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Winkelman: The last gang in town

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Looking south toward Winkelman from Hayden, Arizona. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Looking south toward Winkelman from Hayden, Arizona.

Squint and the filthy copper smelter could be a cathedral. Its tallest spire lifts more than 1,000 feet into milky blue, over jagged cliffs and a layer-cake mountain of mine tailings. The sweeping vista below is flora-rich, mesquite green and haunted. The ghosts tantalize, swirl through frontyard windmills and rusted wrought iron, the flower-dotted graveyard on the town's edge, these souls of Natives and immigrants, miners and ranch hands, and whorehouse daughters of the revolution. Float down the hillside, into the Gila and San Pedro Rivers, through Aravaipa Wilderness Preserve. They mingle with the dead who came before them, cultures who belonged here and conversed with their own Gods. The ghosts move beyond Dudleyville and Mammoth and 33 miles up to Oracle, and further, to the Santa Catalina Mountains.

To live here is putting money on the dead. It feels like dying more than it does living. It is not easy living around death but this town's present cannot begin to deny its history. The mine on the hill has died and risen, died and slightly risen again, and now it is Easter week. The mine, still robbing the earth of minerals, has given life, and taken life away.

Taste the air in warm April winds, the yellowy dust lifting off manmade hummocks of ore tailings; it's briny, and hints of sulfur dioxide. Everyone here knows cancer, it's either in them or directly around them.

This is mining country, mister, part of a loop that snakes miles and miles through the storied Pinal Mountains. One such story involves a family store, Giorsetti's Superior Grocery. A store erected before Arizona was a state. A store that has resisted certain death. Because it has resisted death it could be a miracle. It is a store that offers an essence of living.

The grocery is one of two commercial businesses in the slow-sinking town of Winkelman, Arizona (pop. 250), the other is a Giant gas station perched at the junction of highway 77 and 177. 

Giorsetti's Superior Grocery in Winkelman, Arizona. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Giorsetti's Superior Grocery in Winkelman, Arizona.

An average of 3,500 cars pass this town daily. It is mostly travelers who stop, at Giant for bad coffee or shriveled rotisserie dogs, a piss and fuel, and to get the hell on with the rest of their lives, somewhere down the road.

But there is no down the road at Giorsetti's. This is the road.

Wait.

Bright wildflowers bloom from cracks in heavy concrete, and foundations where houses and stores once stood. A rusted Chevrolet pickup melts into earth feet from loved and tended gardens, and a 100-year-old porch on a well-kept house on Third Street shows rocking chairs, wind chimes and a tended green lawn. The modern Hayden High School and Leonor Hambly K-8 buildings, of the Hayden-Winkelman school district, are as up-to-the moment as any public Arizona school. It is a big employer and sits rightfully at the top of Winkelman, above a grid of streets lined with homes, many very pretty, erected through the decades, adobe to brick to trailer.The neighboring mining town is Hayden, where the two massive smokestacks are based and part of long-winded Asarco, a Mexican-owned copper company. The town is a hilltop hang-on, sepia-toned in spring light, ready for its slide down into the valley, cathedral or no. The ghosts of generations of families.

It would take a leap of faith to save all this, you might say. If one is not easily provoked by surface sadnesses.

* * *

Giorsetti's grocery is run by the Giorsetti family,
the same who opened it before Arizona was a state. The town's red-brick post office sits next door. The town hall across the street. There was a barber shop, another grocer (four in Winkelman at one time) on the next block. A couple bars down the way, and so on. Across the street through the open door sits an abandoned wooden house surrounded by chainlink and overgrown yard.

To the beginning: Michael (Michelle) Giorsetti migrated to the states from Italy, landing in Winkelman in 1909. He built up Giorsetti's Superior Bakery, a glorified wooden shack that quickly became a general store, selling everything from canned goods to guns and ammo. This town of 500 souls, this rising mining outpost began turning copper ore to gold, gained a slight cosmopolitan sheen. The bakery delivered fresh baked goods to Winkelman area residents by horse and buggy, even up to the town of Christmas. Giorsetti's was soon a full-on grocery and mercantile.

