Column No. 13

Phil Clarke and the Ruby Mercantile

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

In spite of unsuccessful Montana mining operations in the first few years after Arizona statehood in 1912, the general store prospered. One of the reasons for this was the hard work of Julius and Lille Andrews, the store’s owners. Another reason for the store’s continued success was that it drew customers from the mines of the entire Oro Blanco Mining District, from Arivaca, northern Mexico, and nearby cattle ranches.

In 1913, after more than 16 years of running the store, Julius Andrews decided to move back to Tucson. Age (he was 61) and health (he suffered from rheumatism) were probably primary considerations. Also, as Carol Clarke Meyer wrote, the Andrews had survived “many close calls with gringo toughs and Mexican bandits, but they suspected worse times were ahead. The unrest that would lead to the Mexican Revolution was building fast. Civilization beckoned.”

Irish immigrant Phil M. Clarke bought the Andrews’ Ruby store. According to the bill of sale, dated May 6, 1913, the purchase price of the “store, separate house, and associated buildings and other structures” was $3,700. Clarke had to make a down payment of $1,000 and had two years to pay the remaining $2,700.

Thirty-one years earlier Phil Clarke started his life in America in the slums of New York. He was born in Ireland in 1888, but his parents came to New York City in 1892. Arriving in Arivaca in 1906 at age 18 years, Clarke worked at odd jobs, including helping out at nearby farms and cattle ranches and working at stores in Arivaca. By 1910, he had managed a store, served terms as Arivaca Postmaster, notary public, and Justice of the Peace, and was a school trustee.

As Clarke recalled in later years, in order to raise the money to buy the Andrews’ store in Ruby, he and his schoolteacher wife, Gypsy, “had to sell our chickens to add the money to what we had saved to make the purchase.”

Clarke became both the storekeeper and the keeper for the Montana mines and property, as an agent for Louis Zeckendorf, the owner of the Montana Group of mines. (Such was the inactive state of the mining in the years before the Goldfield Consolidated Mining Company operations started in 1917.)

On May 12, 1913, Clarke also took over as Ruby Postmaster.

Clarke was one of the first frontier promoters to offer free drinks and the use of pool tables for his customers. For individuals without cash, he would barter, providing clothing, foodstuffs, and hardware in trade for beans, corn, gold dust, and hides. He prided himself with stocking the store with anything his customers needed. At the start, everything Clarke had was invested in the store. He did very good business and was able to pay off Andrews in six months. His success with the store enabled Clarke to gradually buy cattle, providing for his future fortune and leading to his later prominence.

As Clarke told it, he was soon dissatisfied with the “poor condition of the old wood-frame store building and house” that he had purchased. He decided to build a new store and selected a site that was up the hill to the north of the old Andrews store.

Clarke built his expanded store of adobe, opening it for business on September 8, 1915. The store included the Ruby Post Office and living quarters for his growing family. Visiting Ruby the day of the store’s opening, the editor of the Nogales Oasis newspaper reported:

The new structure, which occupies a commanding position on a slight eminence overlooking the reservoir, and some distance away, is a large commodious building, 62x32 feet in dimensions, with the store in one end and the family quarters in the other, with a wide screened porch around two sides. The living quarters are fitted, conveniently and handily, with running water in every room, and acetylene gas in all parts of the building. The water is piped from a large tank on the hill, into which it is pumped from a large spring in the gulch close at hand.

Clarke remembered that he made “good money” with the store and “collected a large herd of cattle” as payment for some of the goods he sold. He “bought out all the Mexican squatters from Ruby south to the Mexican border and took a Forest Permit to run on that range.” In 1919, he “bought . . .the range north of Ruby, joining the Arivaca ranch.”

Increasingly, Clarke split his time between operating the store and his growing cattle business.

But Clarke yearned to become a full time cattle rancher. So, he started looking around seriously for someone to buy or lease the Ruby store. In January 1920, he sold the store to longtime area residents and mining brothers Alex and John Fraser. (What happened to the Fraser brothers will be disclosed in the next several columns.)

Clarke moved his family a four miles northwest to Oro Blanco village. His ranch was situated just southeast of that small village.

Clarke’s growing cattle business resulted in his buying and selling over 62,000 Mexican cattle by 1934.

Many years later, in Tucson, after careers as a storekeeper and cattleman, Phil Clarke became president of the Rotary Club and served three terms on the Tucson School Board. Clarke also had a career in banking, becoming a vice president of one bank in 1926 and president of another in 1932. Clarke died in Tucson in 1963 at the age of 75.

Next time: Border Problems - Bandits, Rustlers, Revolutionaries, and Indians

(Sources: Carol Clarke Meyer, “The Rise and Fall of Ruby,” The Journal of Arizona History, 1974; Nancy Clarke Rice personal files; Norah Clarke personal files; Phil Clarke “Recollections of Life in Arivaca and Ruby, 1906-1926,” Arizona Historical Society; Postal History Foundation records; Nogales Oasis)

Clarke building Ruby mercantile
In 1915, Irish immigrant Phil Clarke built a new general store of adobe in the Ruby mining camp. (Photo from Tallia Primmer Cahoon private collection)
Newly completed Ruby mercantile
Phil Clarke opened his new Ruby mercantile on September 8, 1915. The sign over the door reads: P. M. Clarke, General Merchandise. (Photo from Nancy Clarke Rice private collection)

  NEXT TIME: ALONG THE RUBY ROAD  Border Problems - Bandits, Rustlers, Revolutionaries, and Indians

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