After our somewhat intimidating drive through the harsh terrain of the Black Mountains on historic Route 66, who would have expected that an escort would greet us as we approached the small quirky town of Oatman? Was he a member of the welcoming committee or was he just on a mission to get to town in time for a lunch of hay cubes? Most likely it was the chow he was after, no interest in us unless we had something to feed him. Regardless, it was neat seeing this “wild” creature walking up close and personal next to the car. Little did we know that this would be one of many burros that we would see that day! Here’s an interesting stat – the population of wild burros outnumbers the population of people in Oatman which as of 2016-17 was 135!
So why are there so many burros in Oatman? The following photo of a sign taken in town answers that question while giving a quick overview of the history of the town. Basically, the burros are descendants of those burros brought here by the miners in the 1800’s.
Originally the town was called Vivian until 1909 when it was renamed Oatman in honor of Olive Oatman, a young girl who had been captured by Apache Indians, then sold into slavery to the Mohave Indians. Eventually she was rescued near what is now Oatman. This article describes her ordeal in detail as well as providing pictures of the young woman.
Once gold was found in the area in 1915, there was a significant influx of people causing the population to soar, at one point reaching close to 10,000 people. But the prosperity was short lived as the town suffered a series of ups and downs. First, a fire destroyed most of the town in 1921, then the mines shut down in the 1940’s. So to survive, the townspeople had to shift their focus to catering to the needs of motorists travelling between Kingman, AZ and Needles, CA on Route 66. But even that didn’t last long, in the 1950’s, Route 66 was rerouted, bypassing the town. Without the motorists, businesses closed, buildings were abandoned and boarded up and the town was on the verge of becoming a ghost town.
But somehow the town didn’t fade away into oblivion, becoming a real ghost town like so many others along Route 66. As tourists began to flock to the nearby casinos in Laughlin, NV and the popularity of Route 66 gained nostalgic momentum, the town was able to reinvent itself. With such a small population it is amazing that they handle over 500,000 visitors each year! What once was almost a ghost town is now a flourishing tourist destination and considered a “living ghost town”.
Between dodging pedestrians, vehicles, motorcycles and of course, the burros which almost seemed to enjoy causing gridlock traffic jams as they meandered in the middle of Main Street, it took us some time to find a parking space in one of the few dirt (and very bumpy) parking lots. Parking on the street is allowed but it is very limited so if you visit, best to arrive early and avoid weekends if possible when there could be a classic car rally happening. Other events are scheduled throughout the year. The Oatman Egg Fry contest occurs on Independence Day when the temperatures can soar over 100 degrees. During this event, participants attempt to cook an egg on the sidewalk with the aid of solar devices (mirrors, solar panels, aluminum foil, etc.). Be aware that if you want to be a contestant you might fry right along with the egg!
But wait there’s more….how about the crappy tradition of the International Burro Biscuit Toss held on Labor Day. Now you probably have visions of biscuits made with flour and water, correct? Wrong! Erase that image from your mind! In this contest, participants collect burro
droppings poop from the desert (apparently the poop in the desert holds together better than the poop found on Main Street – who knew!). Once the “biscuits” are painted gold, contestants are given three chances to toss them down the street, throwing them as far as they can. Whoever throws it the furthest is the winner and is rewarded with cash, merchandise and a fresh bar of soap (thank goodness)! It’s free to participate so be sure to sign up!
We actually came here twice, the first time on a Saturday (no events but just crowded in general) and then again on a Monday. The reason for the second trip was because the dashcam video of our first trip was accidentally overwritten so we wanted to re-record our excursion. Plus we thought that walking around town would be more enjoyable without the crowds. It definitely was. Arriving early in the day on Monday, we had much less of a problem finding a parking spot than we did on our first visit on a Saturday.
The town not only looks like a set from a Hollywood Western movie but it really once was. Over the years, Oatman has been one of the locations for How the West Was Won (1962), Edge of Eternity (1959), Universal Soldier (1992) and Foxfire (1996) as well as commercials and historical documentaries.
Wooden sidewalks border each side of Main Street edged with rough and tumble looking old buildings made of corrugated tin and wood planks, all contributing to the rustic old Western charm of this tiny town. Lined with kitschy gift shops with cutesy names like Jackass Junction, Bucktooth Burro, Fast Fanny’s Place, The Gold Rush Candy Shoppe, the Oatman General Store and The Classy Ass (offering anything burro related), the usual T-shirts, trinkets, hand made leather goods, hand made Native American jewelry, paintings, souvenirs, beef jerky and other food items. To be honest, the town seems like a giant Western flea market. Even a storefront bearing the title of the Oatman Undertaker sells quite an assortment of “stuff” (nothing dead I hope).
Hungry? Plenty of places offer snacks but eating options are somewhat limited with only choices (at least that we could find) being the Olive Oatman Restaurant & Bar and the restaurant at the Oatman Hotel. We ate at the hotel which offers bison burgers and other sandwiches, chili, and burro ears (hand made chips). The food was decent and the service was good. We didn’t visit Judy’s Saloon but I believe it offers cooling adult beverages and a pool table.
