A Braying Good Time in Oatman

Oatman prides itself on maintaining a Wild West feel, down to the wooden sidewalks, staged shootouts, and kitschy shops. (You can even adopt a wild burro and take it home!)

You’ve got to see Oatman to believe it. This tiny town is in a rugged area carved out of the wilderness by determined miners and now populated by more wild burros than people.

On the road to Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They know how to have fun in Oatman where good-humored shops line the street and the furriest residents—small donkeys descended from miners’ beasts of burden—contribute to the annual fall Burro Biskit Toss.

Burros on the road to Oatman

More than 500,000 visitors are drawn annually to Oatman’s gold mine history as well as the legend of its namesake. Olive Oatman is entrenched in western lore as a woman who was kidnapped by an Indian tribe then sold to a friendly local tribe before being freed to her family near what became Oatman.

On Route 66 between Kingman and Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town of Oatman is 28 miles southwest of Kingman along old Route 66. This town in the Black Mountains of Mohave County was founded back in 1915. Two miners discovered gold in the nearby hills and put the place on the map. By 1915 these two miners pulled out over $10 million worth of gold in a short time. That would be about a quarter of a billion dollars in today’s dollars. Oatman grew to nearly four thousand people within the year.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the town has a very sad tale that accounts for its name. Pioneers from the east looking for a new life came west in search of a better life. One such pioneering family was the Oatmans from Illinois. Royce and Mary Ann Oatman had seven children and one on the way as Mary Ann was pregnant. As their wagon train made its way toward Maricopa Wells along the Southern Emigrant Trail, it was approached by Yavapai Indians. Royce Oatman was prepared to give some supplies but when he refused to give the Yavapai more of their already limited supplies, the family was massacred.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Only their son, Lorenzo, and two daughters, Olive and Mary Ann, survived. Believing the boy to be dead, the Yavapai stole the Oatman’s possessions as well as the two girls as slaves. Mary Ann later died in captivity but Olive survived and was reunited with her brother in 1856 at Fort Yuma. In honor of the family that lost their dream for a better life, the village of Oatman was named for them

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area surrounding present-day Oatman was mined for decades before the two miners showed up in 1915. Back in 1863, Johnny Moss discovered gold in the Black Mountains and staked a couple claims. One, he named after himself—a very thoughtful choice—and the other in memory of Olive Oatman.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As with most small mining communities, this area had its ups and downs, depending on the prices for minerals and the cost of getting them to market. But in 1915, that large deposit of gold was discovered and Oatman was on the map as the largest producer of gold in the American West.

By the 1960s, the boom had gone bust and Oatman was nearly deserted. So what to do with an old mining camp? Why not make it a tourist attraction?

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to visitarizona.com, more than 500,000 visitors are drawn annually to Oatman’s gold mine history as well as the legend of its namesake. For a village, that’s a lot of people walking up and down the streets. Actually, when visiting most people walk along wooden sidewalks—just like they did way back when.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But when the burros come visiting most anything goes. The burros that live in the nearby hills are a major calling card for Oatman. They are everywhere—and I mean everywhere. The early miners used burros to carry their belongings as they went from one gold strike to hopefully, the next. Being a miner was a lonely business. Often, when a miner died alone, the burro simply wandered off. Over time, the burros thrived in the hills near Oatman. The burros strut along the streets, brush up against vehicles, and bray at anyone who will listen.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman is such a tourist destination that back in 1939 Clark Gable and Carole Lombard allegedly honeymooned at the 1902 two-story adobe Oatman Hotel after marrying in nearby Kingman. It is no longer an actual hotel but tourists can eat at the first-floor restaurant or have a drink at the bar before visiting the museum on the second floor where the lovebirds spent their wedding night. Some say the lovebirds’ spirits as well as other former lodgers still vacation there. The hotel is the oldest two-story adobe building in Mohave County.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman has been used as a backdrop in numerous films, too. There’s “How the West was Won” (1962), “Roadhouse 66” (1984) and “Killer Holiday” (2013).

There are numerous shops along the main street and some of the activities offered during the year include the Great Oatman Bed Race in January, the sidewalk egg frying contest on July 4, and the Christmas Bush Decorating held in December.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We stayed a few hours, wandering here and there. We patted the burros and made sure that each store saw our feet. We crawled into a pub or two, as well. One does get thirsty wandering a village.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman is surrounded by Bureau of Land Management wilderness which is also home to desert bighorn sheep. Outdoor activities include hiking, camping, hunting, photography, and rock climbing.

When in this part of Arizona (it really isn’t that far), take some time and visit Oatman. You’ll have a braying good time.

Worth Pondering…

So many ghosts upon the road,
My eyes I swear are playing tricks;
And a voice I hear, it’s Tom Joad,
Near Oatman on Route 66.

—Dave MacLennan