Ah, progress. It's given us better medicine, faster computers, tastier snack cakes. But often as not, progress in Phoenix involves the obliteration of our already tenuous local history. And while we've grown used to city landmarks being torn down to make room for another Osco, we've learned to rely on our outlying towns -- quaint, cactusy bumps in the road like Bisbee and Carefree and Wickenburg -- for local color.
But those burgs are also about to be eaten up by urban sprawl -- or so says Ron Kaczor. And Kaczor ought to know. For the past 14 years, Kaczor has been the operations manager of the Mistress Mine, an 1880s gold mine converted into a mining museum/dinner theater/aura-cleansing bed-and-breakfast located on private land within the Tonto National Forest northeast of Carefree. But after 117 years of ownership, the Steinegger family has sold the 40-acre property to Carefree resident and Arm & Hammer baking soda heiress Pem Meyer, who plans to build a $4 million home on the site. And she wants Kaczor and his pet mule, Gabby, out of there.
An ordained Buddhist priest, Kaczor refuses to diss Meyer, who has been quoted as saying that the mining attractions (which included a carpeted tepee, a mule stable, and a century-old wood pile) are "unsightly" and wants them gone.
New Times: Okay. So some rich lady bought up your land and you have to close up the gold mine museum -- one of the few remaining tourist attractions out that way. What the fuck?
Ron Kaczor: (Laughs.) It's just the way things are going. I've seen it over and over again up in the Carefree area -- with Desert Mountain building another golf course, taking land from the national park. It just doesn't stop, the expansion, the destroying of the old. Cave Creek is a great example of people coming in who have no interest in the history of Arizona, who move here and want the same life they had in Chicago or Minnesota, but they want it where the sun shines every day.
NT: That's not new, either.
Kaczor: But people used to move here because they embraced the cultural differences, not to destroy them. I remember in the '60s, [people] loved the Hispanic and Native American cultures, and everyone was mixed, and you weren't a part of "Normal." But then "Normal" came here, and it got so boring. And these are the people who are destroying things -- they want their shopping malls and their green grass and their palm trees and their golf courses. Lily white people living behind walls and gated communities with homeowners associations. The average Arizonan back in the '60s would have lived in the wash before they'd live in that kind of development. And now that's all there is.
NT: What's a Southwesterner to do?
Kaczor: There are people out there, trying to hold off the inevitable. They're in New River and Desert Hills. They're holding on, and then something happens like that atrocity, Anthem, comes in and takes all their water. Politics as usual. I used to fight and boycott all this back then, but in my 14 years up there on the mountain, I developed a Buddhist mind and I realize that this is all inevitable; that this is what's thought of as progress by most people: tearing down our history to make room for more shopping malls and golf courses.
NT: But what have you done to fight it?
Kaczor: I'm through fighting. Back in the '60s, I fought the Vietnam War, I laid down across the Poughkeepsie Bridge, I chained myself to the nuclear power station in Seabrook -- for what good? Forty years later, we have Bush as president. I cope by getting out of here as often as I can, going to Bali and Thailand and other places where people think.
NT: Is it possible that the baking soda heiress will just allow the mine to continue, and she'll live there?
Kaczor: No. I think her basic fear, because of who she is, is liability. Rightfully so -- this is America! She'd be dealing with potential insurance liabilities all day long. We're a country of ridiculous laws, all this anal-retentive behavior. You just have to laugh at it. Society's going down the tubes, and we get to watch it.
NT: She's been quoted as saying she wants complete privacy. What if we promised to be really quiet when we visit the mine?
Kaczor: Well, I suggested keeping the museum and the theater and everything down below on the mountain, but the thinking seems to be that it would all be in her way.
NT: It's ironic that a woman who's probably dripping in gold wants to shut down a historic gold mine. I suppose her thinking is it's just an old hole in the ground.
Kaczor: She has no understanding of preserving Arizona history or that I worked for 14 years to preserve that sense of history. She wouldn't have a Scout troop out and show them how to make soap and rope and paintbrushes out of yucca. I've enjoyed being that person, but it's over now. She has to protect her fortune, and in order to do that, she has to cancel her biggest liability -- me.
NT: I read that Meyer thinks of the stable, the theater, the bed-and-breakfast -- all of it -- as "unsightly." She plans to "clean up the garbage, things not of historical value." What does that mean?
Kaczor: Those really are her words. There's this whole thing going on about her cleaning up the property, and it's just her perspective, the way she looks at things. Lots of people think that way. You know, people would come out [to the museum] and see my laundry hanging on the line and think it was part of the decor. I felt sorry for people who didn't know that you could actually dry your clothes by hanging them outside.
NT: Now that you're relocating to central Phoenix, you'll be using a clothes dryer. But who will help preserve our local history?
Kaczor: I don't know. But local history is on its way out. I've seen it go in my lifetime. The majority of society doesn't care; what they want is "shop 'til you drop." And more golf courses.
NT: But where will we go when we feel like visiting an 1880s gold mine-slash-dinner theater-slash healing center? Where will I go when I want to stay overnight in a carpeted tepee?
Kaczor: No place out that way, that's for sure. I don't know. It used to be Wickenburg, but now that's all changing. The land is too costly. I got together some old money friends of mine to grab the land [where Mistress Mines sits] if it fell out of escrow, to keep the healing and wellness center and museum going. I planned on dying there. Unfortunately, we live in a society where majority rules. And majority is pretty ignorant. Bush got elected, didn't he?
NT: What about the mine's famous mule?
Kaczor: Gabby? I found him a wonderful new home in New River. I had trained him to smile for pictures, to say "Hello." The unfortunate thing is that he wanted treats in exchange for that, and if you didn't give it to him, he'd take a bite out of you. And the tepee got sold to a former dentist in Scottsdale. His wife wanted a guest house, and now they have one -- a tepee-shaped one.
NT: So now what are we supposed to do when we're in Carefree?
Kaczor: There's not much to do. Rawhide's moving, I'm going, and people just don't care. On every level, there's little comprehension of trying to preserve the past or a way of life. There's no place to run to anymore.
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NT: Okay, quit the Buddhist routine for a minute and admit it: This baking soda woman is a bitch.
Kaczor: I know you want me to say so, but no. I can't. I'm so glad my mind has been trained as a Buddhist to accept everything in life, including what passes for progress, the absurdity of monotheistic religions, all this craziness. Look at what Trump is doing downtown, [wanting to put] up that huge building. Does that make Donald Trump a bastard? These people are so trained to think that with money they can do anything they want. I can't call her a bitch; that's just who she is. And she treated me very well with the buyout.
NT: Well, I, for one, will never buy another ounce of Arm & Hammer baking soda.
Kaczor: You wouldn't believe how many people have said that to me. But think about it: How many boxes of baking soda do you buy each year? You're not going to hurt anyone by boycotting baking soda.