Cowboys and Roman Columns

Despite heated disagreements, the residents of Patagonia say community comes first.

The Big Steer closed its doors not long ago, perhaps for good. To the little town of Patagonia, the saloon's demise means many things, among them that a singular era might also be coming to a close.

The immediate effects are mostly physical: No more cowboys elbowing the scruffy bar; no more ornery, half-buzzed honky-tonk bands; no more sweat-stained Stetsons or wise-cracking barmaids; no more thick wads of Skoal tucked in beer-soaked lips.

Instead, most action in Patagonia now occurs just up the street at the Gathering Grounds, a cheery coffee/lunch hotspot with dainty gourmet sandwiches and a bohemian whiff.

In the old days, when stiff-lipped ranchers and miners ruled these hills, the Gathering Grounds' sophisticated bonhomie would have lasted about five seconds--just enough time for some mocha-sipping city fella to get his butt whupped good.

But in Patagonia, as elsewhere, the times are a changin.'

Take the Roman columns, for instance. Armed with a $2,000 beautification grant from Wal-Mart, some community leaders recently ignited a small firestorm when they used the money to erect seven Roman columns in the town park. Eventually, the columns would flow with greenery, the thinking went, and provide extra shade with a certain Mediterranean flair.

Instead, many old-timers among Patagonia's approximately 900 residents came out of the woodwork in loud opposition. Most offensive to them, says former acting mayor and current Council Member Meredith Aronson--a column supporter--was the notion of altering the town park at all. Extending nearly the entire length of downtown Patagonia along State 82, the tree-lined plaza is Patagonia's signature image. It's lush and grassy, and anchored by a yellow, two-story rail depot built in 1900 that now serves as town hall.

Since their placement, indecision has kept the white columns mostly bare. Feuding over their appropriateness is symbolic of the town's "dark side and its bright side," says Aronson. "There is a lot of connectedness between the old families here, a lot of control. You experience it when you try to change the status quo."

That connectness revealed itself during Aronson's few months as mayor. A tall woman with a forthright demeanor, she today sits in the Gathering Grounds breast-feeding a toddler. She says the columns became a rare flash-point between longtime Patagonians and relative newcomers such as herself. She arrived eight years ago with her husband, Jacques.

"The park is the symbol of this town, a symbol in the sense that it's always been the way it is," she says. "We all like the trees, the grass, the gazebo. So when the columns went up, there was a lot of stress in the community about what they symbolized."

Still, if there's one striking difference between small towns and big cities, it's personal accountability. Bitter tongues are more likely kept in check when your opponent shops at the same grocery, uses the same laundry and shows up at the same town barbecues.

In other words, proximity requires small-town folks to maintain a certain neighborly decorum. It's that very quality that brought Adrienne Halpert here nine years ago. She now runs Global Arts Gallery, a thriving and colorful shop on the town park's eastside, selling everything from Mexican folk art to works by regional painters.

Global Arts is a far cry from the saloons and feed stores that once dominated area commerce, but Halpert reports that her clientele includes a large number of longtime Patagonians. Despite minor frictions, the community "welcomes new people," she says. "Overall, the old-timers really do make room for the newcomers."

A former Tucsonan, Halpert once ran the Hotel Congress and the Tucson Arts District before moving to Patagonia.

"Basically, I wanted to live in a quieter, cooler, greener, safer place," she says.

Regarding the contentious Roman columns, she's diplomatic and circumspect. "Sure, there are some of the old attitudes that 'no change is the best way to go.' I just support any efforts that will make the park even better than it is."

To understand how such issues can gain significance here, you need a clear picture of Patagonia. Start with brush of Norman Rockwell, toss in a few Rawhide episodes, add a pinch of Sedona and finish with a surprising number of discreetly placed mobile homes. ("We actually lost a few people in the last census," Aronson says, "and one of the reasons is probably that nobody wants to build a new house next to a trailer.")

The result is a postcard-pretty, apple-pie of a town 60 miles southeast of Tucson, 30 minutes north of Mexico, and worlds away from the bustle of urban life. Nestled in an oak-dappled valley beneath the Canelo Hills, it's a bona fide remnant of Americana, from kids and dogs racing across the park to neighbors gossiping on the sidewalk.

Local culture ranges from the Gathering Grounds and the nouvelle Velvet Elvis Pizza Co. to art studios, B&Bs and a popular birding hotspot run by The Nature Conservancy. But these urbane dashes only complement the hamlet's allure. "It's still an authentic small town, from the charming park to the little community bulletin board at the post office," Halpert says.

This homespun ambience dates back to the 1898, when cattleman Rollin Rice Richardson founded what would soon become a hub for miners and ranchers. Since then, the past has been preserved in Patagonia's wealth of "National Folk" architecture. The early 20th-century building tradition--begun when materials from around the nation became available by rail--is marked by quaint gable homes and pyramid-roofed, veranda-skirted houses.

Other gems include the Patagonia Elementary School, a circa-1914 mission-revival building atop a small bluff, and the park's Southern Pacific Depot. All of this scenery comes in handy, as mining and the cattle business give way to tourism as the primary economic engine.

"This used to totally be a ranching community," says Lisa Sharp, who grew up on a sprawling ranch down by the Mexican border, and attended Patagonia High School. Her family's ranch was sold in the 1990s, and she now owns Tierra de los Suenos, a sunny and well-appointed B&B on another former cattle operation near town.

"What hasn't changed," Sharp says, "is the very strong sense of community in Patagonia. People are still proud that they live here."

Charlie Montoy won't argue with that. Also a hometowner, he now owns Patagonia Gas and Services, a vintage filling station on the westside of State 82, across from the park. With a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, Montoy says he could "make a lot more money up in Tucson. But I love it here. It's a unique way of life."

In the end, and despite changes--from the Big Steer's demise to the Roman column fracas--a powerful sense of place overrides most disagreements, says Ann Mihalik, another native. She has the unenviable chore of serving on a committee to chew over the columns' fate.

"It's true that they have an unfinished look," says the long-time massage therapist.

But eventually, agreements will be reached; change or not, Patagonians still stick together, Mihalik says.

"If there was a fire or something, everyone would turn out to help," she says. "There's a sense of community here that transcends everything else."

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