Katie Self explores this mining town-turned-artsy enclave in southern Arizona
The Southwest is peppered with aged pockets of whistle-stops that once boasted formidable economic growth, thanks in part to a large mining boost in the early 1900s. Bisbee, Arizona, located less than 100 miles southeast of Tucson, is heralded as one such town that attracted prospectors near and far because of large deposits of copper, gold and silver. As mining declined, so did the population, leaving behind an impression of life as it once was. Today, Bisbee is known for charming shops, historic saloons and a relaxed way of life. Average temperatures in Bisbee rarely break 90 degrees during summer months, providing an ideal getaway for Phoenix and Tucson residents. I traveled to Bisbee with Kim, my sister, to take in all we could of this historic section of Arizona.
Oliver House Bed & Breakfast
Set above Bisbee on a small hill is the Oliver House Bed and Breakfast, looming at night like a mysterious fortress, somewhat secluded from its immediate area by a footbridge that connects to a parking lot. We made our arrival in the evening, which can be a tinge intimidating because of the rich, ghostly history behind the inn. Several murders are said to have taken place, and both the owners and visitors alike embrace its past. Guided ghost tours are available monthly, and guests are given pieces of equipment to use at their disposal to track down spirits. The building is well maintained and it’s obvious that much care and appreciation has been put into ensuring the past doesn’t entirely stay there. Solid wood flooring, doors and other small details transport visitors to its days of yore.
While modern amenities such as Wi-Fi are available, the lack of televisions gives visitors an excuse to unplug and unwind. The expansive second-story balcony provides a stunning platform to view the town from above, and the veranda below is the ideal spot to sink into a chair, chat with fellow guests or sip a morning coffee. Breakfast for all of those in attendance from the prior evening was served in the parlor before we headed off to visit the town.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that Kim and I did witness some rather peculiar activity. We couldn’t confirm the happenings, but we couldn’t debunk them either. Renee Harper, our fantastic “ghost host” for the evening, recounted eerie stories that added layers to Bisbee’s past. At any rate, we walked away from the Oliver House Bed and Breakfast with a few spooky tales and a lasting impression of how a bed and breakfast should run.
Olive House Bed & Breakfast
26 Sowles Road
Bisbee Breakfast Club
Known to locals as the BBC, the Bisbee Breakfast Club serves what can only be described as tummy-satisfying comfort food. The dining area was abuzz with locals and visitors looking to fill their bellies with flavorsome bites, including softball-sized homemade biscuits. This morning called for the copper queen skillet for myself and the potato pancakes with applesauce for Kim.
Typical breakfast items can be found on the menu: Skillets, pancakes, breakfast burritos and chicken fried steak are solid staples among the bunch. What truly hits you upon entering is the size of the establishment. Vaulted ceilings cover two seating areas split by a glass half-circle cutout that divides them. The far side consists of a repurposed garage with a manual door and brick walls throughout. The storefront houses several Indian and Harley motorcycles for sale. Walk in hungry, leave with a motorcycle? Not a far stretch at the BBC.
Bisbee Breakfast Club
75A Erie Street
Bisbee Olive Oil
After such a filling breakfast, we went directly to Bisbee Olive Oil to keep the caloric intake going, where they offer a selection of over 60 various oils, including extra virgin olive oils and a plethora of flavored balsamic. The shop also touts local merchandise including cutting boards, aprons and premade marinades, as well as cosmetics imported from Italy. Melissa Hartman, the shop’s keeper since it opened, gave us a quick taste tour and showed us the back room, in all its antiquity. Hartman says Bisbee Olive Oil fuses the flavors in-house, and explained heat points for certain oils. A few favorites include the fig balsamic, 12-year white balsamic and garlic cilantro olive oil.
Hartman serves as a vault of knowledge, sharing tidbits that added to the allure of Bisbee Olive Oil. “The building has been here for 115 years and originally operated as a brothel,” she says. “We are in Brewery Gulch, which was the red light district during the mining heyday.” Bisbee’s stock exchange was housed on the opposite side of the street. “At one point, there were 250 brothels in the red light district, and this space was biggest with a dance floor and bar,” Hartman says. Entering the back room, you’ll see brick adobe walls with a copper overlay for extra reinforcement. “This back room served as a game room and VIP section,” she says. Along one wall is a man-sized dumbwaiter, which transported gentlemen to and from the brothel without peering eyes from the former police station and church just across the way.
