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The Town of Duncan

The biggest little town in the fertile Upper Gila Valley, and the last stop before the New Mexico border on the Old West Highway, Duncan goes about its business much as it did in the first years of the 20th century, blending Mexican, Latter Day Saints, Arkansas pioneer and other cultures. The beautiful Gila River winds through it, with windswept, walkable levees overlooking its course, guarded on all sides by mountains laden with secret back roads, waterfalls, abandoned mines and exotic wildlife. Duncan is free of the hustle and bustle of city life, a place where the traffic is light, the air is fresh, the sky is big, and people welcome visitors with warm interest.

Ten Reasons to Visit Duncan

1) Really get away from it all. Be the first to tell your friends about this delightful town of 800 surrounded by stunningly beautiful country. Duncan is still “undiscovered.”

2) Would you enjoy a stroll along the Gila River at sunset? Every winter, for four months, you can watch Sandhill Cranes making their noisy flight downstream for the night. (Their evening destination is still a mystery to us.) Golden Eagles are frequently seen; Bald Eagles on rare occasion. Overall we have 305 avian species documented. See the Facebook page for "Gila River Birding and Wildlife Trail in Duncan."

3) Are you in the mood for a scenic ride by car or bicycle to lush farmlands, historic mining sites, river vistas, rock-hounding treasuries? How about a day hike in one of the remarkably beautiful canyons here, with a picnic that we pack for you?

4) Don't miss Country Chic, where local crafters and artists display their work Monday through Saturday. It’s also the Duncan Visitor Center and well worth a sit-down visit.

5) The legendary Western artist and cartoonist Hal Empie served as Duncan's pharmacist in the mid-20th century. Of the hundreds of works of art he created in that time, perhaps the most impressive is his 6'x30' stretched-canvass mural "Greenlee," which hangs permanently in the Duncan High School cafeteria overlooking the school's playing fields. In 2014, the mural -- thought to be the largest work of its kind in the West -- underwent a painstaking conservation by expert fine arts conservator Sharlette Burton. Now its colors are as pure as they were when Empie mixed them in 1954. The artist used many local people as models for the historical figures in the time-sweeping piece; even his daughter Ann, now owner of The Hal Empie Gallery in Tubac, appears in it as a young child. The Duncan High School Cafeteria is open to visitors during school hours. Viewings of the mural at other times can be arranged by calling Doug Barlow at 928-215-1641.

6) Rock-a-Buy Rocks & Gifts, on Highway 70, features both local and exotic rock specimens, and a whimsical collection of crocheted items. Owner Doug Barlow can arrange guided rock-hounding trips in the area too.

7) For those who imbibe, there are old-style taverns full of friendly folks. (But if you're a wine aficionado, we recommend that you BYO.)

8) Germaine's Emporium is a meandering warren of rooms and out-buildings teeming with things old and new. You can also pick up your pet and livestock care supplies here, or peruse Quinton's gun room.

9) Really good haircuts can be had for only $10/women and $8 men at Sunny's Hair. Sunny does coloring and perms too. Treat the whole family without hurting your pocketbook. Please note: Sunny's is temporarily closed as she helps care for a new grandchild. But she'll be back and we'll post it here.

10) Great atmosphere, an eccentric, eclectic collection of original art, good beds and superb breakfasts at The Simpson (international cuisine and cookin’), along with a library with lots of local history, and no TV. Book the Sweetheart Room and take a relaxing soak in our extra-long clawfoot tub. We provide scented bath salts along with our Udder Delight goat milk soap.

Dining

Duncan is home to four fine eating establishments. Three of them are on the Old West Highway, and feature American and Mexican grill menus. The fourth is a high-quality pizza place. All are just a short walk from the Simpson.

Easternmost, on the highway, is The Ranch House, an excellent grill with a freshly renovated dining room filled with original paintings and other art. The Ranch House is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. It's known for its steaks and burgers and ribs, homemade french fries, seafood options, salad bar and more. It's the only eatery in town with a bar. On Monday evenings The Ranch House hosts “Taco Night,” a social institution of the town for the last couple of decades. There are other specials Tuesday through Thursday nights. 928-359-2643.

Hilda's Kitchen serves its fare in a spacious, brightly-colored restaurant adjacent to their market. You can pick up good Mexican chocolate and other groceries while you’re there. We think their mahi-mahi tacos with fresh cabbage are top-notch. Hilda's is open Monday through Saturday 7 am to 8 pm, and Sunday 7 am to 4 pm. 928-359-1771.

