Column No. 63

Joe Ortiz’ 21 years in Ruby

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

Joe Ortiz, Jr. was born in Tucson in 1927 but raised in the mining camp of Ruby. In fact Joe spent the first 21 years of his life in Ruby, overlapping the entire operation of the Eagle-Picher Lead Company, when the Montana mine produced more lead and zinc than any other mine in Arizona and the population of Ruby approached 1200 people.

When Eagle-Picher began operations in Ruby in 1927, the Company hired Sonora-born Joe Ortiz, Sr. as a woodcutter. There was no electricity in the mining camp in the beginning, so mining equipment had to be operated by wood-heated steam power and the homes of the workers had to heated, and their cooking fires supplied, with fuel. Wood was also used to heat water for bathing and washing clothes. According to Joe, Jr., “In those days there were trees all over the hills.”

Atop one of the many small hills in the Ruby mining camp, Joe’s dad built a house out of lumber, ocotillo, mud, and grass – with a dirt floor. Joe was the sixth child of an eventual 12 children in the Ortiz family, so the original house was expanded several times over the next 21 years. Joe described how they got water, “Lake water was used for the mill, but you couldn’t use it for homes because it was contaminated. The Company pumped water from the Santa Cruz River to Ruby [17 miles away through the Atascosa Mountains]; we got water from tanks after it came through the pipeline. The Company ran small pipes to houses, mostly on the outside. Dad helped fix the big pipeline many times.”

Joe’s mother Josefa, also born in Sonora, was a curandera (a healer) who used herbs. Joe remembered, “I would collect herbs for Mom. These were for stomach aches, and other things like cuts, infections, etc.”

There were several sources of food for the Ortiz family. “Dad hunted, mostly venison, and we had a garden with chilies, squash and other vegetables. We also bought from the mercantile store. They took cash or a $5.00 coupon book. Many people paid for wood with coupons from the store; people seldom had cash money.”

Joe Ortiz, Sr., cut mesquite; Joe, Jr., would load burros and sell the wood with his sister Ernestina. “Existence was difficult; it was hard to make a living. …We owned a lot of burros. … The burros gave us life. … I was seven or eight when I started delivering wood. … I did wood before school and after. … I made more money than the miners did.”

As the mining camp prospered in the mid 1930s, there were many opportunities for entertainment. Ruby’s Pool and Lunch Hall, known as the “Country Club,” was on a knoll on the northwest edge of the camp. According to Joe Ortiz, “The Pool Hall was outside the company fence because [they] sold liquor.” (There was a Company rule that liquor could not be sold on Company property.) Besides serving as a pool hall, the building was large enough to provide a recreation room for the entire camp. The “hall” hosted monthly movies and acted as a dancehall twice a month for as many as 300 people. The regular menu included beer, wine, and mixed drinks from the bar and such food items as sandwiches and hot dogs.

Joe Ortiz recalled the movies at the Pool Hall, “The movie guy came from Tucson in a truck with all the equipment, every Friday night … 35 cents for adults and 10 cents for children for a movie. My first movie was King Kong. … There was a stage; the truck man brought the screen and projector. Had cartoons. Movies ran about four hours.”

There were also recreational opportunities in Ruby. In addition to baseball, Ruby residents enjoyed wrestling and boxing matches. A “real” ring, set up by Ruby Lake, accommodated the events. Whoever wanted to box, entered the ring. The opponents had boxing gloves, but dressed in their normal clothes. Boxing fights were on Sundays. For wrestling matches, according to Joe, “Men came from all over the state.”

The Ortiz family also enjoyed music. “Dad bought a phonograph crank with 78 records. We would sharpen the needle with files. Sometimes singers would come with bands. … Records cost about 75 cents. Dad bought a Gene Autry guitar, paid about $16 for it from Sears Catalog. I bought records from Nogales and learned to play the guitar by listening to Mariachi music. I played and sang songs with it. Friends got drunk once and broke it.”

When asked what events he most clearly remembered during his years in Ruby, Joe Ortiz remembered a tragedy, “The worst thing I remember was that a lady caught fire and burned to death. She threw kerosene on the stove and was carrying the can in her hand when it exploded. I saw her in the yard burning.”

After Eagle-Picher closed the Montana mine in 1940, Ruby’s population plummeted. Joe Ortiz stayed on in Ruby until 1948, helping his dad tear down some of the old buildings. Ortiz described some of the mining aftermath, “We started taking down tents, then some houses, but there were still enough [people in the area] to keep school open. … I graduated from the Ruby school’s eighth grade in 1945. … There was a district requirement that a school needed at least 12 students to remain open. The Ruby school met this requirement until 1947, when the last class, including my younger sister Natalia, graduated.

Joe’s dad was caretaker at Ruby from 1942 to 1948. The large Ortiz family moved to a larger, now abandoned former boarding house. Joe was quick to point out however, “Even though the new home was bigger, the children preferred to live in the house on the hill, where they had grown up.”

The Ortiz family moved to Nogales in 1948. Joe’s dad bought a lot and built a three-bedroom house. Looking back on his days in Ruby, Joe firmly stated, “Leaving Ruby was the hardest day of my life. … Those were very friendly times.”

Over the next 25 years or so, Joe had a number of jobs including working for the Lone Mt. Ranch, south of Patagonia; a Tucson brick yard; the Colonia de Tucson Golf Course; public schools; and Kennedy Park. In 1972 Joe was forced to retire because of illness. Taking care of his yard keeps him busy today.

Joe married his wife Gloria in 1952 and they had 12 children. One of their grandchildren, 15-month Tiana Lopez, has made the news lately. She underwent surgery for an artificial heart until a transplant can be done. The family is asking for prayers and donations to help with the surgery, Chase Account No. 714776143.

Joe Ortiz lived in Ruby for 21 years. (Photo by Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon, 2006)

(Sources: Interviews of Joe Ortiz, Jr. by Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon conducted in fall 2002 and February 2006)

Next Time: Frontier Lady of Letters – the Heroic Love Story of Ines Fraser

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