GLEESON — Joe Bono was raised 74 years ago in the back of a saloon in Gleeson – which had already turned into a ghost town – where he lived off-grid the first five years of his life with kerosene lamps, a well for water and an outdoor privy before he ever knew what off-grid meant. But Bono – whose father emigrated from Italy in 1910 to the once booming copper-mining town on the south side of the Dragoon Mountains – couldn’t shake off Gleason’s colorful ghost town dust.
Two years ago, the man whose uncle once ran Tombstone’s famous, high-stepping Crystal Palace Saloon where Doc Holiday and Big Nose Kate were once regulars bought Gleeson’s notorious jail, not far from the town's infamous hanging tree, where prisoners were once regularly tied to. He also has a treasure trove of historical artifacts from his father’s Gleeson store – Joe Bono’s Mercantile Store and Saloon, which sold supplies to the town’s copper mines and ranchers – he has donated to Gleeson’s jail museum.
Bono, who has come full circle to where he began his life, has become the keeper of a ghost town on a sparse stretch of land with a colorful past filled with cattle rustlers, bandits, miners and convicted felons who were hanged on that tree only yards from where he was born. Gleeson was one of many Arizona boomtowns in the early 1900’s, bustling and swarming with activity.
“In 1910 when my dad moved here, things were booming in Gleeson,” said Bono. “There were six copper mines going, there was a Chinese restaurant, a post office, a theater and ranching and farming was a very big deal then.”
Bono remembered stories from his dad and uncle that between 1920-1930, Gleeson boasted a population of 1,500, had a school and the two-cell jail that held 12 to 15 prisoners.
And like the mines, the jail seemed to be always busy and full.
“Oh, it was rowdy and wild back then,” said Bono, who lives in Tucson but spends a great deal of time in Gleeson maintaining the cemetery, outbuildings and giving tours of the area and museum. “There were cattle rustling, shootings, you name it, it happened in Gleeson.There were three hangings on that tree that I know of. It’s possible that there were others as well.” Now he thinks there’s probably about a couple of hundred people living in the Gleeson area, but since the road was paved a few years ago he said more people are moving in. “They want to leave city life for the country,” he said, “and this is as far away as you’re ever going to find. It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.”
But if you were a miner, or looking to strike a claim at the start of the 20th century like Pearce miner John Gleeson did in 1900, the Gleeson area was definitely your cup of tea. Gleeson found large deposits of copper, filed several claims and opened the Copper Belle Mine. Miners quickly flooded the area, and several other mines popped up.
But when copper prices fell, ore production decreased, mines shut down and most of the population moved out. When the post office closed in 1939 – five years before Bono was born – Gleeson became a ghost town.
But today, Gleeson – which is on what’s informally known as the “ghost town trail” – has its share of tourists. Bono said about 100-plus come through each month. And on Oct. 14, 65 former families who once lived in Gleeson are returning for a town reunion.
“There’s still a strong interest in early history, especially around ghost towns,” said Bono, who takes visitors on tours of the jail, its museum, walking tours and the backcountry on his Polaris ATV. “Plus I have the only porta-potty in the area. Now that’s saying something.” He also has schools coming for field trips.
“The kids love it, early history and being a ghost town really gets to them,” he said. “They especially love the old telegraph key, especially when I tell them it’s the first texting device.” Buying Gleeson’s notorious jail was both a highlight and a turning point for Bono. “I was cleaning my uncle’s gravesite in the cemetery, saw a for sale sign on the jail, and did a double-take,” he said. “I called the number on the sign and when I told the woman my name, she asked ‘was your dad Joe Bono?’ I told her we needed to talk.”
The ‘talk’ ended with Bono buying the Gleeson jail.
“I bet you never met anyone in your whole life who ever owned a jail,” he said. “Especially not one with a reputation like this one.”
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