Teacher Ray Barton is watching as a class counts pennies. The pupils are Bagdad middle-schoolers taking part in the “Arizona CENTennial” project, collecting pennies to “Shine the Dome” atop the state Capitol building.
It’s a symbolic effort, of course: Current U.S. pennies are made of 97.5 percent zinc. But the results of the kindergarten through eighth-grade penny drive, in which each student was asked to bring in 100 pennies, have been very good. Barton says the 287 students collected about $296, beating the goal. “One fifth-grade class with 16 students raised $72″ worth of pennies, he says.
It’s perhaps no surprise that a drive to bring in copper would be a success here. The Bagdad Freeport-McMoRan copper mine dominates both the landscape and the town’s collective psyche. Its fate determines whether the town is doing well or poorly. This is the quintessential company town — one where the company owns all the houses and businesses — and it exists expressly to serve the mine.
Longtime Arizonans will remember that the massive open-pit copper mine was operated for years by Cyprus Mine Corp., and then Phelps-Dodge; Freeport-McMoRan acquired PD and its mines around Arizona in 2007. Mining at Bagdad goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Trucks full of copper concentrate rumble through town constantly, taking their loads to Southern Arizona or the railhead at Hillside, not far from Bagdad.
No one is absolutely certain how the town got its name. One story, as plausible as any other, says that a father and son came here to mine gold, and the son was known for filling a bag and saying, “Bag, Dad” as he handed it off.
Or someone may have simply have misspelled “Baghdad,” as in the Iraqi city.
It is a small town. The Bashas’ is the only grocery store in town, and there is just one convenience store, as well as a sole garage for automobile repairs. The Stockmen’s Bank is gone now, so residents do their banking through ATMs at the Bashas’.
There are just over 1,800 residents in Bagdad, according to the 2010 census, up 300 from the 2000 survey. In every family, someone either works at the mine or is retired from it.
“You can’t get a house unless you work for the mine,” said Jessi Harness, a waitress at the Bagdad Diner on Main whose husband works for the mine.
The Bagdad Diner is clearly the social hotspot in town. It was recently rebuilt after outgrowing its original location in a doublewide mobile home. Open from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. most days, Harness says they’ve been busy lately.
Harness left Bagdad but ended up moving back. “It’s a good little town,” she said. “There’s little random stuff like kids vandalizing things, but that’s a lot better than drive-by shootings. You don’t have to worry about your kids going outside to play.”
Tom Finnerty, the principal of Bagdad Schools, said the small size of the student body makes it easier to get to know his pupils. “I enjoy the small town and the chance to interact with the kids,” he said.
The worst problem here was “spice,” which offers a legal high, but even that wasn’t a real issue. “We got right on it right away. I talked to the County Attorney.” But he never actually saw kids using the herbal product. “We were proactive on it,’ he says.
When Finnerty arrived at the school, several years ago, there were 87 kids in the high school, but the population has swelled to 130 and has stayed stable for the past several years. Oddly, Finnerty said, the number of students enrolled seems to have little to do with the hiring situation at the mine.
Over at the town’s one golf course, Kay Martinez, says her main concern has been this spring’s weather, which she describes as “weird.”
Today, it is bright, sunny, warm, and golfers are out on the course.
She said the mine has been hiring people back, a sign the economy is turning around.
“And, luckily for us, there are a lot people who like to golf.”