You never know what you might find in the desert at the end of a dusty, washboard, unpaved road 10 miles off the main highway.
In Southwest Arizona, about 40 miles east of Yuma and 60 miles south of Quartzsite, we were exploring the huge Kofa National Wildlife Refuge hoping to see some of the famous big horn sheep that hang out in and around the mountains here.
We never did find the sheep. Instead, we found what may be the oldest original Levi jeans in the world.
Huh?, you ask. Let us explain.
As we were looking for a boondocking spot for the night following the main dirt road through the refuge, we saw a turnoff with a dead end sign. Since we could see some buildings down that road, we pushed on, only to find the Castle Dome Mining Museum, a fabulous display of more than 50 original and restored buildings salvaged by Allen Armstrong, who bought up a large track of desert comprising the ghost town of Castle Dome City, which once was home for upwards of 3,000 people.
When silver mining ended in the area in the 1970’s, Castle Dome City was abandoned, becoming another desert ghost town. We’ll have a video on our RV Lifestyle YouTube channel in a couple weeks, that shows the restored buildings and the museum that Armstrong built, filled with original equipment and artifacts recovered from his exploration of the 300 abandoned mines in the area.
And that takes us to the story of the jeans and a man named Frank Schlichting, who roams North America exploring abandoned mines which he documents on a very popular YouTube channel.
Invited by Armstrong to explore one of the abandoned silver mines he owns, Schlichting rappelled down a rope more than a hundred feet in a mine shaft. He and a friend were poking around down there the other day when, half buried in dust, they found several pair of old Levis that date from the late 1890’s. Protected from humidity in the dry, desert conditions of the mine, the jeans were in remarkably good condition.
Armstrong and Schlichting say they may be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. They talked about the original Levis having just one back pocket, donut buttons for the fly, no belt loops (the originals were held up by suspenders) and a length of rear tie fabric to help cinch them around the waist. The ones hauled out of the mine matched those features precisely.
The spots on the jeans are from candle wax. In the dark of the mines, the miners in the 1890’s used candles for illumination. Schlichting has a video showing the actual discovery of the jeans already up on his channel https://youtu.be/WI6ApUvuToM_
The two say they have reached out to Levis and other collectors and are told that those jeans may be worth a fortune.
“We think they are the oldest surviving original Levis in the world,” said Armstrong.
Besides Levis, they also found three pair of original Stronghold jeans, also dating back to the late 1890’s. Stronghold started in 1895 as a rival to Levis and the two suspect they also may be worth a great deal of money. Trendy replicas of the original Strongholds are selling for as much as $200 a pair today. The ones found in the Castle Dome museum are originals.
Jennifer and I had an amazing time touring the museum and the abandoned mine with Armstrong. It was another one of those serendipity stories we ran across as we were actually headed for somewhere else when seeing the sign for the wildlife refuge and then the sign for the museum at the end of a dead end road, we figured… why not?
Now… let’s see if we can find those big horn sheep.