Prescott provides a great weekend escape.
At first look, Prescott doesn’t appear to be a product of the Old West. Stately Victorian homes grace the streets of the town’s 100-year-old neighborhoods. The historic downtown plaza is dominated by the Neoclassical Revival Yavapai Courthouse, which was built between 1916 and 1918. Even Whiskey Row, now graced with restaurants and boutiques, suggests nothing but law and order. Originally designed to be the capitol city of the newly created Arizona Territory, Prescott was created as a model of decorum and refinement.
But it didn’t always work out that way. Like most frontier towns of the day, this mile-high mountain town saw its share of swaggering gunslingers, shady politicians, shadier ladies and drunken cowboys.
Its past notwithstanding, Prescott today provides a great weekend escape. You can eat in a restaurant that once catered to Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, stay in a haunted hotel, shop for Western collectibles and folk art, and walk through the mansion of the first governor of Arizona.
Prescott seemed like a perfect opportunity to teach my twin five-year-old sons, Hayden and Blake, a good history lesson about the Old West. Excited by the prospect of seeing real cowboys, they patiently endured our drive to the cool, forested pine country surrounding Prescott. When we arrived, we parked at the courthouse plaza. First thing, we followed the timeline painted on the central square—or rather I followed it. The boys played hopscotch over the brilliantly colored history.
In the plaza, people lay under shady oak trees and read books. Children played tag football. Weekend shoppers walked along the streets. The twins posed with the large bronze statue of William "Bucky" O’Neill, a legendary Spanish-American war hero and newspaperman who was shot and killed while fighting with Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba. I suspected my 5-year olds used the impressive statue more to make photos with their new cameras than as a way to satisfy their interest in the history of the Spanish-American war.
Then we were off on our adventure. Adventuring is best done with a full stomach – as any five year old can tell you – so we stopped at The Palace Restaurant and Saloon on old Whiskey Row – now more decorously known as Montezuma Street – for lunch. The original Palace was built in 1877 near Granite Creek. It – and 19 other saloons – catered to miners, ranchers and politicians. Bucky O’Neill, Doc Holiday, the Earp Brothers and Big Nose Kate were all familiar faces at the old Palace. Along with rooms upstairs, where the shadier ladies plied their trade, the Palace doubled as a gambling hall and a polling station. "This was the place," says owner Dave Michelson.
In 1900, a drunken miner tipped over a kerosene lantern, starting a conflagration which ravaged the streets of Prescott. While the flames burned down nearly 11 blocks, where every building had been constructed entirely of timber, the Palace’s loyal patrons dragged her grand 1880’s Brunswick bar and a few kegs of beer out on to the street, and they continued carousing while they watched the fire. That rescued bar now graces the rebuilt Palace.
The restaurant is where the boys got their first taste of the Old West. Hefty burgers and a Roy Rogers got them going. Michelson, all dressed up in cowboy garb, stopped by the table and showed them his 1863 Remington .44 from the Civil War. On the way out, we looked at the memorabilia crowding the restaurant walls—a poster from Junior Bonner (a western movie filmed at the Palace in 1971), frontier military regalia, and a 1880s stagecoach shotgun.
All around the courthouse square, boutiques and specialty shops lure visitors with promises of hidden treasures. Chocolate lovers can get a quick fix at Pralines of Prescott, where decadent delights tempt passersby. At Ogg’s Hogan and Maggie Manygoats, collectors find turn-of-the century Western memorabilia and Native American arts and crafts. Along Gurley and Goodwin streets, we discovered antiques, jewelry, fine art, stained glass, books, statues, clothing and folk art. On Cortez Street, we found another strand of quirky boutiques, unusual shops, and even the Hotel Vendome, which is haunted by a ghost lady and her ghost cat.
The historic district is also a favorite for walking tours. Most of the stone buildings surrounding the courthouse plaza date back to the construction boom that followed the 1900 blaze. The fire had even destroyed Arizona’s first capitol building, a log cabin built in 1864 on what is now Gurley Street. Arizona’s First Territorial Legislature had met in the cabin until the capitol was moved to Tucson in 1867.
Unfortunately, the history lesson didn’t make much of an impression on Hayden and Blake. Sigh. Boys. What can you do?
When first governor John Goodwin and his staff first surveyed the newly created Arizona Territory, during the Civil War, the only town large enough to host the capitol was Tucson, but they passed over that city due to its sympathies for the Confederacy. Instead, Goodwin decided to create his own capitol city, at Prescott, at the time a small mining community on the banks of Granite Creek, near the new army post of Fort Whipple.
The Governor’s Mansion, which survived the 1900 fire, was the first public building raised on the new townsite. Visitors can get a glimpse of frontier life in displays housed in the log structure, now part of the Sharlot Hall Museum complex. The overall complex includes nine buildings, including the 1875 Fremont House, which provides exhibits on military life and turn-of-the-century furnishings, and the Sharlot Hall Building, which offers exhibits on Indian baskets and Prescott’s famed rodeo. In the Sharlot Hall Building, Blake and Hayden took turns punching the keys of an old cash register and looking at a moving picture in an old mutascope.
Outside, a rose garden commemorates the tenacity of the territory’s pioneer women, including the museum’s founder, Sharlot Hall, who arrived in a covered wagon in 1882. Back at the gift shop, located in the 1877 Bashford House, I bought the boys old-fashioned cork guns, which they shot with glee—much to my chagrin. Unlike citizens of Tombstone, who are used to daily gunfight reenactments, the people of Prescott tended to jump or duck when the boys’ little wooden guns went off.
The Bashford House is just one of Prescott’s 500 buildings listed with the National Register of Historic Places. The delicate Victorian home was scheduled for demolition, when a fast food franchise took out a lease for the property on which it was originally located. The Yavapai Heritage Foundation, founded by resident Elisabeth Ruffner, moved the delicate Victorian home six blocks to its current place at the Sharlot Hall Museum complex.
Ruffner keeps an eye on Prescott’s historic districts, including the Mt. Vernon and West Prescott Historic Districts. "Prescott has unique characteristics and the distinction of being the only place in the country where a territorial capitol was founded where no town was [then] existing," says Ruffner. "We have to make a major effort to recognize the value of the setting and the community, something that is as important as the historic structures [being protected]."
But Blake and Hayden weren’t interested in protecting much of anything. Instead they spun off merrily, shooting at anything that moved. The loud "pop, pop" and startled expressions made me glad for my sunglasses. I sighed. With my history books tucked under one arm, I followed my fearsome little outlaws as they went about terrorizing the town on our way back to our car. We’d almost made it, when Blake – Pop! – startled a lady walking her dog near the courthouse.
"Living history?" I asked hopefully.
She smiled and said to her dog, "Play dead."
There are hotels and motels in Prescott, AZ with something for every taste and price range. For more information and a complete list, click here. (Rates, availability and reservations online.)
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