. I've just been lucky that it has sold."
But there is a structure underlying the liberal, laissez-faire social order of Bisbee, Perry says. "It's intense in that everybody knows almost everything about you. You can't have a secretive life here. If you're a bad plumber, you're not going to get any work."