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‘Every day is a circus’

Somewhere close to the middle of nowhere, right next to the dusty center of, well, almost nothing, a nearly forgotten town that used be one of the beneficiaries of the old Route 66, still clings resolutely to life.

Oatman, Ariz., is a former mining town on a section of the Mother Road that Interstate-40 bypassed on its way to the Pacific.

Both an early and late gold-boom town, Oatman was named posthumously in honor of Olive Oatman, who was captured from her Illinois family on its westward journey in 1851, later traded to Mohaves, who adopted her and tattooed her face before releasing her in 1856.

Gold was later discovered in the area in 1863, but the town really hit its boom in 1915 and for 10 years the area was one of the largest gold producers in the country.

The old mining town is inhabited by the descendants of burros who were cast adrift by miners who moved on.

When the gold dried up, the miners packed up and left, many leaving behind their faithful sidekicks, the burro.

Descendants of those same burros continue to roam the streets of Oatman to this day, said Willa Lucas, who runs the Wild West Gold Camp museum, providing perhaps the biggest tourist bonanza in town.

“The burros, wild burros, are very docile, most of the time,” she said. “They are on the street, begging for food. They are entertaining; a lot of entertainment.”

The feral burros “are leftover from the miners,” Lucas said. “The miners had burros and when a guy needed to move on, he left the burro behind. They foraged for themselves and this is the result of that.”

The herd is down to somewhere around 20 and was recently given contraceptives to keep from growing larger.

The Oatman jail features some intriguing displays in its museum, including the original gallows that was in use until the late 1930s. (SOURCE: Oatman Jail)

“They’re very intelligent animals and (it’s) interesting to watch them interact,” Lucas said. “Several places sell alfalfa cubes. No more carrots, because that’s too much sugar.”

Lucas’s museum, set in the town’s old pharmacy and in a building that was once featured in the blockbuster “How the West was Won,” features many of the items typically found in a small-town display.

“It pertains exclusively to the town of Oatman,” she said. “It’s very simple, all hands-on and by donation. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes to go through it correctly and get something good out of it.”

One of the main features is the military history of the area. Before the interstate ignored Oatman, “Eisenhower would bring his military convoys through here all the time,” Lucas said.

Since the building used to be a drugstore, there’s a display for medical equipment from about 1915-1945 and another focused on the movie that brought brief fame to the town.

“Upstairs is a replica of a mining cabin with four rooms, a kitchen, living room, bedroom and nursery,” she said. “Nothing is newer than 1935 and it’s all hands-on. The kitchen even has a table and couple of chairs that you can sit at and rest a little while.”

If one gets too rowdy, however, there’s space over at the Oatman Jail, said owner James Milligan.

The two-cell jail was built in 1936 and used until 1953. Inside, the original open gallows from where death-sentence convicts swung until hanging was outlawed in the late 1930s remains, he said.

“We have a history of a few arrests, old mining equipment and a lot of history in the mining camp that was used from here in town,” Milligan said. “We have a little sand box so kids can go in there for a little gold-rock digging to take a gold rock home with them.”

Usually about midday ——and sometimes later in the afternoons – the burros and tourists will be startled by the sound of gunfire as the Red Ridge Marauders and the Ghost Rider Gunfighters put on one of their daily exhibitions of Old West frivolity.

The Oatman Hotel provided the honeymoon suite for Hollywood royalty Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, and their spirits, along with that of an old miner, still haunt the old hotel.

The first weekend of May, the town is filled with antique automobiles as part of the annual Route 66 Fun Run as cruisers visit the last and longest stretch of the original Route 66.

Some 500,000 visitors wander east annually from nearby Laughlin, Nev., to check out the little town, said Lucas, who has lived in Oatman for more than 40 years.

“There’s about 120 people living in the town,” she said with a chuckle. “Every day is a circus, you just never know who the ringmaster is going to be. It’s a very unique lifestyle.”

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