The Tales of One CityTom Pitts is into stories, particularly those with a historical twist. That's why he's working to preserve Jerome, one tale at a time.
By Kendall Wright
Jerome Every small town has its characters, and often, those characters embody the quirkiness of the town. For Jerome, a 400-person hamlet that less than a century ago was home to copper mines that generated billions of dollars and attracted Wild West personalities in droves, the past has a huge impact on the present.
Perhaps no one embodies that more than Tom Pitts, the owner of Belgian Jennie's Bordello Bistro & Pizzeria, and one of Jerome's most outspoken characters. A longtime radio personality and entrepreneur, Pitts, 67, has come to fill many roles in the town — most notably as storyteller extraordinaire. His favorite topic? Belgian Jennie, one of Jerome's wildest figures and his restaurant's namesake.
"Our small town has attitude, that's for sure," Pitts says. "We pride ourselves on attracting self-made people and respecting the individual, just like the old days. Those were the kinds of people that first made the town what it is, and I'm hoping my stories can help preserve that history."
Although he's only lived in Jerome for about three years, Pitts has been in and out of the area for the past five decades — enough time to see some of Arizona's wonderful history disappear before his eyes.
"For a long time people seemed to not care about old buildings or the stories," Pitts says. "I'm so pleased that lately there seems to be a new energy to work together and preserve our history."
A similar energy and passion have motivated Pitts to work extensively with the Jerome Historical Society to get its mining museum in top shape. While doing research, Pitts came across information concerning one of his most famous story subjects, Jennie Bauters, a wealthy, well-educated, trilingual immigrant more popularly known as Belgian Jennie, the town's most powerful madam.
"Jennie came here when Arizona was one of the only places women were allowed to vote," Pitts says. "She was the one who put in the first concrete sidewalks and was paying for the construction of two-story buildings when other guys were still living in tents. She was smart, and used that intelligence to make something for herself and her son."
Pitts admits that his interest in Jennie's story stems from the fact that despite her place in history, he's become a kindred spirit of the Wild West heroine.
"She was definitely an independent and entrepreneurial individual, with an energy I've tried to reflect in my own life," he says. "Age is a state of mind. The learning process I've experienced in my research has been amazing, but more importantly, sharing what I learn is what's keeping me young."