A Tour of Why and Ajo

Why, AZ

On our second day in this part of Arizona we decided to take a tour of the two local communities, Why and Ajo (Ah-hoe).  The area wasn’t on our schedule but we decided to come here for a visit after reading about the area in friends Hector and Brenda’s blog, Island Girl.   Their blog posts piqued our interest in the area so off we went to check out the towns.

First, we took a tour of Why (pop. 116), a tour that took about five minutes as it is really just a “Y” in the road.  But it does have one business establishment that catches your eye as you drive by, the Why Not Travel Store.

As you can see, it is really a quirky gas station/convenience store.  The sign above the store is worth a stop as you head down the highway.

Main section of the sign over the store

The far right end of the sign

They even cater to the ladies!

As you head down Rte. 85 to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument be sure to stop by.  We’ve been inside a couple of times and the people running the place are quite friendly.

After our tour of Why we found that we still had a little energy left over, so we headed north on Rte. 85 about twelve miles to the town of Ajo (pop. 3,799).  This is a real town complete with post office, golf course, school, grocery store, etc.

Next to the town’s only traffic light is the the plaza.  The heart of the community, the plaza, was built in 1917.  The Spanish Colonial Revival style town square features a center park surrounded by retail shops, a post office and restaurants as well as two mission-style churches. The Catholic Church was built in 1924 and the Federated Church in 1926.

The Plaza from across the street

Looking across the Plaza at the old train station, now the visitor center

The weekly newspaper

At the visitor center we found a brochure for a walking tour of the center of town.  The first stop was Triangle Park, a small grassy area around the corner from the plaza.  Here are historical photographs and interpretive plaques celebrating Mexican Town and Indian Village, separate neighborhoods that lasted through the 1970s.

Triangle Park

Mural wall in Triangle Park

Mosaic on the wall

The mosaic above is titled “Our history will not be bulldozed over.”  It is a reference to the destruction of the two neighborhoods, Mexican Town and Indian Village.  The segregated ethnic neighborhoods were destroyed in the 1970s.  This was a company town then and the company-owned housing was to close to the expanding pit mine (more on that later).

Photographic mural of life in Mexican Town

Easily visible from the town plaza is the Curley School.  The old school is built in Spanish Colonial Revival style that blends nicely 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.  At one time it contained students in grades one through twelve.  A new school was later built in town and the Curley School has been renovated into 30 affordable live/work rentals for artists and artisans.

View of the Curly School from the plaza

The front entrance

At the rear of the main building is a very large overhead door facing a concrete patio.  Our speculation about the door was confirmed later in the day when we met a long-time resident who is a volunteer at the Mine Overlook (more on that later) and attended the school.  The door opened to a stage so the audience could sit outside on the large patio for warm weather performances.  With the door closed, the other side of the stage faces a traditional inside auditorium.

As we returned to the center of town, we passed the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which faces the plaza.

On the north side of the plaza is a long structure that has small shops, the post office, and a small restaurant.

It appears that the restaurant use to be the front of an old theater.  There was evidence of two letters that were removed above the word “eat” and two were removed below.  A little creativity was applied and “theater” became “eat.”

Next to the restaurant three locals were providing some free entertainment for us while we enjoyed our lunch.

After lunch we drove a short distance to the south of the town to a small building called the Mine Lookout Museum.

The main reason for the existence of Ajo is mining.  In the late 1800s there were a series of tunnel mines digging out a vein of copper.  In 1916 open pit mining began.  The mine pit slowly grew and today the pit is a mile and a half across and eleven hundred feet deep.  A natural spring feeds a small lake at the bottom.  The lake is up to a hundred feet deep and evaporation keeps the current level in equilibrium.