Wanda's Kitchen, at the west end of town, has a lovely view of the Gila River Valley, and sometimes of wildlife in the air or in the pastures across the highway. The food is excellent. People rave about Wanda's taquitos. Hours are 11 am to 7 pm Tuesday through Saturday. 928-359-4479.

Humble Pie on Main Street, across from the Simpson Hotel, offers pizza, calzones, lasagna and salads at very reasonable prices. There are regular customers who drive 90 miles from Silver City because the food is really that good. We recommend their smoky-flavored sliced sausage added to a “vegetarian.” The lasagna is superb too, and a single serving is enough for two light eaters. Dinners only. 928-359-9866. See Arizona Highways' feature on Humble Pie in their April 2017 issue.

See an Arizona Highways feature on Humble Pie from the April 2017 issue.

Duncan's Origins

Sheriff of Duncan

Dorothea Lange, Portraits (1935-1939) Arizona small town sheriff, Duncan, Arizona

Lying five miles from the New Mexico border, in the deep southeastern corner of Greenlee County, Duncan seems a world away from the wild mountains surrounding it. Almost every level acre is under cultivation, thickets of cottonwood trees shelter old farmhouses and ranches, and cattle and horses seem to outnumber people.

Duncan belongs to the Gila, the storied river of the west, the ageless natural highway whose passage through the mountain and desert southwest has served humankind since prehistoric times. Cliff dwellers, conquistadors, Apache warriors, mountain men, westering immigrants—each in their time has traveled its banks. In the mid-19th century, the Arizona communities along the Gila grew up around stage and freight stations and military posts that began to bloom in the valley as settlers arrived and battled hostile natives. The site of contemporary Duncan had its origin sometime in the 1870s. Called Purdy in the Post Office register of 1883, it was founded by Messrs. Purdy and Bachelor as a way station on an ore haulage line that linked the railhead in Clifton with Silver City, New Mexico. At that time, the town was located on the north bank of the Gila.

In 1881 and 1882, when the Arizona Copper Company was formed at Clifton-Morenci, an influx of Scottish capital financed the building of a narrow-gauge railway from Clifton to Lordsburg, New Mexico, to meet the Southern Pacific line. To accommodate the new "Arizona and New Mexico Railroad," the people of Purdy moved their settlement to the south bank of the river and renamed it Duncan, after Duncan Smith, the managing director of the Arizona Copper Company.

With the rail, settlement of the fertile, easily irrigated valley boomed. Soon Duncan was shipping far beyond the Southwest, to markets north and east. It prospered right into the 1960’s, when the new Interstate 10 to the south diverted commercial traffic, contributing to a rising trucking industry. Duncan receded then into a quiet farming and ranching town for several decades, and its downtown slowly disintegrated.

Duncan Pride Society

In 2001, the founders of the Duncan Pride Society had a vision of working with town government, community leaders and area residents to preserve and enhance Duncan’s overall image and historic value. They began by attacking decrepit downtown buildings with hammer and saw and paint, rounding up some of the best talent in town along with whatever interesting old planks, doors, windows, filigree and hardware they could lay hands on. The façade of the old movie theater, destroyed by the flood of 1983, came alive, even though if you looked carefully you'd see trees growing out from the rubble of its collapsed roof. The face of a long-abandoned corner gas station was remade into the "Bart Tipton Saloon." Most impressive was the transformation of a dreary old printing plant and adjacent vacant lots into "Spezia Square," with a beautifully and whimsically restored building, a gazebo and an outdoor “opera” stage. Three Sisters Bakery now occupies the building.

With the Town of Duncan, the Pride Society raised funds to place historic street lamps throughout the downtown area. Two or three times a year you'll see the Pride folks out in the parks and along the railroad tracks, dressed in bright orange vests, picking up trash. In between, they stage the annual "Rampage" and make floats for the 4th of July or Christmas parade. In recent years they have created the Sandra Day O'Connor Walkway along Highway 70 as you drive in from the west, honoring the little girl from Duncan who grew up to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. And with a grant from Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc., the Pride Society disbursed mini-grants to business owners all across town to paint their façades, replace front windows, hang new signs and otherwise brighten up the business district.