Bisbee 17

One hundred and two years ago, on July 12, the Bisbee Deportation took place. World War I was raging. There was a lot of labor unrest in mining communities all over the country, and the copper mines in Bisbee weren’t exempt. Immigrant miners wanted to be paid equal wages for equal work which was a big issue back then. Turns out it in many ways it still is, but I digress.

The dissident miners were all for organizing a union and going on strike. The miners who were making more money weren’t especially interested in sharing, and the copper company wasn’t overjoyed at the idea of unions, either. The mining company at the time was a predecessor of Phelps Dodge, and it was run by a guy named Jack Greenway. (That’s why I attended K-8 at Greenway school in Bisbee.)

When the unionized miners went on strike, the company claimed it was disrupting the war effort. They deputized all the non-union miners and issued them weapons. Then they rounded up all the guys they considered to be rabble rousers and marched them to the Warren Ball Park. (By the way, the Warren Ball Park is the oldest still functioning baseball park in the US, but I digress.) The ball park was a handy place to take the prisoners since it was right next to the railroad track. When a train showed up, the deputies loaded the deportees onto the train which then took them to a spot near Columbus, New Mexico, and dropped them off in the middle of nowhere.

Some of the dumped off folks never returned to Bisbee. A few came back only long enough to retrieve their goods and their family members. A few came back and stayed. When I was selling insurance in Bisbee in the mid-seventies, I encountered people who still had very strong feelings about the Deportation. If you were in a group of folks up Brewery Gulch and came down on what was considered the wrong side, fisticuffs ensured.

The mid-seventies was also the time when the mines were shutting down. My dad and I were tasked with talking to the unemployed miners to see if they were interested in converting their group insurance coverage to individual policies. (By the way, selling life insurance to people who have just lost their jobs isn’t easy. Compared to that, selling poetry is, but I digress. Again.)

When they closed the mines, they also shut down the company store, Phelps Dodge Mercantile. Those employees, too, had the right to convert their group policies. In speaking to some of the clerical staff, my father learned that when the store manager opened the safe in advance of shuttering the store, they discovered that all the weapons that had been given to the deputies for the deportation had been collected after the event and stored in the company store’s safe. And what did they do with them? They gave them away. For free. If you wanted one, you could have it, and that’s how one of those guns ended up as the murder weapon in one of my books. It was one of those tiny details of life in Bisbee that you only know by being boots on the ground.

A couple of years ago, a film crew came to town and did a reenactment of the deportation. The film is called Bisbee 17, and it’s based on a book by the same name which was first published back in the seventies. Some of the actors were descendants of people involved in the deportation—people from both sides of the issue.

Why am I writing about this now? Because this month on PBS’s POV program they’re running Bisbee 17. Yesterday afternoon, I watched the film on Prime TV. It’s not exactly an even-handed telling of the story, but it was filmed in Bisbee with lots of glimpses of Bisbee as it is now. One scene, where the one brother addresses the other, is filmed in the house of our nearest backdoor neighbors and a house that, when I was growing up, first belonged to the Markovich’s and later to the Dunkerson’s. The path between that house and the one next door, is the path I followed to go to my best friend’s house a block away. There are scenes filmed in front of Bisbee High School and ones filmed on Main Street in old Bisbee. There’s even a darkened view of one of the hallways at Greenway school.

As I was watching, it occurred to me that some of my Joanna Brady fans might be interested in seeing glimpses of Bisbee, Arizona, in the background. Here’s a link so you can look up where and when the program will air in your area: Bisbee 17 As I said, it’s also available on Prime TV.

The film is slanted in one direction, but as the film makes clear, there are still very strong feelings on both sides of the Bisbee Deportation divide. After seeing the movie, if you turn up in Bisbee, it’s probably not a good idea to bring the deportation up in casual conversation.

Especially in St. Elmo’s, you might just find yourself in fist city.

PS  FYI, the weapons found in the safe were handguns.  I guess the people doing the reenactment used a bit of poetic license.