Hippies, hogs and ol' haunts

Special to The Times

IT isn't often that a weekend getaway with a toddler revolves around a fire station and a high-altitude saloon whose patrons roar up on Harleys. But a visit to this tiny, cliff-hugging town is bound to be full of some pretty weird moments.

Jerome -- 90 miles north of Phoenix and snagged in a web of steep, narrow streets off scenic Arizona 89A -- at first glance is deceiving. It appears to be little more than a few hundred homes in various stages of gentrification or condemnation, a hippie hamlet where crumbling old houses with warped decks are perched next to recently restored Victorians.

Some visitors are curious about Jerome's reputation as a haunting ground for mining-era ghosts; others are lured by the dark humor and gourmet fare at restaurants with names like the Asylum. There's a reason for Jerome's love of the dark side: The town, between Sedona and Prescott, may look like another chic up-and-coming artist's colony, but it has a lot of historical skeletons in its closet.

At the turn of the last century, Jerome was a boomtown and home to 15,000 copper miners and assorted others, plus dozens of brothels, saloons and opium dens. In 1903, the New York Sun called it "the wickedest town in the West."

It was resurrected time and again after devastating fires and landslides (often caused by dynamite blasting in the mining tunnels below ground), and then thought to be lost for good when the Phelps Dodge mine closed in 1953.

Once the state's fourth-largest city, Jerome saw its population plummet below 100, becoming a ghost town almost overnight. Its saviors came in the form of squatter hippies and artists who took over the abandoned town in the '60s, in some cases buying up its rotting homes for a few dollars each. By the 1970s, Jerome had also become a mecca for rowdy motorcycle gangs, lured by the winding roads and clear vistas.

These days, most of Jerome's ramshackle hotels and brothels have been converted into upscale art galleries. Californians have been snapping up homes, but the longtime "Jeromies"-- about 450 in all -- still reign supreme.

The motorcyclists are now older and tamer, but they still prompt locals to wonder out loud whether Jerome is a biker town with an artist problem, or an artist town with a biker problem. Either way, Jerome finally seems to be coming into its own.

At first, we were convinced that our family foray -- two grandparents, two stepsisters, a toddler and some looming clouds overhead -- was doomed. Art galleries filled with fragile, expensive ceramics; loud saloons -- they don't usually mix with a 2-year-old. But dozens of families were milling about. "Just don't forget your stroller, like we did," tourist Mekell Burch said as she trudged up and down Jerome's outrageously steep stairways.

We started with a walking tour (1 1/2 hours at $10 per person) given by local historian Nancy Smith. She came here 34 years ago, "when Jerome was practically deserted; you'd see more dogs on the streets than people."

Within minutes, it started to rain, so we ducked into Jerome's fire station. We met Rusty Blair, the assistant fire chief, who was on what locals call "mountain stranded time" and had a free moment to let our toddler climb into the firetruck. Meanwhile, Smith filled us in on Jerome's claim to fame (aside from the views and its mining history): its ghosts.

Belgian Jenny is just one of Jerome's mining-era madams whose spirit is said to be lurking about. Another ghost making frequent cameos, Smith said, is Sammie, a prostitute who was murdered in the early 1930s.

When the rain stopped, we resumed our tour, then lunched at the English Kitchen, Arizona's oldest continually operating restaurant, first opened in 1899 by one of the town's many Chinese immigrants and now the place to go for good pies.

But if you want a view while you dine, try the patio of the Haunted Hamburger -- you'll work off the calories just climbing the stairs to reach it. After lunch, we sat on bleachers across from the Spirit Room saloon, where rowdy blues and rock spill from a dark doorway into the midday sun and where bouncer Griz, with his gray beard and ripped shirts, keeps tabs on just about everyone. The bleachers, built into the hillside just below a children's park, are a good spot for motorcycle and people watching. The bikers look tough but are nice, allowing us to take snaps of them.

"The OMG [outlaw motorcycle gang] is a thing of the past," said Jerome Police Chief Allen Muma, who along with his wife, Jackie, owns the Ghost City Inn. "These days, you're more likely to see RUBs -- rich urban bikers," said the chief, who has two Harleys.

If a walking tour isn't up your alley, then catch a carriage ride with Bob Peterson -- who goes by Wyoming Pete when writing poetry -- and his horses Babe and Barney. Peterson is a weathered cowboy and artist who "parallel parks" his horses (a good skill in a town with limited parking) with a synchronized crossover four-step.