Michael built the two-story structure that houses the store now sometime around 1911, with living quarters inside and on the second floor. Its heavy concrete walls and original interior ceiling and thick wooden front counter. Around 1913, Michael's love Caterina arrived from Italy. They married in Winkelman and had nine children—all born inside this building—one dying at birth. Michael died in 1929, still in his 30s, from pneumonia. (One story is Michael fell and smashed his face, but wouldn't stop working, so he got sick.)

Caterina, with all children in tow, took over the store during the Great Depression.

The Giorsetti family genealogy and its impact on Winkelman would make a head-spinner of a book. But here's a cliff note: Provino was the youngest of those nine kids, born where the toy rack stands now. He and one Ruby Jean were school sweethearts. Her one and only.

* * *

It is Thursday afternoon and and Ruby Jean Giorsetti
appears at the meat counter near the rear of Giorsetti's. Above her hang vintage framed photos of the bakery, several with her grandfather-in-law working in this very spot. She wears glasses, red lipstick and a russet paisley blouse.

Matriarch Ruby Jean Giorsetti. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Matriarch Ruby Jean Giorsetti.

She has misplaced her cane, to which her butcher son Jeff laughs, "She only uses it to get sympathy." So Ruby moves sans cane to take a seat near the front door, below shelves of shampoo. Her daily throne, morning to evening, with a long midday break. I feel compelled to assist her walk in some way, maybe because she's elderly or maybe because there's a formality and authority about her, it is obvious she is the family matriarch. It only helps that she has this habit of laughing at most everything. It's disarming and comforting, like you're a bit player in her funny movie.

Ruby was born at home 90 years ago December under a smelter smokestack, in Hayden. The family owned a three-bedroom brick house with one bathroom, on the hill overlooking town. (That house and street under the smokestack is now a helipad.) Her electrician/mason dad did all the electrical in Hayden and in much of the mines. Back in Alabama, before she was born, her parents incredibly still had a slave.

Ruby's Hayden High School graduating class boasted 27 kids. As a teen she'd see movies at the theater in town, a boarded-up shell now, or she'd take the train to Phoenix for fun. "We had dances too. Or," she laughs, "we found ways to party. And I worked at the drugstore, 6 to 10 p.m. doing inventory by hand. Walk home, do homework, read."

Radio listening was everything. "My dad fixed all the radios in town," she laughs. "That was his hobby. My mom would get so mad because he wouldn't charge anyone."

Ruby says Dad loved life then, as hard as it could be in copper-rush town, why the family stayed. He'd walk to his shop, be home for lunch. The simplicity in that.

When Ruby went off to Arizona State University, Provino would come and visit. She quit ASU for beauty school, but her dad kiboshed her salon dreaming: "He said, 'You have to go back to school.'"

She did, to be a teacher. Provino and Ruby married in 1951. In those Hayden days, a woman couldn't be married and teach at the same time.

"Isn't that just crazy?" Ruby says.

By then Provino was running the grocery, his mother Caterina standing by. Ruby and Provino, over 27 years, raised four children of their own, three boys and a girl, all born in Tucson hospitals. All worked the store as soon as they were old enough to reach the register.

Ruby talks of the multi-lingual Provino extending store credit. The total outlay sometimes tallied 12K in a single year, in 1950s dollars, in a small town. "He wouldn't let people starve, 

Willam Giorsetti (left) with customers. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Willam Giorsetti (left) with customers.

oh, no." Shakes her head. "Some would move away and skip out on their bills, it's true."

Things went bleak. Her son Richard, a UA journalism student, died in a Tucson car accident. Provino died next in 1993, heart attack. Died feet from where he was born 67 years before.

Ruby and her two sons kept the store afloat. William says, "we had three or four fulltime employees."

