Historic Prescott, AZ: Home to Virgil Earp, Whiskey Row & World's Oldest Rodeo
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
Roundtree's and Dickson's saloons were crowded with customers, and we will not say how much whiskey was disposed of--it might surprise our temperate friends in Tucson and La Paz. Nobody was hurt, but the boys waxed very merry, and some of them very tipsy, and there was no little promiscuous firing of revolvers... --Prescott Arizona Miner Newspaper, July 6, 1864
I am blessed to reside in Prescott, Arizona, twice the capital of Arizona in Territorial Days. Founded in 1864, the town of Prescott quickly became a popular destination for many and remains so today.
When people think of the Old West, Tombstone, Arizona, famously comes to mind, and rightfully so. The legend of the Earp brothers certainly made it the historical landmark it is today. Founded by a mining prospector who discovered silver in 1877, it quickly turned into a rough and tumble sort of place and proved to be one of the last boom towns on the Western Frontier.
Bird Cage Theatre, Circa 1937, Tombstone, Arizona--Courtesy Library of Congress
Sadly, there isn't much left of Tombstone today--save the tourist traps. But even the tourist traps are far from what they used to be decades ago in the 1960s and 1970s. I visited there about a decade ago, only to be disappointed and disheartened at how much it really had changed and not for the better--shops had closed, many were up for sale, and the Bird Cage Theatre, now a museum, no longer had the shows (featuring shootouts and costumed dance hall girls) that I fondly remembered years ago. Now, let's contrast Tombstone with the vibrant, lively, bustling, small town of Prescott, and you'll find a town that is every bit as historically rich as Tombstone (arguably more so), Earp brothers and all.
So if you love history (and even if you don't), mild climate, and turquoise blue skies, there is no better place to live or retire.
Boasting the World's Oldest Rodeo (since 1888) and home to the famous lawman, Virgil Earp, Prescott's history is chock-full of true and exciting stories. Tales of famous gunslingers, gamblers, outlaws, saloons, gunfights, stage robberies, massacres, cowboys, Indians, and pretty much anything the imagination can conjure that is the Wild Wild West, happened in Prescott, Arizona.
(Note:All of the photographs posted below are from The Shady Victorian's archive collection of negatives by Prescott Pioneer Photographer, Thomas H. Bate, Jr., [Bate Photo Craft Shop] born Oct. 16 1880. Bate married Florence Mae Marks in Prescott on February 25, 1901, and together they had three boys Thomas Henry, Jr., William, and Claude.)
Photo of 1936 Prescott Frontier Days--©2020 The Shady Victorian
Photo of Performer Prescott Frontier Days--©2020 The Shady Victorian
Photo of 1936 Prescott Frontier Days Parade--©2020 The Shady Victorian
Indelible personalities like Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers were once patrons of The Palace Saloon. In fact, Doc Holliday's paramour and alleged prostitute and dance hall girl, Big Nose Kate, is buried in the Pioneer's Home Cemetery in Prescott.
Photo of a Rugged & Handsome Virgil Earp at 19 years, courtesy Ancestry.com.
Virgil Earp first arrived in Prescott in 1877. He was accompanied by Doc Holliday and his brothers, Wyatt and Morgan. After his days in Tombstone, Virgil returned to Prescott. On January 1, 1898, at the age of 55, he established a homestead on 160 acres in Kirkland, Arizona, near Prescott, where he was engaged in the cattle business. Virgil Earp's Homestead Proof -- Testimony of Claimant document is an interesting read. Note the humble size of his adobe home, where he lived with his third wife, Alvira "Allie" Earp.
Virgil also worked a mining claim in the Hassayampa District where in 1896, he was seriously injured in the collapse of a tunnel. Resulting injuries were: a dislocated right hip, both feet and ankles badly crushed, a serious cut to his head and overall a badly bruised body. After having served three years in the Civil War (Co. C. 83rd Ill Inf.) and being nearly murdered in Tombstone and recovering from those injuries, it's hard to imagine how in the world Virgil survived the mining accident to go on to actively engage in everyday life, much less continue to engage in business concerns and going as far as to run for office on the Republican ticket as Sheriff of Kirkland, Arizona. Needless to state, Virgil Earp was one tough son-of-a-gun.