The best part of Jerome -- aside from its colorful locals -- is gallery hopping. The Jerome Artists Cooperative shows the work of 35 local artists, and the Raku Gallery combines gorgeous ceramics and jewelry with jaw-dropping views of the Verde Valley below and the red rocks of Sedona in the distance. A great store for gifts is Nellie Bly, with its vast collection of kaleidoscopes ranging from $5 to $5,000. Two other favorites are Aurum's handmade jewelry and knives and the work of local artist Mark Hemleben, which can be found at the old high school, now a warren of artist studios where stairwells are hung with oil paintings and classrooms have been converted into individual galleries.

For dinner, we got a table with a view at the Asylum, whose wine list scores top marks from the Wine Spectator. We drank wine from the nearby Page Springs Cellars and nibbled on beef tenderloin and Castroville artichokes before walking down the hill by moonlight for some dancing at the Spirit Room.

When you're ready to catch some sleep, there are several historical inns to choose from -- most said to be haunted -- including the Surgeon's House, the Ghost City Inn, the Connor Hotel (check first to see if bands will be playing late at the Spirit Room below) and our choice -- the Jerome Grand Hotel, a converted hospital with an antique, original elevator. One of our rooms -- No. 32 -- is said to "have a lot of ghostly activity," according to tour guide Smith, as well as a gorgeous balcony view. No ghosts came to visit, however. Feeling a bit bleary-eyed after the late-night dancing, we had breakfast at the sunny Flatiron Cafe, where you can sip the best macchiato in town before more gallery hopping or well-intentioned loitering. Yes, by midday Sunday, we had seen most every nook of the tiny town, but were in no rush to leave.

Perhaps it was mountain stranded time setting in, or the side effects of Jeromatherapy.



When in Jerome


From Southern California airports, restricted round-trip fares to Phoenix are $117-$142. From Phoenix, drive 90 miles north on Interstate 17 to Arizona 260, then take Arizona 89A toward Jerome.


Surgeon's House Bed and Breakfast, 100 Hill St.; (928) 639-1452 or (800) 639-1452, www.surgeonshouse.com. Perhaps the most beautiful small hotel in town, at the top of the hill. Doubles from $120.

Ghost City Inn Bed & Breakfast, 541 Main St.; (928) 634-4678, www.ghostcityinn.com. Fresh cookies daily, hot tub and deck; friendly owners have resulted in many repeat guests. Doubles from $120.

Connor Hotel, 164 Main St.; (928) 634-5006 or (800) 523-3554, www.connorhotel.com. This 12-room hotel is right in the center of town, which is good for anyone who wants to avoid too many hills. Doubles from $90.

Jerome Grand Hotel, 200 Hill St.; (928) 634-8200 or (888) 817-6788, www.jeromegrandhotel.net. Sweeping views, hallways decorated with Arizona antiques, home to the gourmet Asylum restaurant. Beware: Locals insist it's haunted. Doubles from $110.


English Kitchen, 119 Jerome Ave.; (928) 634-2132. (Restaurant is closed for vacation until Jan. 30.) Open for breakfast and lunch. Traditional breakfast fare; for lunch, homemade pies and soups, burgers, sandwiches and salads. Lunch main dishes from $6.79.

Haunted Hamburger, 410 N. Clark St.; (928) 634-0554. Have a huge burger on the outside deck and watch the sunset. Like all Jerome establishments, it's small but makes up for its size with huge portions. Perhaps the most popular eatery in town, lively atmosphere. Sandwiches from $5.

Spirit Room saloon, 166 Main St.; (928) 634-8809, www.spiritroom.com. Jerome's main spot for live music, dancing and drinks. Great for people watching. Locals spend their time here. A must-do for any visitor. Live music 2-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

The Asylum, 200 Hill St. (inside the Grand Hotel); (928) 639-3197, www.theasylum.biz. American cuisine, including seafood, meats and pasta. Extensive wine list includes selections from Arizona's new wine industry. Deserts are gigantic. Entrees start at $17.

Flatiron Cafe, 416 Main St.; (928) 634-2733. Open for breakfast, lunch. A good spot for espresso drinks in the morning. From the windows, you can see the motorcyclists driving into and out of town.


Walking tour with local historian Nancy Smith; (928) 300-8572 or nancy@jeromeaz.us. $10 per person.

Jerome State Historic Park/Douglas Mansion, just off Arizona 89A on Douglas Road; (928) 634-5381. Jerome's mining history can be explored here (and at the Historical Society's Mine Museum) $3.


Jerome Historical Society Mine Museum, 200 Main St.; (928) 634-5477. Across from the Spirit Room. Just one room, but this collection of photos and antiques is a thorough look at Jerome's history, especially the immigrants who flocked here during its mining heyday.

Jerome Chamber of Commerce, 310 Hull Ave.; (928) 634-2900, www.jeromechamber.com.

-- Dennis Sigman and Eve Conant

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