Saturday, October 23, 2010
The Girl from Cleopatra Hill
My mother, Perrie Rae Ling, grew up in what was still the wild west, in a mining town clinging to the side of Cleopatra Hill, an undulating accessory to Mingus Mountain, part of the Black Hills range. Mama grew up in a place and time I can only imagine, and they were central to who she was. The place was Jerome Arizona and the time was the early part of the 20th century.
Located high on top of Cleopatra Hill (5,200 feet) between Prescott and Flagstaff is the historic copper mining town of Jerome, Arizona. Once known as the wickedest town in the west, Jerome was a copper mining camp, growing from a settlement of tents to a roaring mining community. (Jerome Historical Society)
Now an artist's colony of around 450 people and a tourist addendum for folks visiting the beautiful red rocks region of Sedona, Jerome touts itself as “America’s Most Vertical City” and the “Largest Ghost Town in America.” What happened to Jerome was what happens to most mining towns. The mines eventually went bust. But when Mama and her family moved there in 1918, she was just a baby, and the small city boasted close to 10,000 people from all over the world.
Founded in 1876, Jerome was once the fourth largest city in the Arizona Territory. The population peaked at 15,000 in the 1920's. The Depression of the 1930's slowed the mining operation and the claim went to Phelps Dodge, who holds the claim today. World War II brought increased demand for copper, but after the war, demand slowed. Dependent on the copper market, Phelps Dodge Mine closed in 1953. The remaining 50 to 100 hardy souls promoted the town as a historic ghost town. In 1967 Jerome was designated a National Historic District by the federal government. (Jerome Historical Society)
In trying to write about what life was like in a place like Jerome in the early 1900’s, I went back and read parts of an interview with my mother I audio-taped at Tybee Island, Georgia on New Year’s Day, 2000. I called the intermittent conversations we had during our holiday stay The Millennium Sessions, in an attempt to give them the heft they deserved. Mama died three years later, her words becoming a gift to my family and me. I can’t iterate adequately my feelings about the importance of getting family stories before they disappear with that irrevocable last breath of the one person who knows them.
In looking back at my notes, I quickly realized my mother tells of life in Jerome much better than I ever could, so I’m including part of my interview. Some of it isn't particularly politically correct by today's standards, but it provides a snapshot of what life was like in that place in that time. My mother's responses are in italics.
You moved to Jerome when you were about one. What do you remember about the early years?
Some of the things that I think that I remember I can't understand why because I was so young. One thing, I might have been two, I don't know. My folks had rented this house. It was called the Gibbs House. Of course, everything was on the side of the hill there and somehow I wandered away and somewhere down the road, lower, a Mexican child had got to playing with me and took me home.
And that just wasn't done, I'm sure.
No! And the mama took me in and, all that I can remember, I was sitting on a table and eating frijoles, I think, when my mother came to get me.
And, of course, there were no telephones to call.
No, I think they sent the child and the mother may have seen me previously. Of course, the house was not real close. You know we were separated. And also, I think that I have told you that, sitting on my steps when I was about three or four, there was a family living underneath us down the side of the hill. I had gotten a toy piano and I was going to learn to play the piano even then, and the two little boys, the family downstairs, got two kits for Christmas, that had hammers and tools. And those two boys came up and I was sitting there with my piano and they beat up my piano. The funny thing was, at that time, my mother had a Negro woman who came in once a while. She was a wonderful pianist. She had been educated and how she got to Jerome, I don't know. Drucilla was her name. And she used to show me how to play on that little piano before the boys tore it up. Those two boys' father, he was an educator and ended up as the superintendent of schools. He was principal of several schools.
How many schools were there in Jerome?
Well, you had the primary school that was down here, and the elementary school that was here and you had the Opportunity School...
For retarded children.
Did they really call it the Opportunity School?
At that time, I don't know of anybody who did that. That paid any attention to them. And then down on the upper grades elementary school and then the high school. We had an excellent school system. It was pretty much run by the people that I have been talking about, the educated people. So we got good teachers and by then, J.O. Mullen, the father of the two brat brothers, who, by the way, I used to date in later years, he really ran a tight system.
Other memories of when you were really young. Something about a baby carriage that you didn't put away so your mother threw it away.
I don't remember that but I wouldn't be surprised. I was disciplined.
Mostly by your mama?
Both of them. My mother would dislike one thing and my father would say to forget it and vice versa. I dearly loved my father. My mother was my mother, and that was all.
But you were your father's girl?
I was my father's boy.
Do you remember your parents fighting?
Not very much. I don't think they got along real well all the time. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't. My father was sick most of his life. He had stomach ulcers and back then they had no way to treat them, and of course, now they do. He finally had surgery a couple of times. He ended up with cancer. So he died when he must have been 71.
What do you remember your mother doing during the day? I know she was a good cook.
She was an excellent housekeeper. She played bridge most every afternoon. She was active in an organization that took care of people who had no money or illnesses, usually the Mexicans. They did a lot of social service work. If a mother was sick in the hospital, they would see that the children got fed.
What was your house like growing up? Was it the house that you showed me when we were in Jerome?
No, probably not. We lived in a series of houses. You know that Jerome was a mining town, and it basically was operated by the Verde Mine. They had a store that was like a commissary. They didn't call it that, but it was similar to that. People that worked for the mine paid once a month for the groceries and stuff they had bought. A company store. The hospital was a company hospital.
Everybody else could use it?
If it wasn't crowded. And my father, being the lawyer in town. Also, my dad, at one time, was justice of the peace, police judge. So, when the mine wasn't too crowded, we could live in the apartment house, which was owned by the mine. The other houses in town were owned by the mine. There was very little private property. So, we moved frequently when someone else needed our place. We even lived in my father's office for about six months. And then about that time, they said, come on back, we've got an apartment for you. We lived in two different apartments, each of them two different times, in and out, in and out. That was really the most pleasant living for some reason. No bedrooms. Murphy beds. One apartment was bigger than the other.
They had a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen, and then a dressing room and bath. And, in the largest apartment, my bed had to be pulled out and opened up in the dining room. My parents' was pulled out in the living room. And then, the other apartment, overall, it was smaller but their room in the dressing room to put my little bed so it didn't have to be pulled out. But that was right in the center of town. It was a nice place to live.
Jerome was the place where Mama spent her entire childhood and the place where she returned to teach after college. It wasn't until she was sewing at home one Sunday morning, and the news of Pearl Harbor came over the radio, that my mother began making preparations for what would ultimately be the reason for her to leave Jerome for good.
I think what stays with me most is how ordinary it all was. My mother, in spite of growing up in a place and time that seem so foreign to me, had a childhood very much like mine.
Lucky are we who had happy childhoods.