Falling copper prices caused the mine to close in 1985, creating an economic crisis in the town of Ajo.  The population quickly dropped from a high of over 10,000 to its current level of just over 3,000.  But the locals are working hard to keep the history of the town and the mine alive.  The small Mine Overlook Museum is an example of this effort.  Lifetime resident Bob Hightower and his wife volunteer at the museum each afternoon during the winter months.  Bob grew up in Ajo and worked at the mine in maintenance for over forty years.  He enthusiastically gave us information on the many old photos showing the development of the mine.

Bob HIghtower and his wife

Not far from the Mine Overlook Museum is the Ajo Historical Society Museum.  Located in the old St. Catherine’s Indian Mission, the museum houses many artifacts and mementos from Ajo’s past. Louie, the head volunteer curator, gives visitors a great overview of the history of the town.  He is a retired history teacher so John really enjoyed talking with him.

Ajo Historical Society Museum

Wow, this sure is a long blog for such small towns.  But as you can see there is much to see in Ajo and we recommend stopping by if you’re ever in  this part of Arizona.

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16 Responses to A Tour of Why and Ajo

  1. Gay says:

    Very interesting…I love learning the history of these old towns. And like you found, the locals are so giving of their time and energy. The old school that was turned into a residence for artists is such a great idea…

    • placestheygo says:

      It is amazing how interesting small time America is. We have had more fun in the little towns than anywhere else. Like you said, Gay, the locals in those areas so willing ti share. We thought turning the school into an artist residence was very clever .

  2. Laurel says:

    I love those quirky little desert towns in the middle of nowhere. It’s interesting to hear the local stories, and inspiring to witness the pride people have in their history and town. The mosaics and architecture are quite beautiful. Thanks for the tour! 🙂

    • placestheygo says:

      You are going to really enjoy your visit to the area, Laurel. Yesterday’s hike started in the campground so I took a photo of one of the sites. It’s a beautiful campground with concrete pads and patios. I am bringing lots of info for you:)

  3. debbiemc14 says:

    Looks like I need to plan a trip to that area. We only passed by.

  4. Great post, leave it to the history teacher to delve deeper. Love the photo of the mosaic. The Mine Overlook Museum was closed when we visited Ajo. And thanks for the link!
    Brenda

  5. pmbweaver says:

    Oh goodness…Why looks like a destination spot for us for sure….lol

    Now I know Paul and I would enjoy Ajo. I love the school and church. We have always liked the Spanish influence on architecture. The Plaza looks so clean and new. So many buildings here in the west look brand new and are years old. Back east, a building looks over after two winters.

    Your lunch looks delicious. Can’t beat free! You purchased nothing at those cute stores?

  6. libertatemamo says:

    I was trying to find something you missed, but I think you guys did it all!! Very good write up of everything there is to do and see in Ajo. We loved our 2 weeks there last year.
    Nina

  7. Holly Ritger says:

    What a great tour (and, this is coming from someone who spent a few nights inAjo in 2013!) I don’t know how we missed so many neat places… I do remember being disappointed that the mining museum was closed. Wonderful photos and history of the area, Pam.

  8. Kelly says:

    Really like Ajo. Olsen’s grocery store is a real plus for the town. On the weekend they roast peppers outside. You can buy them by the pound.

  9. Why oh Why! have not stop here! What a beautiful and interesting town. Thank you for the tour and great information and great photos! I enjoyed this part of AZ.

  10. Sherry says:

    Very interesting on both the little “towns”. I wonder what happened to the people who lived in the neighborhoods that were destroyed. I hope they were relocated at the mine’s expense. Gorgeous architecture especially the train station/visitor center. This just looks like such an interesting little artistic place. In my former hometown one of the earliest elementary school was turned into artist studios. It’s a wonderful idea.

  11. Jodee Gravel says:

    We’re looking forward to getting to these little towns next winter – thanks for a great tour!

  12. LuAnn says:

    I really enjoyed the tour of these towns through your eyes. It has been many years since I have visited.

  13. Mary says:

    We fell in love with Ajo, and i am so looking forward to being back there.

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