As we began our stroll down the street, panhandling burros were everywhere (as was their poop so we had better watch our step) and quickly approached us, looking for a handout, so naturally to accommodate them we stopped at a covered wagon (yes, that’s right, a covered wagon) to buy two bags of hay cubes, $1.00 each. Wow, lots of cubes in each bag, guess one would have sufficed for the two of us!
Visitors not only feed the burros hay cubes but also carrots which aren’t good for them as they have too much sugar. And sometimes tourists even try to feed them ice cream. Really??? What are they thinking?
Since then I have found articles about how overweight these burros (aka fat asses) have become, so the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has threatened to relocate these beasts of burden which would really hurt the tourism here. The town has made an effort by putting signs on the babies that say “Stop! Do Not Feed Me Anything”. Unfortunately the babies can’t read (and it seems some of the tourists can’t either) because they (the babies, not the tourists) were gobbling up cubes that had fallen to the ground.
Despite the fact that these creatures seemed tame, signs were everywhere warning that these were wild animals that can kick, bite and for those of you with dogs, be careful because they especially don’t like dogs. Yours truly almost learned the kick lesson the hard way, although it wasn’t because of anything I did wrong. A male burro had designs on one of the females but she had absolutely no interest in him, refusing his advances by walking away from him. Not realizing the situation, with my back to the female, I had stopped to give a hay cube to the male. Whether the female wanted him to go away or was protecting her nearby baby, she suddenly decided to kick the male with her hind leg. Fortunately I only felt the whoosh of the hoof and leg as it whizzed by me. Hee haw! So glad she missed me. That certainly would have hurt! Plus a black and blue tattoo of a donkey’s hoof wasn’t on my list of desired body art!
One of the oldest buildings in town is the haunted Oatman Hotel (originally named the Drulin Hotel), built in 1902. Registered with the National Historical Society, it is the oldest two-story adobe structure in Mojave County and has housed many miners, movie stars, politicians and other scoundrels. Originally named the Drulin Hotel, the eight-room hotel was a popular favorite of the local miners.
According to the hotel, Clark Gable and Carol Lombard honeymooned here on March 18, 1939 after being married in Kingman, AZ. Although other reports had them just passing through Oatman on their way back to Los Angeles. The hotel also claims that Gable liked it so much there, he returned often to play poker with the local miners and to enjoy the solitude of the desert.
It is reputed that the hotel is not only haunted with the laughter of Gable and Lombard but also by “Oatie”, a friendly poltergeist of William Ray Flour, an Irish miner who drank himself to death in 1930, after getting the news that his wife and children had died en route to live with him.
Rooms were once located upstairs but they have been converted into a museum which houses memorabilia from the early mining days and other antiques. The room where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard supposedly spent their honeymoon is also on display. Not very lavish or what accommodation you would expect for famous movie stars!
In what probably once was the lobby of the hotel, there is a counter where visitors can cool off with an ice cream, beverages and even buy Honeyman’s Honey. Did you know that bees have 5 eyes, 7000 lenses and in their short lifespan of 20-30 days they each only produce 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey? That’s what I learned from a sign next to the honey display.But what was really neat was walking into the Dollar Bill Bar and Restaurant – all the walls and ceilings were decorated with dollar bills, a practice started by miners and still in place today. The miners would date and sign a dollar bill, then hang it on the walls and ceiling so if later, they were short of cash, they would search for their dollar bill on the wall and use it to pay for their drinks. While eating our lunch (sorry neglected to take any photos of the menu or food) on our second Monday visit to Oatman, we wondered how many thousands of dollars were hanging there. From research that I did, it is estimated that there’s approximately $100,000 hanging on those walls! Yikes, that would pay for a lot of beer! While we were there, a country western singer was performing.
A staged gunfight takes place every day at high noon and 2:15 p.m.in the street in front of the hotel. It was really corny but still entertaining nonetheless. It is free but they do pass a hat at the end of the performance. And be aware that if you plan on visiting Oatman, arrive well before the start of the gunfight because once the performance starts, the traffic grinds to a standstill until the performance is over (perhaps about 15 minutes). If you want to watch it – here’s the link to a video done by another visitor on YouTube.
At the end of the main drag is the Oatman Post Office. Even that building looks old but I’m not sure if it actually is or not – there was no information about it anywhere so perhaps it is a modern post office just made to look old. Any mail processed through Oatman gets a special cancellation mark seen in the second photo below.
There is also a Mining Museum which has free admission. Good thing there was no charge because our five minute walk through the mine was a little disappointing. Too dark inside to take any photos and I guess it couldn’t have been very memorable because neither one of us can remember what was inside the so called mine.
Because burros have few predators, the hardy little animals continue to multiply in the Arizona desert. They are protected by the BLM and Department of Agriculture but they need to be controlled. So if it is love at first sight between you and one of the burros in Oatman, be aware that you can adopt one, as in actually take one home, if you have the appropriate dwelling to care for them.
Some people might describe Oatman as being very touristy, a little hokey, kitschy and somewhat tacky and yes, I guess it is all that. But your can’t overlook its rich mining history, its rustic Wild West charm, its mooching burros and best of all, its free, all of which makes it a charming, interesting, fun and entertaining day trip destination. And the scenery during the white knuckle drive along historic Route 66 to the north between Oatman and Kingman certainly is spectacular. No matter what adjectives are used to describe this town, if you are ever in the area, it’s one “living ghost town” you really don’t want to miss!