Town of Duncan
Duncan Arizona — The Biggest Little Town in the Upper Gila Valley
Once upon a time in the not-so-old Southwest, before the interstate was laid down four lanes across, when rail travel was still the high life and The Old West Highway was the only choice for travelers on wheel or foot, the town of Duncan, Arizona, hosted the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Slim Whitman, Spade Cooley, Bob Wills and Luke Wills, as they passed through from Austin to Tucson, from Los Angeles to Memphis. They stopped in Duncan to play for a night at the little back highway spot called Apache Grove, fifteen miles out toward the big copper mine at Morenci, before moving on to the next city. The Apache Grove is still there out on Highway 75, though it’s been years since live music rocked its corrugated tin walls. Live acoustic music has a new place on the Gila River now: the Simpson Hotel in Duncan.
Dining in Duncan
Duncan is home to Ol’ Jo’s, an American-Mexican grill with great Old West ambience—a pleasant short walk from the Simpson along the Old West Highway. Ol’ Jo’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. On Mondays they open 4 pm to 9 pm for their weekly “Taco Night,” a social institution of the town, featuring karaoke or live music, and dancing outdoors. Beef tacos and margaritas are rolled out at 75 cents and a buck-fifty apiece on Taco Night.
Humble Pie on Main Street, across from the Simpson Hotel, offers top-notch pizza, pasta dishes and salads at very reasonable prices. Dinners only.
For lunch don't miss the Big Sky Cafe, operated out of a homey Airstream trailer behind T&J Grocery and Something Different Ceramics on Highway 70 just a block west of Main Street. Big Sky offers "ironed sandwiches" and other unusual, nutritious and tasty fare Tuesday through Saturday. If you like you can pick up an espresso drink at Something Different at the same time.
More Duncan History and Trivia
Duncan was a minor boom-town from its founding until the 1950s, when Interstate 10 diverted all but a trickle of daily traffic to its four-lane speedway to the south. Once home to at least 12 gas stations, according to local wags—you can try to find the relics of all those gas stations; we can’t—Duncan has only two gas stations these days, along with three restaurants, three bars and 17 churches.
With the expansion of the huge Phelps-Dodge copper mine operations to the west and northwest, Duncan is now moving toward an economic revival. The town has empowered a host of new committees to examine issues from entrepreneurship to engaging the town’s youth in its development to land conservancies or other means of protecting the area’s unblemished environment.
Duncan’s Pride Society got into motion well before news of the mine expansion hit, raising funds to reclaim and rebuild Duncan’s Old West charm. Pained by the loss of many fine old buildings to flood and modernization, the Pride Society set out to plant the flag of historic preservation throughout the town. They are responsible for an array of civic projects including “Spezia Square,” a charming place to rest and enjoy downtown Duncan, and the nearby park full of lighted picnic tables and green grass that sits about halfway between the square and Ol’ Jo’s.
At this writing, the Pride Society is mustering resources to open a historical museum, to do more historic building renovations, and to develop the “Sandra Day O’Connor Walkway” along a stretch of Highway 70 leading into town. Supreme Court Justice O’Connor grew up on the Lazy B Ranch, which to this day spans the New Mexico-Arizona border near Duncan.
Other Places Worth Noting
Competing with the charm of Spezia Square is Germaine’s Feeds, on the east end of town. Owners Quinten and Carole Germaine have built an enchanting business-cum-historical village, fronted by a large shop that is part pet and ranch animal supply, part country antiques and junk, and part Victorian styled soaps, greeting cards, and candles. In the lot behind the store, Quinten is in the midst of erecting an Old West village with uncompromising attention to authentic detail. There is an adobe hut built of bricks Quinten formed himself from local soil, with handhewn vegas supporting the roof just as vegas in the adobes of old have done. Don’t miss Germaine’s.