Bisbee Olive Oil
8 Brewery Avenue
Screaming Banshee Pizza
On our way out of Bisbee, we needed one last meal of substance. Screaming Banshee Pizza, barely on the outskirts of town, gave us exactly what we were looking for before the drive home. A petite patio gives customers seating options for gorgeous weather, while the interior is filled with dark, eclectic décor and a boisterous crowd. We strolled in mid-afternoon and the dining area was nearly full with young, hip diners. The menu consists of traditional pizza toppings and sauce choices, salads, sandwiches and calzones. The delicious thin-crust pizza gives way to fresh toppings, one not overpowering the other. The dish that drove it home for us, no pun intended, was the Screaming Stix. Hand-twisted garlic knots drenched in fresh olive oil and garlicky goodness was the perfect preparation for the sublime pizza that arrived shortly after.
Screaming Banshee Pizza
200 Tombstone Canyon Road
St. Elmo’s Bar
Opened in 1902, St. Elmo’s Bar is Arizona’s longest continuously operating watering hole. Naturally, after walking around for a minute, Kim and I needed to stop in for a refreshment. Not surprisingly, St. Elmo’s is a no-frills shot-and-beer-type establishment, and if the walls could talk, they’d offer up some titillating tales of old Western bar flies from yesteryear. Today, you’ll find tourists, locals and those who have their own private stool at the end of the long wooden bar. Profane yet entertaining bumper stickers take up space behind the barkeep, along with a tap that shows off domestic favorites and local go-to beers. Taxidermy pokes out from various spots on the wall, while the beer-dried pool table occupies the back niche. It’s easy to end up in deep conversation with the bartender and, after several hours of chatting with patrons, walk away with a strong buzz.
St. Elmo’s Bar
36 Brewery Avenue
Bisbee Soap & Sundry Shop
Much like Bisbee Olive Oil, Bisbee Soap & Sundry’s space has a bit of history behind its doors. Once a mortuary, owners and operators Mark Pierce and Amber Avery now create homemade concoctions in-house using natural ingredients collected directly from the desert. Products such as charcoal detox soap, cedar beard oil, grapefruit-mint salve and vetiver lotion line the shelves of this throwback sundry. Pierce says the beard oil, which has become increasingly popular, “softens the whiskers.” Charcoal detox soap contains tea tree oil and eucalyptus to cleanse and invigorate even sensitive skin.
“I cook the plant into the oil,” Pierce says, nodding to a crockpot set on a table inside the former embalming room. Lavender soap in wooden boxes is set off to the side in order to solidify, with whimsical swirls of white and purple. Avery’s hand-designed packaging wraps up the heavenly scented products ever so tastefully.
Bisbee Soap & Sundry
74 Main Street
Óptimo Custom Hatworks
No two noggins are exactly alike, and for those who employ a hat into their daily attire, Óptimo Hatworks is a must-see when visiting Bisbee. Custom fitting and sizing equates to a hat that is uniquely you. Panama straw hats, bowlers and fedoras are a few styles out of the expansive collection found here. Grant Sergot has owned and operated Óptimo for 40 years and uses his extensive knowledge to create hats that are genuinely one-of-a-kind. “We take into consideration the line of the jaw, the cheekbone and eye color,” Sergot says. “It’s like getting fit for a wedding dress.” Some hats require 150 steps from start to finish.
With the help of Karen Schumacher, a textile restorer, the duo create tailored, hand-stitched toppers using Victorian-era machinery and tools. Because of their exclusive design, each hat comes with instructions on how to delicately manage it to prevent wear and tear. Locals say there is a waitlist for these amazing hats, and Sergot adds that he receives orders from all over the world, including requests from celebrity clientele. “It’s the best fit you’ll ever have, to a sixteenth of an inch,” Sergot says.
47 Main Street