Ruby's son William had returned in the 1990s from school, and went to work in the store. He basically runs the place, does the books, mans the register. Two brothers do all the heavy lifting, repairs and upkeep.

Son Jeff returned after graduating from NAU, (degreed in industrial engineering) with a plan to stay in Winkelman long enough to help out and pay dad back for his schooling. He never left. His wife, whom he met at school, moved to Winkelman, taught for the school system (she just retired). They had two daughters who went off to ASU and now live in Scottsdale and Gilbert.

Ruby's voice flattens wondering how the store survived. Says, "You know, I just don't know. But Provino was a brilliant businessman."

Store butcher Jeff Giorsetti. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Store butcher Jeff Giorsetti.

A long minute passes, a mother with two children walk in through the store's open door and browse aisles. William is hanging back behind the register.

Ruby stays quiet and considers her world.

"I look back at my life and laugh," she says, finally. There's more there but she stays mum.

* * *

Ruby survived mine strikes and bankruptcies, the death of her husband, the deaths of her siblings and parents, the tragic death of a son, death of most of her friends, skin cancer, the death of Hayden and the dying out of Winkelman.

But today the grocery bustles, better than most lately, William says. Customers of all shapes and ethnicities step in and out, kids, adults, old-timers, the mayor of Winkelman. Locals all. Many Ruby has known since they were knee high, and now their children and grandchildren. She greets most.

Look over the store. The organized rows of well-chosen small-town needs, the dietary habits in the canned goods and vegetables. The piñatas, shampoo, and hair color. The toothpaste, smokes and Easter decorations. The tortillas go fast, made fresh in Mammoth. William says, "Some families will use a whole dozen a day."

The high, ornate ceiling tiles and wood flooring has not changed in more than 100 years. Built with care to last. The grainy teal walls and dusty antiquated fixtures feel like an accumulation of love, elevated even more because the world outside has eroded. No family member here wonders how the other spends their days. The mother never has to save up things to tell them.

Time here moves like this. A store as family, one day into next.

There's a back section time forgot, filled with '60s and '70s marketplace ephemera. Has the dusty feel and murky light of a neglected attic, or someone else's memory. Now-vintage poly shirts on a circular rack, a shelf of athletic supporters and boxes of arranged panties. Bottles of lamp oil and a collection sew-in-ready zippers of myriad sizes.

Ruby's daughter steps in from outside and pulls up a chair next to mom. This is family, and Jeff and Sandra don't get along much. Sandra's divorced, in her early 60s, worked in the medical field. Her two daughters live in Tucson. She's has gray hair and a big grin. A car accident has limited her abilities, she now lives near the store.

More memories rise.

They talk of Ruby's friend Jacob Kame, local life-long Japanese resident. 

Rudy Jean (seated) with daughter Sandra. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Rudy Jean (seated) with daughter Sandra.

At 96, they figure he's the only local older than Ruby. She remembers when he and his son were taken away and put into a Japanese internment camp during WWII. His wife, who wasn't Japanese, went with them. "It was horrible," Ruby says. "A horrible time."

Ruby talks her old bridge club, how she hasn't played in years. And her mother-in-law, who she adored, and laughs, "She had nine children in 13 years! She came here not speaking a word of English. She ran the store with eight children running around. Can you imagine?"

Sandra remembers grandma sitting where her mother is now, crocheting, glasses perched on her nose, barking orders in Italian or English. "She used to let me use the same nickel over and over to buy things."

They talk Sandra's high school years in Winkelman. Sandra thinks hard and shrugs. "We had a drive-in restaurant, up in the hills, Big Jim's, where we'd go," she says. "We had the river. The movie theater. I played in the school bands, and we'd play in other towns."

They talk about Quarelli's, the other Winkelman grocery run by another large family of Italian immigrants, the last competitor to go, years ago.

A big supply semi arrives from Albuquerque, and William and Jeff spend a half-hour unloading into the old warehouse next door.

