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Tales From the Outskirts: Ajo

Ajo residents still remember a great man that state leaders seem to have forgotten

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Ajo is easy enough for Tucsonans to get to—that is, if you have a reason to go there in the first place.

Just head west on Ajo Way, and follow it until it ends—at the community of Why, no less—and then drive north on Highway 85 for 10 minutes.

Ajo exists because of one man: John Campbell Greenway. To most Arizonans, he's an unknown; to Ajo residents, he's the patron saint of the tiny Pima County hamlet.

"He's the guy who basically laid out the modern Ajo," said Louie Walters, president of the Ajo Historical Society and the resident Greenway historian. "When the open-pit mine was laid out between 1915 and 1916, they began to move the old community to where it is today. The new community was created as a model Southwestern town, a model company town. It really surprises a lot of the tourists how pretty it is."

In the 1920s, Greenway ran the open-pit copper mine that provided jobs for most of Ajo's residents. Before that, he was a decorated soldier in the Spanish-American War and World War I. He was one of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the former; he was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal in the latter. He was well-versed in the mining, steel and railroad industries, and briefly served as a UA regent. A statue exists of him in Washington D.C., one of two granted to Arizona for inclusion in the National Statuary Hall.

"I think a lot of people have forgotten his accomplishments. He's slid into a historical footnote," said Ajo Copper News publisher Hop David.

While he admitted that he doesn't know as much about Greenway as Walters does, David did say that Greenway's most important accomplishment was an adherence to the City Beautiful Movement, a mode of urban planning that held that civic pride and a sense of place could be gained from monumental buildings and beautified streets.

That plan separates Ajo from the small towns you pass on Highway 86, like Sells, Three Points and Why, which look more like collections of randomly placed houses than examples of stereotypical small-town America.

If you stand at the entrance to the Ajo train station—as newcomers in the town's heyday did—you'll see a grassy plaza lined with shops and restaurants. Farther ahead, you'll see similar-looking Catholic and Protestant churches on both sides of a central road, at the end of which sits a school built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Directly behind the school stands Ajo's "A" Mountain, with a concrete cross at the summit that encases the floral arrangement from Greenway's 1926 funeral.

"I think the plan is a little jewel," David said.

In his day, John Greenway was one of the most celebrated men in the state, so much so that after his death at the age of 53, people wanted to honor the man that longtime Arizona Sen. Carl Hayden said "completely typified the Arizona of his day and generation."

His wife, Isabella, fought for the statue of her husband to be placed in Washington, D.C. These days, she's better known than her husband, remembered as Arizona's first congresswoman and the founder of the Arizona Inn. She reportedly visited her husband's statue every day that she was in D.C. while she served in the House of Representatives.

But Greenway's popularity wouldn't last.

The Ajo mine eventually changed hands, from Greenway's Calumet and Arizona Mining Company to Phelps-Dodge, and people began to forget about the old copper miner and Rough Rider.

And two years ago, Gov. Janet Napolitano signed a bill to replace Greenway's statue with one of Barry Goldwater.

Today, Greenway's statue still sits in the National Statuary Hall, as the Goldwater statue has yet to receive final approval from the Architect of the Capitol. It's unlikely that the replacement will occur in time for Arizona's Statehood Centennial in 2012.

"With so much out of our control, we'd just like to be able to do it however, whenever we possibly could," said Arizona State Librarian GladysAnn Wells about the statue switch. She estimated the whole process—including moving the statues—could cost up to a quarter-million dollars.

Though the Ajo mine has been closed for decades, the town still survives as a "poor man's Green Valley." During summer months, some retirees leave their Ajo winter homes to seek cooler temperatures elsewhere. There is no air conditioning or swamp cooling at the Ajo Historical Society, and it's too hot to station a volunteer there in the summer months, Walters explained, so this time of year, the old church that houses the museum is only open by appointment. But people still come.

On one day a couple of weeks ago, the Oasis Café—which sits in an old movie theater along the town square—was packed with people, not so much because of the World Cup game on TV, but because an accident had blocked the only way out of town. Those dozens of cars stuck on Highway 85 represent the future of Ajo: as a stop for tourists on their way to and from Rocky Point, and Border Patrol agents on their way to and from the border.

Walters knows where he'd like to see the Greenway statue placed after it is removed from Washington, D.C.

"If you're taking the first honoree out, you don't want to put him in the desert. You want to put him in the (state) Capitol," he said.

Wherever the statue ends up, there are people who will still remember Greenway, like resident Jose Castillo.

"My grandfather was working here in 1912, when Greenway was running the mine," Castillo said.

Though he was just a boy when Isabella Greenway died in 1953, he remembers a story about an incident that occurred while workers were going through the Greenway Mansion in Ajo. They came across an oblong wooden box; inside was the mansion's former owner—or at least a statue copy of him.

That statue now stands in front of the Tucson branch of the Arizona Historical Society. And it's not going anywhere.


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