Column No. 26

What It Was Like to Live in Ruby

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

This column begins a series on what it was like to live in Ruby in the 1930s, during the Montana mine’s heyday. We’ll tell this story in the words of former Ruby residents, who graciously agreed to relate their personal experiences.

After today’s overview, we’ll talk about working in the mine, the mining camp’s crude living accommodations, health care, schooling, favorite Ruby hangouts, recreation and social life, the Ruby mercantile revisited, law and order, lasting memories of Ruby, and leaving Ruby.

While the Eagle-Picher Lead Company was busy turning the Montana mine into the largest producer of lead and zinc in Arizona, the Ruby mining camp reached its full development.

Ruby reached a maximum population of about 1,200 people in 1937. Of that number, Eagle-Picher employed 350 men. Over 300 men worked in the mine.

Ruby had a nine-bed hospital with a doctor and a nurse. More than one hundred and fifty children went to a school with eight grades and four teachers. Ruby had an ice cream and candy shop, a pool and lunch hall, a jail, and of course the infamous Ruby mercantile, where in 1920 and 1921, double murders of the store’s proprietors shocked southern Arizona.

For recreation, Ruby had a baseball team and a rifle team.

Ruby was often a dirty and noisy place. Numerous smoke stacks arose from the roofs of the mining plant and almost continuously belched smoke into the picturesque mining community. The smoke left a constant sulfur-like odor. Fine dust, blowing from the tailings, further degraded air quality. The only place to escape the constant sound of the milling machinery, was to go deep underground into the Montana mine.

There was a cemetery southeast of the tailings pond and a handful of other cemeteries scattered between the lakes (reservoirs) and the international border with Mexico. Some burials occurred in Ruby and some in Arivaca, a few miles north. But, those families who could afford it, and had transportation, went to Tucson or Nogales to bury their loved ones.

Living accommodations for the people of Ruby, spread over the hills surrounding the mine. Neighborhoods evolved. Residents called the west area “Snob Hill” because it was on a hill and because the General Manager of Ruby and other mine management personnel lived there. Adobe and frame houses were common in this neighborhood.

Anglos (including columnist Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon’s family) lived on the north side of town, called Hollywood (for unremembered reasons). Here a mix of adobe and frame buildings, and tents could be found.

The population explosion that came with increased mining created a critical need for additional housing. Eagle-Picher ordered that tents would be the solution. A new “industry” developed. The Company constructed over a hundred very large tents.

The Mexican area was on the east side of town, with four or five frame houses, but mostly tents.

Residents planted and cared for yards, some with vegetables and flowers. Many people raised yerba buena (mint).

Despite the segregation of living areas, underground miner Leo Leal remembers: “People were like a big family, everyone involved to help. No fighting, just a happy family…. Everyone knew each other and worked hard. The administration was hard with us, but we were happy.”

Ruby was an “Eagle-Picher town.” The Company owned all the buildings. No one owned his own home. Rent was $2.50 to $10 per month, depending on the size of the home and type of construction. Tents rented for $2.50 per month. The rental charge included water and electricity when applicable.

Diesel equipment mechanic “Red” Worth recalled: “ We didn’t have a town council. It was strictly a company town and they ran it.”

The water pipeline completed in 1930 was a godsend for Ruby’s increasing population. The pipeline supplied drinking water, independent of the fickle rains and amount of water in the reservoirs. This wonderful service stopped briefly in January 1937 when a “cold snap … busted the piping in numerous places. It was frozen solid.” But, workers quickly repaired the breaks and restored the precious water service.

“Red” Worth built two steel tanks on a hillside above the mill to store the water. Eagle-Picher ran small pipelines to the living areas, mostly outside the homes.

Mill superintendent Ed Crabtree had the job of keeping the water fit to drink:

“My job was to add chlorine to the water and then check the chlorine content every day. I gained access to the tank by walking across a 2 by 12 foot board from the mountainside to the top of the tank. One morning I went up there and floating in the tank was a little cottontail rabbit. He had run across the board and fallen in and drowned. I fished him out, and you may be sure that day I gave the water an extra dose of chlorine. Many of the women in camp really got after me; they said I put so much chlorine in the water it ruined the coffee. I had, but I didn’t tell them why.”

Seven Fairbanks-Morse diesel engines furnished electricity for the mill, the mine, and the store, hospital, and school. In 1934, the Company designated engine number four to supply electricity to the camp homes. Prior to having electricity in homes, residents used kerosene lamps to provide light.

Bell’s dairy, with a dozen cows, was about a mile northwest of Ruby on an abandoned mining claim. Young Ruby resident Frank Orozco used to work at the dairy. He got up early in the morning, before dawn, rode a mule to the dairy, finished with the milking, and then delivered the milk in bottles to homes in Ruby – all before his school day started.

Although life was difficult in these remote hills, and money was scarce, some Ruby residents did have automobiles. Residents didn’t drive much within the camp, but used their cars to reach areas beyond Ruby. Gasoline tanks could be filled from the pump located in front of the Ruby mercantile at a cost of less than 25 cents per gallon. Of course gasoline had to be trucked in from Tucson or Nogales.

Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon remembers that: “A dark green International pick-up truck, probably purchased by the company in Tucson or Nogales in the mid-nineteen thirties, was driven by employees for work-related tasks.”

Some folks used horses or burros to ride to destinations not too far from Ruby. Children whose families lived outside of the camp rode burros to school, while some rode a small school bus.

Since most destinations in the camp were within walking distance, residents did just that.

(Sources: Nogales International; Arizona Daily Star; Dan B. McCarthy, “The Return to Ruby,” Phoenix Republic, 1972; Edwin H. Crabtree family history; interview with Leo Leal)

Two-photo panorama of late 1930s Ruby


Ruby reached a maximum population of about 1,200 people in 1937. The upper photo is a view to the south, showing the buildings and tents of the booming Ruby mining camp surrounding Ruby Lake, with Montana Peak in the background. The lower photo, a panorama continuation of the upper photo, looking west, shows the sizeable Ruby mercantile in the center foreground and the school building in the left foreground. Circa 1936 (Photos courtesy of Pat and Howard Frederick)

Next time: Working in the Montana Mine

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