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  • The Way We Were: The storied history of Ajo

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    By Tom Prezelski

    Some 130 miles from Tucson and separated by the Tohono O’odham Reservation, the friendly and historic community of Ajo is generally out of sight and out of mind for too many of us in more populated parts of Pima County. However, as it may be difficult for newcomers to believe, this little unincorporated mining town was once an important source of political leadership, with numerous state and county officials having called Ajo home. For fifty years, from 1934, when Supervisors were first elected by district, to 1984, the sprawling District 3, which has included the vast and largely rural bulk of the County’s land base west of Tucson, was represented by Supervisors from Ajo. The story of this community’s former prominence tells us a lot about the development of the county as a whole.

    Ajo's Curley SchoolAjo was started by Mexican and American miners in the 1850s. Mining there remained marginal due to its remoteness and a lack of water, until 1900 when the prospect of new smelter technology brought investment to the district. By the 1920s, Ajo was connected by rail to Gila Bend and was the site of Arizona’s first open pit mine and a modern company town designed according to principles of the “city beautiful” movement. By 1960, Ajo had grown to a population of over 7,000.

    Ajo was always dwarfed by Tucson, whose population was over 212,000 in 1960, so its outsized influence in Pima County politics needs some explanation. Part of this, no doubt, could be attributed to the nature of Ajo as a company town where nearly everybody worked for the same employer, resulting in a tight-knit community. Civic engagement was also high, with labor unions, fraternal organizations, and an active Democratic Party.

    Beyond this, was the fact that, with local Republicans being so few and unorganized that they rarely fielded candidates, elections were decided in the Democratic primary. In District 3, these elections had very low turnout, allowing Ajo voters to control the outcome. In 1950, for instance, 1,566 voters cast ballots in the District 3 Democratic Primary, in contrast to 9,358 voters who showed up at the polls on the same day in District 2 in urban Tucson. 

    In 1934, the new District 3 included most of Pima County west of the Tucson Mountains, a configuration that more or less held until the 1980s. The first Supervisor elected was Democrat J.B. Mead, a clerk for the Phelps-Dodge Corporation. Stepping down after eight years of service, he was replaced by G.T. Alley, a former highway patrolman and Ajo businessman.

    Running for his fourth term in 1950, Alley lost a bitter primary fight to David S. Wine, an ambitious attorney and Army reserve officer, by a dozen votes. Wine, who, at 24, was the youngest individual ever to serve on the board, proved to be energetic and active. His career seemed to be quickly cut short when, after seven months, when he was called to report to Fort Huachuca for active duty, though he would later return to elective politics as a member of the legislature.

    Wine tried to delay his resignation in an effort to force the board to appoint Thomas Jay, a former mine laborer and car salesman to the vacancy instead of his old rival Alley. Alley was still well-liked in county circles, but Jay was the expressed preference of Ajo’s Democratic precinct committee. The County Attorney issued an opinion that Wine had to resign immediately, but Wine and the precinct committee got their wishes and Jay was appointed anyway.

    In contrast to Wine, who served the shortest tenure of any Supervisor since statehood, Jay would serve more time than any Supervisor to date. He retired in 1972, the same year that the county added two new supervisor districts, though District 3 remained more or less intact. He was replaced by E.S. “Bud” Walker, an Ajo contractor and longtime legislator.

    Pima County, however, was changing. By the 1980s, the old-school politics that Walker represented were no longer embraced, and his votes on a number of controversial land-use issues did not endear him to an electorate which was increasingly concerned about issues of conservation. More importantly, perhaps, was that urban Tucson was growing while Ajo was not. The community had lost nearly 2,000 people as the mine wound down production. The reapportionment that followed the 1980 census moved the district lines eastward to include a portion of urban Tucson. Walker lost the 1984 primary to Ed Moore, a political newcomer from northwest Tucson, and the decades-long Ajo dynasty was over.

    Ajo endures as a community primarily on the strength of local civic pride and the faith that its residents hold in the town’s continuing potential despite being remote and too-often relegated to the margins of the political discussion.

    Someday, Ajo may well again have some of the clout it enjoyed in earlier days, but until then, making sure that such communities have an adequate voice will remain a challenge for both county government and residents.

    Pima County FYI is featuring a monthly column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County, written by Tom Prezelski. Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West was a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.
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