Gilbert Quiroga points to the entrance of the nearly buried cave that was once the Patagonia town jail. Photo by Binx Selby

First, you find out something that most people in Patagonia don’t know about—there was once a jail in a cave right in town. What?! Next, you put on your hiking shoes to see if we can still find it, if it hasn’t been completely overgrown. 

This is the kind of story and mission you find yourself experiencing with Gilbert Quiroga, the 77-year-old “I Never Left Patagonia” exuberant man-about-town. 

“The jail cave had two doors of iron bars, one a rotating stile, and stakes in the wall to chain prisoners,” he remembers. “This jail, unlike ones that followed, was for real criminals. The sheriffs did not transfer them to Nogales because it was not so easy to do so then.” 

The cave was already abandoned when Gilbert was a toddler, but his mother told him about it. That’s because there was a time when she would take food there. . .to his father. His father often had more than twenty mouths to feed because there were fifteen kids in the family and Gilbert’s mother often took in eight or so more from extended family. So, his father’s solution one day was to relieve a ranch of a cow. “Rustling one cow at a time was common back then, before the mine opened,” said Gilbert.

The no-longer-used jail stayed visible in little Gilbert’s world: “No speaking Spanish was allowed on school grounds, so when I was around seven to eight years old, we would leave and jump the fence to go down into the canyon to smoke and speak Spanish. We could look over and see the old cave jail. 

“I don’t know if we could find the cave now,” he said. So we, of course, headed out to search for it, back in a canyon between the old Elementary School and the road up to the Mesa. “There it is!” Gilbert exclaimed as he pointed to some trees and bushes. As we climbed up closer, we could see that erosion from the cliff over the last seven decades has brought the ground level up to where it covered all but two or so feet of the top of the cave entrance. Lying flat on the dirt in front of it was a set of rusted bars.

The next Patagonia town jail was set up on Smelter Avenue, at the back of what is now the Purple Elephant. Bars for the cells were covered by a screen to keep out flies and there was a hole in the screen for passing through food. Or money and bottles.

This is where Gilbert learned ‘creativity.’ 

“There was a guy always in jail because he was drunk,” he recounted. “One guy, Taco, would call us over and give us money to buy wine, Tokay, the cheapest wine. How could we buy liquor? Too young! But grape soda looked just like wine! We could make money! We’d run to the store and get a big grape soda for 20 cents and keep the balance of the two dollars from Taco.

“Then we could go to Chino Tom’s, where Red Mountain now is. Chino Tom had a few groceries and stuff, even fireworks, but to me it was a candy store. He had blacksmith gum, black licorice, jaw breakers. With our money, we could buy jawbreakers for two days.

“‘Where’d you get the money to buy candy?’ my mother would ask. She knew how to whip, although she never whipped me, being the youngest. Still, I didn’t tell her it was my money.”

The success of this juvenile scam started going beyond the jail. “We did it to any damn drunk in Patagonia. They’d be passed out around town. ‘Go get me a bottle of wine,’ they’d holler. ‘Give me the money,’ we’d reply. We’d watch them drink the grape soda, and we would get scared, but we didn’t care,” he laughed.

In recounting these escapades involving Chino Tom, the railroad coolie-turned -candyman who ended up dying in Patagonia, Gilbert recalled the other Chinese living in the area. 

“There was another group of Chinese railroad workers who settled on the highway, just east of the shrine. You can still see the old ruins of their store for the stagecoaches,” he said. “We weren’t racist. We bonded together over hard manual work. Chinese did all the hard work picking rocks, the Mexicans picked vegetables.”

Gilbert reminisced about his early years. “I did some cotton picking myself, but I got smart,” he said. “There were big trailers and at night I’d go and fill my bags out of them. ‘How did you get so much?’ I was asked. ‘I got here early,’ was my reply.

“I was no good,” he said. “We opened stockyards to let cattle out and released levers off trains. Did a lot of things I shouldn’t have. That’s why I’m a good Christian now. From the age of one, I had no father. My brothers and sisters told me what to do so I didn’t want to do that—I would rebel.”

Fortunately for Patagonia, the one-time “Little Rascal” changed his ways to eventually become Mayor, and for this past Fourth of July parade, the “Citizen of the Year.” Just don’t offer him grape soda.