And William. He takes care of his mother. He studied criminal justice at NAU, but chose to return to Winkelman. Spends much of his spare time reading. They live in a house behind the store.

He would care for his mother because he seems caring like that. Rosy-cheeked and soft-spoken, but articulate and slightly skeptical. The top of his head is chaffy, where skin cancer was removed.

He doesn't regret a thing. Not in his life. When I ask him later if he ever regrets moving back home, he looks to me like the question makes total sense, like people ask him that all the time. Like it's bad moving back home.

"I don't regret anything," he says. "I'm glad I'm here for her; someone told me I extended her life."

* * *

Some drive-by Hayden-Winkelman backstory: The side-by-side towns sit in a "Copper Corridor," an area central to Arizona copper production, as it was 100 years ago, but the community devastation is head-spinning.

You'd never know it here, but copper mining generates billions in Arizona. It mostly drives what's left of Winkelman's economy, that and its K-12 schools. It's easy to sense the work-ethic pride in union traditions, and how years of corporate fuckedupedness forced most folks to flee to Tucson and Phoenix and commute, as town living conditions continued to head south. Winkelman hangs on, yet Hayden, with its volunteer fire department and the area's police force is but a ghost town.

Ranchers had settled along the San Pedro River back in the late 1800s and overgrazed the land. Soon the railroad came, its station just off rancher Peter Winkelman's property, and in 1903 a post office was moved from Dudleyville and erected near the Gila River. Winkelman was born. (It first incorporated in 1914.) Trains meant hills could be mined and the area bloomed. That bloom drew Ruby Jean and Provino's parents. Ray Consolidated Copper had cashed out Winkelman ranch, while Kennecott Copper opened another mining operation and built company-town Hayden for workers. For a few years during the Great Depression, the Hayden mill and smelter shut down. Many townsfolk left. (Hayden didn't incorporate until 1955, and three years later the National Civic League bestowed Hayden with the All-American City award. Hard to believe.)

In Hayden the wealthy whites lived in brick hillside homes and underpaid immigrants in tiny places and worker shacks below. Generally, folks who eschewed segregation and company-town living settled in Winkelman. (Hispanics were not allowed to buy houses in all-white parts of Hayden until the 1960s. Hispanic workers began to receive equal wages and company advancements. The white flight began—workers moved families to Phoenix or Tucson and commuted.)

"Winkelman was mixed," Ruby says. She remembers the Hayden segregation like a fact of her girlhood life. Says Winkelman was tolerant.

Years later, Asarco purchased the Ray Smelter and Hayden Concentrator from Kennecott.

Now, Asarco has long, well-documented history of screwing over employees and the environment. In fact, the Asarco Hayden Plant is a Superfund alternative site for contaminated soil, air and ground water. In 1999 Asarco was acquired by Grupo México, filed bankruptcy in '05. They settled out of court with more than 200 Hayden-Winkelman families for approximately $10,000 each before re-emerging from financial woes around '08. The company removed soil from 260 residential properties in Hayden and Winkelman as a part of a $1.79 billion settlement with the EPA (for contamination sites around the country). 

In 2011, EPA monitors of Hayden Plant detected lead emissions at two to three times legal limits on some days and took further action against the smelter. The finding also suggests that the state of Arizona has failed to take meaningful action in enforcing the Federal Clean Air Act. Environmental investigations into the contamination of air, water and soil are ongoing. It is incredible.

* * *

Back at the meat counter, Jacque and Dennis Pool are waiting for their cuts. The young married couple live up the hill in Winkelman, across from the school. She was born here, he's a Texan. They met at the state prison complex in Florence, not as inmates but as employees. He's still there and she teaches at the school here. They ain't goin' anywhere, they say. Small town, place on the hill, quiet at night. Not bad at all.

Clock ticks inside Giorsetti's. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Clock ticks inside Giorsetti's.

"I'll probably die here," Dennis says, as they leave with their packaged meat.

