"Biggest Little Town in the State of Arizona
Cottonwood’s Wild & Woolly Past"
The Noise, November 2010- The Outs
Ellen Jo Roberts
According to many old timers, Cottonwood was a tiny hamlet in 1960, no bigger than the palm of your hand. Truth is, the historic terrain of Cottonwood Arizona is wide reaching, and broad—as varied as its lush mix of rare riparian landscape, and sun-baked high desert chaparral. Rather than seek out the exponential ways the town has expanded since it was incorporated 50 years ago, let's discuss the common threads running through time into the present day. To me this is always the most interesting: the surviving old mixed in with the new.
The settlement was founded around 1879 along the Verde River, a silty ribbon running through the valley providing steady water for farm and ranch land. For a time the area was known simply as “Verde”, a stop along the trail between army camps Fort Verde and Fort Whipple, and between Flagstaff and Jerome. Just as Flagstaff was named for a Ponderosa Pine stripped bare to become a flagpole, Cottonwood was also named for an arboreal landmark. Cowboys running cattle between Oak Creek and Camp Verde frequently made camp along a stretch of river featuring a circle of 16 large Cottonwood trees. Referred to as “The Cottonwoods”, the name was made official when the post office was established in 1885. One of the early settlers, Charles Willard, is now known as The Father of Cottonwood. Much land is still owned by his descendents, and a main traffic artery, Willard Street, links Old Town with newer areas of the city. Evidence of the city’s bucolic pastoral origins still exist at every corner of the map, with historic ranches and farms still in operation, and open space nature conserved as city parks, state parks, and the Verde River Greenway. Cottonwood produce fed Jerome and Clarkdale, and soon businesses began to spring up to service other needs as well.
“By 1925 there was not another town in the U.S. that could boast so many business houses for a population of 1,000. Cottonwood was known as ‘the Biggest Little Town in the State of Arizona’!”
-Karen Leff, local historian and storyteller, owner of the Cottonwood Hotel
“Old Town” is the original Cottonwood, a short stretch of Main Street business district and storefronts. In its modern 21st Century incarnation, Old Town sustains a variety of exceptional restaurants, cafes, shops, galleries, taverns, and wine tasting rooms. It’s completely adorable, very lively… almost harkening back to a wild time during the 1910s and ‘20s when Old Town was the nerve center of a jumpin’ bootlegging industry.
“Joe Hall, Cottonwood pool room owner, was bound under $1,000 bond for trial in federal court on charges arising out of a raid on his home last Saturday when 150 gallons of whiskey were found in his basement and another 50 gallons together with 100 gallons of wine were taken from a nearby garage.”
- Prescott Journal, August 2nd 1929
Built in 1924, Joe Hall’s house still stands in 2010, an unimposing little stucco bungalow at the corner of Cactus and Pinal Streets. The yard is generally full of children and dogs now, so it’s amusing to think the place was once chock stocked with jugs of “joy juice”.
A system of tunnels (many filled in by Cottonwood Public Works over the years, but many still in existence) linked Joe Hall’s home to his pool hall at 1004 N. Main. Hall was linked to Al Capone, who allegedly spent a night in the Old Town Jail. Two large fires swept through Old Town during the bootlegging era. The first fire happened in 1917, followed by a larger blaze in 1925. Both were caused by exploding stills and flammable booze from Joe Hall’s whiskey business.
With the repeal of Prohibition, bootlegging and booze brewing went out of vogue and Cottonwood returned to its rural peace and quiet. Because it was a “free town”, unlike neighboring mining company towns, Clemenceau and Clarkdale, there was a certain lawlessness, but also more acceptance of different ideas, entrepreneurialism, and ethnicities that were persecuted elsewhere.
Hollywood in Cottonwood
The Old Town Palace Theater, built in 1923 and formerly called the “Rialto”, was the United States’ “Oldest Operating Single Screen Theater” until it was burnt by fire in 1998. Rescued by the Jurisins of “Jerome Palace” (aka “The Haunted Hamburger”), and neighboring “Nic’s” fame, the structure was saved and reopened in 2005 as the Tavern Grille. Remnants of the movie theater forever captured in the scorched bare concrete walls may be spotted by keen eyed diners.
The mid-century popularity of western movies brought California film crews to Arizona’s picturesque Verde Valley. Most of these features and rushes were shot in Sedona, but Old Town Cottonwood played “stand in” for town scenes in many of these films. “Desert Fury”, a 1947 film starring Burt Lancaster, shows up now and again, on late night TV, and screened in local halls. I’ve seen it more than once. It’s kinda’ silly, and I sure don’t even remember the plot. Burt Lancaster spends an awful lot of time driving back and forth on 89A, in ways that we locals all know don’t add up to him getting anywhere. The female lead calls everyone “baby”, and smokes using a long skinny cigarette holder. Our favorite part: a car crash filmed at an old bridge that no longer exists in lower Clarkdale. Right into the Verde River with that big giant American post-war car.
“Stay Away Joe” was a 1968 Elvis vehicle, filmed in Sedona, and Cottonwood during 1967, before he gave up his acting career for his comeback to music. Legend has it that Elvis was so enchanted with this area he planned to relocate here from Memphis. (Of course that never happened, but one must wonder what the result would be had he stayed.)
In typically wacky Elvis movie style, Presley plays a Navajo (!) named Joe Lightcloud, and Burgess Meredith plays his pappy. There was some go-go dancing, some bull wrangling, and a whole lotta singing and smooching.
Old Town Cottonwood once again was called into duty, playing the role of “town”.
Elvis signed autographs outside the Cottonwood Hotel, after filming a scene on Main Street. The Cottonwood Hotel played hostelry to many a star filming on location, including Mae West, and John Wayne. Since 1917 the hotel has been Cottonwood’s oldest and longest standing business with the same name.
Cottonwood remained unincorporated until 1960. The town’s 1,600 residents were mobilized to act after Clarkdale (incorporated in 1957) tried to annex Old Town Cottonwood. Incorporation was initially voted down in 1958, but proponents maintained that it could improve property values, provide better police, fire, and sanitation services, control growth, and increase tax benefits. In November of 1960, Cottonwood Arizona was incorporated, with 476 favorable petitions, just 9 over the required 66% of property taxpayers and residents, becoming Arizona’s 58th incorporated community.
This year’s 3rd annual “Walkin’ on Main” street-fest will pay tribute to Cottonwood’s 50th anniversary of incorporation. From 11:00am- 6:00pm on Saturday November 13th, Old Town’s Main Street Historic 89A will be blocked from traffic, and filled with art, vintage automobiles, open-air vendors, and live entertainment. Wine and olive oil tasting will highlight some of the new industry taking hold in the Verde Valley. In lieu of basement brewed whiskey, Cottonwood is now making its mark as part of the Verde Valley Wine Trail.
True to its roots, “The Biggest Little Town in Arizona” spins its 131 years of history into a modern community full of big city amenities.
Cheers to many more years of success, neighbor!
For more information:
History, photos and a self-guided walking tour of Old Town Cottonwood
City of Cottonwood’s website
Ellen Jo Roberts has lived in the Verde Valley since 1997, and now she has a sudden urge for some bootleg local-brewed whiskey. Roberts shares a historic brick bungalow with Bike Daddy Chad, and an assortment of other ornery critters.Read all about it at www.ellenjo.com