This is a re-posting of today’s blog for email subscribers.
There was a big fire on Main Street in Bisbee this past week. No one was injured. No one died, but two buildings were completely destroyed. People in Arizona are most likely well aware of this, but people outside the immediate area are probably unaware about what’s going on in fictional Joanna Brady’s real hometown.
Raging fires were often the scourge of small mining towns in the Old West. In the days of wood stoves and kerosine lanterns raging flames tore through flimsy frame buildings topped by tin roofs like … well … wildfire.
One such town was Jerome in central Arizona. As yet another fire was bearing down on her establishment, the local madam went to the fire brigade leader and told him that if his crew managed to save her building, all the firefighters would have free lifetime passes. They saved her building, all right, but soon after the ore played out and most everyone left town—the madam included.
By the way, I didn’t learn that interesting tidbit of my state’s history in the Arizona History class that was required for my history minor at the University of Arizona. The class was held at four o’clock on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and it was boring as hell. I got a passing grade in it but I’m not sure how, because the professor’s droning voice put me to sleep every single day.
No, I gleaned the Jerome madam’s story from reading Marshall Trimble’s delightful book A Roadside History of Arizona. Snowbird or lifetime resident, you’ll learn a lot if you have one of those along for the ride as you travel Arizona’s highways and bi-ways. Lots of really interesting stuff has happened in Arizona, and Marshall has the ability to make history both interesting and fun.
Now on to Bisbee. After a history of several devastating fires, in the early 1900s it was decreed that all new buildings on Bisbee’s narrow two-lane Main Street had to be built with brick exteriors, and they still are. The problem is, the framing inside is still made from century old lumber, and once that caught fire in two of the storefronts, they went up like so much tinder.
Bisbee’s water system, one that also dates from the early 1900s, couldn’t come up with demand and provide enough waterpower to adequately fight the roaring fire. It took first responders from several jurisdictions to finally bring the blaze under control.
What burned were the ground floors of two store fronts along with the apartments located above them. Once upon a time, one of those held the local pool hall—a place whose door I never darkened. The other was an upscale lady’s fashion store called Irma Courteol’s. As a young shopper in town, I went there on occasion, but I never bought much. Most of my low budget clothing came from the local Penney’s store just up the street.
It turns out, however, that that particular storefront sold ladies designer attire long before Irma appeared on the scene. Some time in the late twenties or early thirties, a couple who were retailers on Bisbee’s Main Street had a daughter named Cele who wanted to have a store of her own. A family friend made a $500 bet that she’d never be able to make it work, but it turns out he was dead wrong. She won the bet fair and square.
Cele Peterson opened her first store in the very same storefront that eventually became Irma Courteol’s. Years later she moved her business from Bisbee to Tucson where she was the undisputed queen of local ladies’ fashion well into her eighties. One of the last times I visited her store, I was in the back trying on clothing, while she sat ensconced at a desk at the front of the store, charming Bill’s credit card out of his wallet.
So if you happen to be someone who patronized one of Cele Peterson’s establishments back in the day, the fire in Bisbee touched your life, too.
But the fire hit home for me in another way as well. My younger brother, Jim, served as a firefighter in Bisbee for years. He was a tough, athletic guy—a runner—who died of an undiagnosed heart ailment at age 50. Had he lived, he would have been long retired by now, but I’m glad he wasn’t there to witness his guys trying desperately to battle those roaring flames with an inadequate supply of water.
Now, with copper long gone, tourism is Bisbee’s economic mainstay. Out-of-town visitors—and snowbirds in particular—are what keeps the place alive. So if you’ve been planning on making a trip to Bisbee, go ahead and go—maybe even on March 11 when I’m going to be there. I’m not sure how they’re handling traffic on Main Street, but I’m pretty sure they have it figured out by now, and everyone in town will be delighted to see you.
By the way, Jim passed away in June of 2000, not all that long before 9/11. His fallen officer memorial in Bisbee, including that very moving last call, was the first one I ever attended. Unfortunately, after the Twin Towers the whole country endured hundreds of those, but when one of Joanna Brady’s deputies died in the line of duty in Damage Control, the account I wrote about his fictional fallen officer memorial was based on my brother’s all too real one.
So it turns out, without any of you knowing it, if you read Damage Control, you were there, too. And today as you read this, a two-building fire in far off Bisbee is also touching you in a very real way, because that’s the magic of writing. It can take a very large world and turn it into a small one.