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Cleator: An Arizona Ghost Town With A Watering Hole

Cleator bar
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
The Cleator Bar and Yacht Club is only 70 miles from Phoenix, but feels like another universe. Located in the ghost town of Cleator, it offers beer in cans - and a cowboy vibe - seven days a week.

Arizona is full of ghost towns. Spots that were once kept alive by mining or the railroad, that have pretty much blown away in the desert wind. But a few of these hidden, historic communities have survived – including one not far from Phoenix, that’s still got a good place to get a drink.

It’s called Cleator, and if you’ve never heard about it, don’t feel bad. This collection of old, ramshackle buildings is only a 70-mile drive from Phoenix. But it’s tucked so far into the desert, you have to be looking hard to find it – which, apparently, many thirsty people are.

Folks like Bill MacMaster end up at the Cleator Bar and Yacht Club every day of the week.

“Cleator is the halfway point between civilization and paradise,” he said, sipping a beer.

Out back, the bar is all nautical-themed, complete with old boats, buoys and jet skis. But inside, it’s is Old West through and through, with a creaking wooden floor and walls so heavy with cowboy memorabilia, it’s hard to know where to look. This afternoon, a few fat, friendly dogs were wandering in and out.

On the front porch, Larry Wilson took a drag from his cigarette.

“You get a cross mix of people here you ain’t going to believe,” he said. “You get cowboys, old hippies, bikers.”

It’s hard to tell which one Wilson would call himself. He’s wearing a jean jacket and a Navy veteran hat, and has an old-world way about him. He lives in nearby Spring Valley, and has only been coming here a few years, since his sister began tending bar. But the area brings back memories of his childhood, when his family would drive from their home in Sunny Slope to explore these mountains in their ’54 Chevy station wagon.

Wilson says places like Cleator – and there aren’t many – are important.

“’Cause we’ve lost touch of our past,” he said. “And I forget what year this was made, but it’s been here forever.”

The community, a dot in the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains, began in the late 1800s as Turkey Creek. It later became Cleator, after the man who bought the whole town named it after itself. Mining camps used to be nearby, and railroad tracks once ran through town. But now, with a population that hovers around 11, Cleator doesn’t have much to draw people, except for a homey country store - and the bar, of course.

That’s what brought Harmony Lofland here. She remembers a day a few years ago when one of the bartenders had a bit too much to drink.

“I was like, ‘I’ll bartend for you sure. Go sleep on the couch. No problem!’” she said, giggling. “And then I just kind of got a little job here in the community, and I got to meet all the ranchers, and became good friends with them. So they liked me, and kept me here.”

At 26, Lofland became the longest resident of Cleator by far, when she moved her RV not far from the bar. She lived there for two years off the grid, without water or electricity. She now lives a few miles up the mountain, but still works at the bar and still feels completely embraced by the locals.

Here, they take care of each other, she said.

“If you’re out of firewood, iff you’re out of propane, if you need cash, like we will find a way,” she said.

But this sense of community isn’t just for residents. Mike Pittman has been coming to Cleator for 40 years. Sporting dark shades and a ZZ Top beard, he said this tiny bar – and this tiny town – is here for everyone.

“We will make you feel welcome here,” he said. “I don’t care what you are. I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, if you to stop and have a beer, you will fit in.”

As long as you can like your beer in cans – the only way you can get it in Cleator.

Stina Sieg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2018.