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History of Ajo

Ajo is the Spanish word for garlic. The Spanish may have named the place using the familiar word in place of the similar-sounding O’odham word for paint (oʼoho). The Tohono O’odham people obtained red paint pigments from the area.

Native Americans, Spaniards and Americans have all extracted mineral wealth from Ajo’s abundant ore deposits. In the early nineteenth century, there was a Spanish mine nicknamed “Old Bat Hole” that was abandoned due to Indian raids. Tom Childs, Sr., found the deserted mine complete with a 60-foot (18 m) shaft, mesquite ladders, and rawhide buckets in 1847. He did not stay long at that time, because he was on his way to the silver mines near Magdalena de Kino, Sonora. Three and a half decades later, Childs and his son returned with a friend and started developing the abandoned mine.

In the year 1884, the camp at Ajo was practically abandoned. Not a soul was in camp when Tom Childs Sr., and his son arrived. With them was Washington Michael Jacobs of Tucson, Arizona. Childs and Jacobs located the mining claim which constituted most of the old Ajo group of mines. They made a permanent camp and worked the mines.

High-grade native copper made Ajo the first copper mine in Arizona. Soon the Arizona Mining & Trading company, formed by Peter R. Brady, a friend of Childs, worked the rich surface ores, shipping loads around Cape Horn for smelting in Swansea, Wales, in the mid-1880s. The mine closed when a ship sank off the coast of Patagonia. Long supply lines and the lack of water discouraged large mining companies

With the advent of new recovery methods for low-grade ore, Ajo boomed. In 1911, Col. John Campbell Greenway, a Rough Rider and star Yale athlete, bought the New Cornelia mine from John Boddie. He became general manager of the Calumet and the Arizona mining company and expanded it on a grand scale. The Tucson, Cornelia & Gila Bend Railroad was built from Gila Bend to serve the mining industry and was in service from 1916 to 1985. In 1921, Phelps Dodge, the nation’s largest copper company, bought New Cornelia and the mine became the New Cornelia Branch of Phelps Dodge, managed by Michael Curley. For several decades more than 1,000 men worked for Phelps Dodge in the open pit mine. The mine weathered a bitter strike and succeeded in breaking the union’s hold on the company.

Ajo Today

Today Ajo is the home to many retired people, Border Patrol agents, and young families. We also play host to many seasonal visitors who retreat from the frigid northern winters to enjoy the comfortable climate of southern Arizona for a few months. We have more that nice weather attracting visitors to our humble community as we play host to many cultural events and organizations and we are either the home of, or nearby, to a national park and a refuge. The children of our community attend the local K-12 Ajo school.

Ajo is home to the Ajo Unified School District #15 which educates the local youth from kindergarten to twelfth grade. The academic program is currently organized on a seven-period day and students are placed into courses which best fit their needs. Joint Technical Education District (JTED) classes are open to students in tenth to twelfth grade and provide an education in the fields of Early Childhood Education, Information Technology, Marketing, and the Culinary Arts. High School students are also required to pass the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) exam in order to graduate. For more information, please visit www.ajoschools.org.

Ajo is the home of the headquarters for the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge which is located in southwestern Arizona. Considered a part of the Yuma Desert, Cabeza Prieta was originally established to protect the desert bighorn sheep in 1939. It is known for being the third largest national wildlife refuge in the continental united states and currently contains more than 275 species of animals and 400 species of plants. Sandwiched between the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range in the north and Mexico’s El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve in the south, Cabeza Prieta has been described by American author and essayist Edward Abbey as “the best desert wilderness left in the United States.” For more information, please visit www.fws.gov/refuge/cabeza_prieta.

The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is located twenty-five miles south of Ajo just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Not only is Organ Pipe an U.S. National Monument but it is also a UNESCO biosphere reserve and the only place in the United States where the Organ Pipe cactus grows wild. It, along with many other types of cacti, cover the monuments 517 square miles of which 95% was declared a wilderness area in 1977. The land for the monument was donated by the Arizona state legislature during Prohibition and was officially opened as a national monument in 1937. For more information, please visit www.nps.gov/orpi.

Our community is also the home of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) which is an environmental conservation group which also focuses on the community culture. This non-profit corporation was founded in 1993 and was created to promote the concept and practice of conservation throughout the region and developing creative and sustainable solutions to critical local issues such as housing and economic development. ISDA is also responsible for organizing many of the events which take place in Ajo such as the Second Saturday Farmer’s Markets and art-related events as well as yearly events like the Peace Day celebration. For more information, (insert website here when they fix it).

There are a wide variety of local small businesses available and ready to help you with your needs. From the NAPA auto parts store, K-5 Enterprises electronics, Olsen’s grocery store, the handful of restaurants and more are here to support the community.

Desert Senita is a Health Center Program grantee under 42 U.S.C. 254b, and a deemed Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) Public Health Service employee under 42 U.S.C. 233(g)-(n).