It doesn’t take much research – a slow drive through town will do it – to realize that Jerome has a colorful and quirky past. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the seven homes and two buildings on the 50th Annual Jerome Historic Home and Building Tour reflect the town’s flavor. Ranging from a house built in 1898 to a church that has held services since 1900 to a Victorian-style, five-level home that was constructed in the 1990s, there’s a lot happening on this year’s tour. The Jerome Historic Home and Building Tour takes place May 16 and 17 from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. (the last tickets are sold at 3 p.m.). Tickets for the tour are $20, which includes transportation between each stop. (The tour is not handicapped accessible.) Docents will be stationed at the homes to answer questions. The go-at-your-own-pace tour is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Jerome Chamber of Commerce, says Donna Chesler, president of the Jerome Historical Society, co-owner of Gallery 527, realtor and artist. Those taking the tour should allocate at least four hours to see all of the homes and buildings.
Sedona Monthly got a sneak peek at five of the homes that will be featured on the tour. The Jerome Historical Society, organizer of the tour, has a strict five-year rule: Homes and buildings can only be featured once every five years, a rule that keeps people coming back again and again. Many of the homes on this year’s tour have never been featured. Donna and Liz Gale, vice president of the historical society and owner of Mile Hi Grill & Inn, say about 1,500 people will enjoy the tour – the oldest of its kind in Arizona – and spend the day in Jerome.
Speaking of which, a little history about Jerome. In its 1920s heyday, Jerome boasted a population of 15,000. That number plummeted to 50 in the 1950s and today stands at 450. The 1-square-mile town was erected on top of the largest copper mine in Arizona on Cleopatra Hill between Prescott and Sedona. Back in the day, the mine produced 3 million pounds of copper per month. (Gold, silver, lead, zinc, azurite and malachite were also mined.) The first European settlers came to the area in the 1870s, and United Verde Copper Company opened its mine in 1883. Jerome grew rapidly and became a melting pot of more than 20 nationalities. The New York Sun deemed Jerome “the wickedest town in the west.” The town was officially founded in 1876 and was once the fourth-largest city in the Arizona Territory. Jerome’s first postmaster gave the town its moniker, which pays homage to financier Eugene Jerome.
Four disastrous fires between 1894 and 1899 ravaged Jerome’s buildings, and the town wasn’t actually incorporated until 1899. Jerome received its first high school in 1923, but in the 1930s, the town’s prosperity began to falter. First the Great Depression hit. A few years later, an enormous charge of dynamite (260,000 pounds to be exact) caused the surface of the town to slip, tunnels to crack and buildings to slide down the mountainside. (Jerome’s “sliding jail” moved downhill 225 feet and came to a stop in the middle of Hull Avenue as a result of the explosion. A bulldozer relocated it to today’s spot.) Jerome’s mines closed in 1953 (the same year Jerome Historical Society was founded), and within five years, Jerome became the largest ghost town in the country.
In the 1960s and ’70s, artists, freethinkers and members of the counterculture movement settled in Jerome, opening funky art galleries and setting up house in abandoned buildings. The Douglas Mansion was turned into a state park in 1965, and Jerome was designated a National Historic District by the federal government in 1967. One year earlier, the Jerome Historical Society began its annual home tour. Donna says the tour began as a way to bring people to the town and also as a way to satiate curious tourists who would knock on doors, asking to peek inside private residences.
There are approximately 400 homes and buildings in Jerome today; the oldest home has been dubbed The Warehouse and was built in the 1890s. (For those keeping track, it has never been featured on the home tour.) Despite what you might expect, there are very few condemned homes, says Liz, whose family has lived in town since the 1960s. “Independence is the spirit of Jerome,” she says. “We’ve been blessed with independent builders who come here and move heaven and earth to preserve the engineering of these buildings. People who live here are devoted to the historical nature of Jerome.”