Nestled in southeast Arizona’s Mule Mountains, Bisbee is alive + kicking.
How is it that a once-raucous, 1880s western mining camp known for its brothels and breweries has ended up, as a recent Sunset magazine issue proclaimed it, “the best small town to live in the west”?
As it turns out, the answer’s not easy to sum up in a few words. But the gist of it is that Bisbee, Arizona, has managed—both purposefully and by pure happenstance—to wrap its rich historic identity into a very appealing package for a growing number of visitors and residents seeking an authentic smalltown experience.
The most remarkable aspect of what Bisbee has accomplished regards the fact that the city probably shouldn’t be here anymore. Built as a copper-mining town when the rich ore was plentiful, Bisbee thrived for nearly a century. But in the mid-1970s, when the copper played out and the mine finally shut down, Bisbee, by all rights, should have gone bust along with it.
Instead, the little city is making headlines throughout the U.S. and abroad, and building a reputation as a largely self-sustaining economy that’s the envy of small towns everywhere.
To find out what “ticks” in Bisbee, some of its longtime citizens talked openly about what their lives are like here, what makes their community so unique and how they’re helping it to prosper.
Fred Miller has lived in the gracious, historic Warren District of Bisbee for 22 years. As proprietors of the small, but charming Copper City Inn, Miller and his wife, Anita Fox, have become intimately involved in promoting the city and its increasing reputation as a quaint small-town getaway in one of Arizona’s far southern corners. Miller has also served as the beverage manager and bartender at Bisbee’s Cafe Roka for the past couple of decades; he’s vice chair of an economic development committee called “iBisbee;” and he’s the editor of the Bisbee Wire, a Bisbee-centered newsletter focused on tourism and economics.
As Miller has remarked more than once, “There are many things to do in Bisbee, but one of the best things is not to do anything.”
And maybe that’s a large part of Bisbee’s enduring—and certainly increasing—appeal: the idea that, if you like, you’re invited to loaf to your heart’s content.
But there are lots more characteristics that endear Bisbee to residents and visitors.
“I think one of the main things that makes the city so attractive is that it has a very ‘yeasty’ social mix,” Miller notes. “Bisbee has a history of openness and tolerance. And when you have that kind of open community, you have a range of people who live there. For one, there are the people that have been here—and stayed here—for generations. And then it’s very culturally diverse. There are former copper mine workers, artists, old and new hippies, retirees, second homeowners…all sharing this community. A lot of us have found Bisbee to be a really culturally interesting place to be in our lives.”
Along with its inviting art galleries, shops and restaurants, Miller points out there also are a lot of prosaic advantages to living in Bisbee, things that don’t often get press mentions.
“Community colleges, two medical clinics and a larger hospital in the area; the healthiness of the environment; and, on top of that, the fact that Bisbee’s a very safe community,” he notes. “There’s a whole range of infrastructure things like these that are good, but don’t get mentioned in [media] articles because that’s not the sexy stuff.
NEW (MARKETING) BLOOD
Miller also talks about how Bisbee, once known primarily for its mining and Old West attractions, has begun a rebranding effort to help broaden its appeal to include many other facets of the city’s culture, including its recreational opportunities, pristine hiking trails, birding, and astronomical vantage point.
In that vein, the city has recently hired a new director of the Bisbee Visitor’s Center, Jennifer Luria. Among her duties, Luria is spearheading efforts to rehab the city’s website and upgrade its advertising and graphic design.
An innovative project the city is currently engaged in, Miller emphasizes, involves repurposing the long-dormant copper mines into useful, contemporary facilities. The city, along with the School of Mining at the University of Arizona in Tucson, is planning to establish a mining research center on mining land owned by FreeportMcMoRan. The center would be engaged in researching “end-of-life” mining, soil remediation and water recycling, as well as alternative energy sources.
“The goal,” Miller says, “would be to make some of the old mines more aesthetically pleasing, with new landscaping, vegetation and things of that nature. It’s a very long-term project, but one that we here in Bisbee are allextremely excited about.”
KEEPING HISTORY ‘TRUE’
Fran Powers is one of the many multigeneratonal natives of Bisbee. Her family has called Bisbee home since 1902, when, like so many other local citizens, Powers’s maternal great-grandparents worked in the copper mine. She’s also proud of her partial Mexican-American heritage, which she says is highly characteristic of Bisbee, considering its proximity to the border.
The youthful entrepreneur owns Bisbee Historical Tours, for which she dresses in period costume to offer daytime walkabouts of the fascinating little city and its many fine attractions. Then, in the evenings, Powers switches gears a bit to lead what she calls “authentic haunted historical tours.” During these tours, she and groups of visitors board golf carts to explore the city’s rather striking— and somewhat spooky—paranormal history.
Powers praises her city’s architecture as one of its strongest attractions.
“The city was booming for residential construction from around 1900 to 1918,” she says, “which was just following the Victorian era, so a lot of houses from that period were built in the Victorian style.”
Carefully maintained, the grand old houses in historic Bisbee are a real draw for tourists and visitors, Powers says.
“Since 1980, when the district was designated a historical district, the houses have really been frozen in time, and they’re simply awesome.”
One of her favorite Bisbee structures is the Pythian Castle, which is currently being restored. Dating from the early 1900s, the massive brick and granite structure looms over downtown Bisbee.
“It was a lodging house for the Knights of Pythias, one of 30 fraternities that were in town at the time,” Powers says.
Because she believes the city has such a rich past, and its history is the key to its
present and future, she’s made it her personal goal to help maintain and protect Bisbee’s accuracy and authenticity.
“I’ve done my part to keep Bisbee’s history ‘true,’” she points out. “I’m all for keeping it accurate and making sure that research and documentation are always behind any claims we make about what actually happened here. I believe that if something can’t be documented, then it can’t be called history, but, rather, just entertainment.”
Situated downtown, the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum attracts roughly 20,000 annual visitors seeking a glimpse into the little city’s storied past to its doors. Because of her position, the museum’s director and curator, Carrie Gustavson, has a keen understanding of what unique alchemy Bisbee mixes to create its strong allure.
“Being the museum director has taught me a lot of really interesting things,” she explains. “What you see in a lot of small communities— but you see it in spades in Bisbee—is this enormous pride in our community and in our history. Mining built the town we choose to live in, and the wealth of the mines is what attracts us here through its incredibly well-preserved architectural landscape.”
Gustavson, like many of her peers, serves her community on iBisbee. Her involvement has given her deep insight into what makes the city so attractive to so many. Talking about it, she hones in on the city’s abiding diversity, a theme repeated by many in Bisbee.
“In Bisbee, you’ve got an ‘old-timer’ element that’s been here a long time and is great. And you have a young-retiree element that’s shifting in. The important thing is that they stay because they want to,” she explains. “It’s not like people are coming here to climb a corporate ladder, because we don’t have any to climb. And that, to me, is a very different perception of what it means to live in a small community. So you end up with this really diverse, wonderfully mixed population of people who truly wants to be here, and that’s a characteristic that’s unique to Bisbee.”
Gustavson says that peculiar blend of local residents makes for an eclectic lifestyle.
“I have this whole array of friendships— from unemployed people in the park, to retired university professors, to successful
businesspeople, to young retirees that have moved in, to fourth-generation MexicanAmerican families—and that again is something very special about Bisbee. We do have some neighborhoods, but we’re always a community.”
Story by Bruce Farr
Photography by Mark Lipczynski