"We're here because we were too stupid to pack up and leave," Jeff laughs.

The 57-year-old Jeff laxly masks indifference in humor. Sometimes he disappears into desert nights with beer for hours and hours. He's been the butcher since dad died. He makes the chorizo too, a draw for area folk. Others stream in for the bologna, beef, steaks, the longhorn cheese. Jeff's area is immaculate, sparkles. You could eat off his glimmering meat slicer.

Brian Hillman is Jeff's second cousin. They're best pals. Hillman and Jeff are neighbors on acreage near Winkelman and Dudleyville. They tell of killing time with potato gun fights, and such.

Hillman's dad died at 58 from cancer, his uncle at 47. Both worked the local mine. Hillman, mid-40s, is now a Pinal County sheriff's deputy, who also worked at the local mine. He began running a backhoe for his dad's excavation company at 10 years old. Got into law enforcement after 9-11, "to do something meaningful." When his dad and uncle died, it was left up to him to care for his mother, with whom he lives.

Jeff and Hillman remember Winkelman kid life, playing in streets, desert hills and dirt. Often at day's end, Jeff would cough up yellow sulfur from his lungs. Remembers the billowing smelter smoke, the town cloudy with it, and acid rain and Asarco "giving free paint job vouchers for cars damaged by shit in the air." Hillman too, but he's younger and the air got progressively cleaner.

Hillman says he is resigned to the fact he'll develop skin or lung cancer. "But the mine is good money. It's good benefits, and that's why anyone works there."

"Hey, they put new dirt in yards!" Jeff laughs. Some yards Hillman and Jeff grew up playing in.

"Back then nobody cared," Hillman says.

Brian Hillman in Winkelman. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Brian Hillman in Winkelman.

 "Asarco always said it was safe."

Jeff laughs. He always laughs, like mother/like son. "I remember one guy saying, 'That taste in your mouth is the taste of money!'"

The Winkelman odds are long. Unexpected things, such as the big Gila River flood of 1993, killed a lot of business.

"In Winkelman, the old timers just die." Jeff says.

The population skews old and they're dying, and there's no medical care here. There's little to keep kids interested after finishing high school. There's meth and no new housing.

"When the kids come back after their parents die here, they board up the house and leave, sometimes with everything in it," Jeff says. Hillman nods. Adds, "no one would buy the house anyway."

Methheads break in to some old houses, squat. Unless there's a victim, cops can't do anything. Hillman remembers one guy who climbed an electrical pole with jumper cables to steal electricity and fell 40 feet and nearly died. The cousins shrug their shoulders at the memory.

Winkelman tourism includes curiosity seekers who spend little coin here but cram Instagram with mining-town porn. Nearby casino development hasn't helped Giorsetti's at all. There are parks, the flowing Gila River and camping, and the lovely Winkelman historical bridge, and the bluffs where generations of local kids learned to swim. Yet some folks would rather drive to Tucson or Phoenix for groceries instead of buying from the higher-priced hometown store. Precious few others support the idea of community. 

Jeff doesn't need to improvise accounts of his world. He knows the tangible. The grocery pays its bills on time. He works the meat counter daily in Winkelman, Arizona, in the store his father's father built. There is legacy here, his legacy, and also a small town's. Both legacies intertwined more than 100 years ago on one American dream. The immediate family never sold out, never packed up their treasures and belongings and moved to Tucson or Phoenix or even Globe. The family stayed, by choice, and Jeff appears indifferent to that. But it is something real, something he can touch, even hold in his hands, and know he and his family contributed to the greater good of a town that needed it, that needs it.

It is 6 p.m. now, closing time, and Jeff's itching to get home to his place. He's looking forward to the first beer of the night. Then he'll be here tomorrow morning at 6:30 a.m. to open the store before his brother and mother arrive. It is that leap of faith.

Zipper collection inside Giorsetti's in Winkelman. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Zipper collection inside Giorsetti's in Winkelman.

Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories,
Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.

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