On October 19, 1905, a brief eight years after Virgil Earp established his Homestead in Prescott, Arizona, he would, like his good friend, Doc Holliday, succumb to pneumonia. An article in the November 1, 1905, Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner reports on his death and early days in Prescott (excerpt below).
One of my favorite places to hang-out is at Prescott's town square where all the action of a bustling town takes place and always has, since the town's founding.
The infamous, Whiskey Row, just across from the square, draws thousands every year and is especially raucous during Prescott's Frontier Days Rodeo--providing a glimpse, perhaps, of what it might have been like back in the day that gunslingers and gamblers walked the dusty streets. At one time there were over 40 saloons that accommodated all manner of clientele. Three fires (in 1877, 1883 and 1900) destroyed the saloons, but the devastating fires didn't dampen the spirit of the business men that forged Prescott. Temporary structures that served as saloons were erected while saloon owners were about the task of rebuilding.
Photo From Negative Showing Saloons After 1900 Fire--©2020 The Shady Victorian
In the foreground of the photograph above, Belcher & Smith erected a temporary saloon using tents on the courthouse plaza until they could rebuild. The Palace Saloon or what was left of it can be seen in the background. The Palace was rebuilt on the same site and is located there today. If you look closely, the tent signage in the foreground of the photograph reads: Belcher & Smith. Ben M. Belcher and Barney Smith were partners in the Cabinet Saloon, also destroyed in the 1900 fire.
The July 6, 1864, Arizona Miner newspaper, announced the Inauguration Celebration of Prescott. Oh, how I wish I could have been there! Notice that the celebration opened with a Prayer by the Rev. H. W. Read (the first clergyman to arrive in Prescott), and the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. (Today you would be hard-pressed to find a prayer at the commencement of any U.S. celebration, much less the playing of a patriotic song--at least without protests.) Interestingly, the end of the Inauguration article reads:
Throughout the day the Juniper House [the very first hotel and restaurant in Prescott], the 'Pod', Roundtree's and Dickson's saloons were crowded with customers, and we will not say how much whiskey was disposed of--it might surprise our temperate friends in Tucson and La Paz. Nobody was hurt, but the boys waxed very merry, and some of them very tipsy, and there was no little promiscuous firing of revolvers..."
Another of Prescott's earliest Saloons was run by Lieutenant J. H. Baldwin of the U.S. Cavalry.
An ad for the "Exchange Saloon," clipped from the Arizona Miner newspaper, April 11, 1866.
John Roundtree and Dr. Alsap opened the first saloon in Prescott. It was opened under some large pine trees that grew on the lower end of Goose Flat. It was built of cloth and timber; a small wagon sheet stretched over a pole which rested in the forks of two upright posts. The bar fixtures consisted of one ten-gallon keg of whiskey; a half-dozen tin cups and a canteen of water. The cups had handles, loose at one end, and the loose end formed a hook by which they hung around the chain of the keg when they were not in use. Early Settlers in Prescott, History of Arizona, by Thomas Edwin Farish, 1915.
The first well-regulated saloon was opened by Tom Hodges on Cortez Street who sold drinks and cigars and took 'Burros' in payment. Early Settlers in Prescott, History of Arizona, by Thomas Edwin Farish, 1915.
A notice published on October 26, 1864, in the Arizona Miner indicates that John Dickson and Thomas Hodges were partners in The Pine Grove Saloon.
Prescott's town square is a remarkable and nostalgic public space that is a joy and wonder for all who visit there. I often sit on a bench under the cool canopy of the giant trees that have witnessed untold events of long ago, the old Courthouse as a backdrop. Sometimes, as I sit quietly, eyes closed, I can almost hear the echoes of the past--the clip-clop of the horses' hooves, the creaking of the horse-drawn wagons, the tinkling of men's spurs and the whoops and hollers of gamblers and miners in the local saloons.
Corner of Gurley & Montezuma--Town Square Top Right--©2020 The Shady Victorian
Yes, Prescott is truly a magical place. Sure, times have changed. But as far as I'm concerned, the town of Prescott is still very much the same as it was in its early days. It's ghostly past is a constant and welcome visitor here.