I am jaded by memories of Wickenburg, Arizona. Is it why I’ve avoided our visit to Wickenburg?
It started with a goal of traveling with Bernie and Chris, exploring various places in the Southwest. Within a year of beginning that journey, it didn’t work out.
My recent book, My Last Dance, shares why. It is available in print and eBook on Amazon.
Visiting Arizona communities continues to be my goal. Which towns and why those places? There are 214 identified spots on the Arizona map. Why did people settle there and why do these public places continue to exist? Some don’t.
Impulsively, I selected the first letter of each identified community. It should take a few years to explore those places.
Wickenburg is one community. It’s less than seventy miles from my home, yet I avoided planning the trip.
Over the past forty years, I’ve wandered like a nomad. Wickenburg was a spot on the map. Although it’s not located on an Interstate, it was a place we frequently had to pass to get somewhere else. Wickenburg has a lot of history, but my life also has a lot of history. Were memories the reason I was reluctant to visit Wickenburg?
Life is like that. Some places you seek to revisit and others you seek to avoid. Life also provides the opportunity to change. I want to change some of my habits.
Sunday, May 6, 2018, Wickenburg, Arizona beaconed.
It’s interesting how Henry Wickenburg was attracted to the spot that would bear his name. The story goes he was wandering around, looked up and saw a vulture circling overhead. Vultures are large raptor scavenger birds of prey. Just about every wild west movie I’d watched, circling vultures meant something was either dead or dying. It’s easy to presume Henry rode to check out what attracted the vulture.
He found gold and the rest is history. He filed a claim, named it Vulture Gold Mine in 1863. More than thirty million dollars of gold and silver were eventually extracted from the mine.
But there is a lot more to Henry’s life. Born in Prussia, now part of Germany, in 1819 he traveled west to seek his fortune. In Tucson, Arizona he was a freighter driving wagons. Once he had a grubstake, he headed for the hills looking for gold in the Antelope Creek area, a few miles south of Yarnell, Arizona. Yarnell remains a tiny community on top of a mountain that overlooks Wickenburg.
Most folks might see his statue and read the very short notice. He got rich, was swindled of his gold mine wealth and died in poverty from a gunshot to the head on May 14, 1905.
Henry was much more than a prospector who got lucky to find gold, became unlucky to be swindled and lost everything and committed suicide. Henry served his town as a judge, justice of the peace, school inspector and even census taker.
When gold was found the boomtown grew so big and fast it came within a few votes of being named the territorial capital of Arizona in 1866. Voting for a town name was fierce, and at one point it was going to be named “Pumpkinville.”
Henry was a member of the seventh Territorial Legislature in 1873 and, for a while, served as president of the local mining district. He also donated land for Wickenburg’s first church. Henry was a very influential and important figure in the community.
In my research of Arizona, I came across Jack Swilling. Both Yuma and New River communities recognized Jack’s contribution. What makes Jack so interesting, is Henry Wickenburg bankrolled Jack Swilling. Jack used the money to restore a network of ancient Hohokam canals. The introduction of this large-scale irrigation project in the Salt River Valley led, in 1868, to the establishment of the dusty little agricultural community of Phoenix.
How Phoenix got to be named “Phoenix” is another interesting story I’ll share on a future adventure.
Let’s concentrate on Wickenburg. What features do most people hear about Wickenburg today? Why visit Wickenburg?
I wish I had gone there in February. Ever since 1948, the town has held an annual “Out Wickenburg Way.” It’s a real old-fashioned melodrama action-packed weekend of the year. Called “Gold-Rush-Days-Festival,” people from all over the world flock there to enjoy a senior rodeo, gold panning, a carnival, western dancing, hundreds of arts and craft booths and more.
If you miss the February weekend event, the remainder of the town continues to have lots of things to do and see. For example, there is the Jail Tree.
This gnarled 200-year-old mesquite tree was the town’s makeshift jail. During the boomtown years, Wickenburg grew so fast they didn’t build a jail. From 1883 to 1890 prisoners were shackled to the tree and left out under the elements until a proper lawman could come from Phoenix to collect them. “A legend grew about parents threatening to chain unruly children to that old arbor.”
Bernie seemed to feel sorry for the guy shackled to the tree. Six life-sized figures depict Wickenburg life in late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Visitors are encouraged to enjoy a walking tour to find these authentic characters.
Mrs. Elizabeth Smith was the owner of the Hassayampa Hotel in the late 1800’s. She welcomed her guests. Are Bernie and Chris told dogs aren’t allowed in her establishment?
“This sculpture depicts a young school teacher arriving by train, seeking to settle in Wickenburg to teach area children and perhaps corral a local cowboy.” As she casts her hopes to the future, Bernie and Chris are more interested in what is coming down the street. With the discovery of gold, sleepy Wickenburg became a boomtown. Both dogs check out a miner leading his donkey.
The evening wouldn’t be complete without music. This statue shows a person providing an evening serenade to downtown visitors. Bernie’s expression is one of tolerance, while Chris is not impressed.
In addition to the life-sized statues, at least sixteen representations of Gila monster, roadrunner, tarantula, and rattlesnake are displayed around town. Nearby, there is another tree almost as famous as the Jail Tree. Eighteen or more men were hung from “Vulture City’s ironwood hanging tree.”
Here’s the story. High-grade ore was extracted from Vulture Gold Mine and loaded into freight wagons pulled by mules. “Freighters lined up at the mine with wagons to transport the gold ore. As soon as being out of sight of the mine, the freighters would begin picking through the gold, pocketing the best nuggets.” When caught, they were hung.
When you tour the Vulture Gold Mine, you will hear about “The Glory Hole.” Here’s how it is formed. The Vulture Gold Mine is a hard rock mine. There is no need for support timbers. Approximately forty percent of the ore remains in place as supporting columns.
All that gold ore sticking out of the columns is easy picking. As miners constantly chipped away at columns, at some point the column collapsed, and a hundred feet of earth dropped. What was a small hill became a pit, and created a Glory Hole.
Today, the town contains a variety of quality shops offering native jewelry, western clothes as well as the usual tourist items appropriate to the southwestern region.
One such item is the Bola Tie. In 1949 Victor E. Cedarstaff, a Wickenburg resident, designed and made the first bola-type necktie. Victor says he was out riding and the wind blew his hat off. He rescued the hat and saw the hat band had come loose. He had an idea while slipping the band over his head. Being a silversmith, he fiddled and messed around and created a crude leather braid and attached a piece of turquoise.
He called it a Piggin Necklet, for the piggin-string cowboys use for tying the legs of a calf. In 1971 it became Arizona state’s official tie.
When visiting the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, there are many items on display. It is filled with western art and frontier history. The museum has been identified as “1 of the finest small museums in the state, maybe in the nation.”
Wickenburg is chuck-full of history. It’s a lot more than a gold mine hole and Jail Tree. “While the area’s geological treasures attracted the miners from around the world, the Hassayampa River floodplain provides fertile soil for farming and ranching.” Advertised as the Dude Ranch Capital of Arizona with 4 ranches, Wickenburg has much to offer all twelve months of the year.