Top 10 True Western Towns of 2007

toptentownslogoGiven to towns that have made an important contribution to preserving their pasts. We hope this award will encourage federal, state and local governments to continue funding such efforts, as well as alert some Western towns to the duty of rewarding its citizens and visitors alike with an outward showing of their historical relevance to this nation.

10. ST. JOSEPH, MO

You might say that St. Joe is a city of beginnings and endings. The Pony Express got its start here in 1860; Jesse James died here in 1882—coincidentally, both happened on April 3. And St. Joseph was the jumping off point for most folks making the trek westward in the 19th century. A lot of history can be found in this town of about 74,000 residents.

The city does a great job of honoring its past. St. Joe’s boasts 17 history museums—a remarkable number for a place of this size. Visitors can check out the Patee House, an 1858 luxury hotel that served as the Pony Express headquarters, or the nearby Pony Express National Museum. The Jesse James home is where that dirty little coward shot Mr. Howard; it’s located just behind the Patee. In all, more than 50 properties are on the National Register of Historic Places. And many more 19th-century buildings are well maintained. St. Joe is a true Old West town.

Then there are the annual events. “Trails West” features art and music from around the region. The “Southside Fall Festival Rodeo and Roundup” is a regular crowd pleaser at the St. Joseph Stockyards. “April 3rd Days” commemorates the start of the Pony Express and the end of Jesse James. And a new event, “Come Home to Ole St. Joe,” showcases artists and artisans who specialize in traditional wares.

But the locals aren’t resting on their laurels. Over the past couple of years, a number of downtown buildings have been renovated. Plans are underway for restoring the historic Mead Building and converting it into retail and private residences. The city also recently issued a Design Guidelines Booklet to aid folks who own and want to maintain historic properties in the area.

In the past, St. Joseph was a place that people went through to get somewhere else. Nowadays, it’s a great destination—a place to start and finish an Old West visit.

9. JUNEAU, AK

Okay, take a deep breath before saying anything. We were as surprised as anybody at this winner. But come to think of it, Alaska makes sense—Wyatt Earp, Soapy Smith and lawman Frank Canton all went north during the gold rush days. And the John Wayne flick North to Alaska is something of a guilty pleasure (and how ’bout that theme song, sung by the great Johnny Horton?).

Sure, Juneau isn’t your typical horse-and-cattle-drive Western town. But its mining heritage is deep, dating back to 1880 when a Tlingit chief directed Richard Harris and Joe Juneau to gold deposits. The interaction between the native and white cultures has been another big factor in the history of the area.

The city offers five historic districts and numerous buildings on the historic register. And it works hard to maintain them—there are comprehensive plans, policies and regulations that help residents keep the integrity of historic structures (and every-thing is easily found on the Juneau website: juneau.org).  Community efforts have helped with various restoration projects, including the original Alaska Electric Light and Power building, built in 1893 and restored in 2005 (it still provides power for the area!). The St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church got a new roof last year, mostly funded by donations. And the Juneau-Douglas City Museum received a $125,000 grant for a ventilation system and an upgrade of exhibit designs to make them more interactive for visitors.

Speaking of interactive, Juneau hosts a number of cultural events. “Celebration” is a biennial festival aimed at showcasing southeast Alaska’s native traditions and customs. It features, art, music, dance and indigenous languages. “Juneau Gold Rush Days” celebrates the 1880 discovery of gold that led to the founding of the town. It includes mining and logging competitions, and arts and crafts.

The locals aren’t the only ones enjoying Juneau’s efforts. In 2005, more than a million tourists came to Juneau, most via the growing cruise ship industry. Tourism dollars are now a major part of the local economy. So historic preservation efforts allow Juneau to put its best face toward the world—and bring in big bucks.

Everybody, sing along: “North to Alaska, they’re goin’ north, the rush is on.”

8. PENDLETON, OR

Let’s play word association. I say, “Pendleton.” And you say … Round-Up.” Or at least that’s what most people will say. And why not? This extravaganza has been a major part of Pendleton’s culture and heritage since 1910, and it seems to grow in size and popularity every year. The rodeo events are the centerpiece, of course, but there is so much more—various parades, music, food, demonstrations and exhibitions, and an Indian arts and crafts show. There’s even a golf tournament (no, you have to use carts, not horses).

The Round-Up also has a Hall of Fame—among the 2006 inductees was actor Slim Pickens, who actually participated in the rodeo back in 1949. The newest inductees are now enshrined in a building finished just last year that also serves as the Round-Up museum.

The Heritage Square Museum run by the Umatilla County Historical Society has also been in growth mode. For years, it was housed in the old railroad depot. But an annex was finished a few years ago, allowing for more exhibits and collections. Heritage Square is currently hosting a traveling exhibit of photographs by Pendleton’s own Lee Moorhouse, who captured authentic Western scenes around the turn of the 20th century.

The most visited museum in the area is the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, which  celebrates the history, culture and stories of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Tribes. The Indians still have a major presence in the region, as they have for more than 10,000 years (and that’s history!). One of the institute’s major events is an annual tribal art show, held in late summer each year.

Pendleton is justifiably proud of what it’s got, but it’s not staying put. A project to restore downtown building facades continues, as do preservation efforts of many structures. The city calls itself the “Real West.” That’s not an idle boast.

7. DEADWOOD, SD

Yep, everybody knows how Wild Bill Hickok met his fate in Deadwood, shot in the back of the head while playing cards in a saloon back in 1876. Most folks know that Calamity Jane is buried next to Hickok in Mt. Moriah Cemetery (no word on what Wild Bill thought of the arrangement). And thanks to the HBO series, more people than ever know about the town’s early history.

But there’s a lot you probably don’t know about Deadwood.

For example, the entire town—all of it—is designated as a National Historic Landmark. And the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission, which is 20 years old in 2007, has an incredible annual budget of $6.8 million to help restore and renovate and maintain the town’s buildings (the money comes from gambling, which returned to Deadwood in late 1989). And more than 2 million visitors come to town each year; the number of tourists in 1980 was just 200,000.

Deadwood has found financial success in the twin attractions of history and gaming, and that’s pretty unique. That success is put back into the local economy to help preserve the town’s heritage.

Just this past year, restorations included work on the Mt. Moriah Cemetery, the Rodeo Grounds, the Days of ’76 Museum and the Old Town Hall. That doesn’t count the money pumped into annual maintenance of historic structures and sites. Several renovation projects are in the planning stages, ensuring that Deadwood will keep its history alive and useful.

Then there are the annual events that celebrate the past (and attract more visitors). “Wild Bill Days” is in its 21st year, featuring fast draw championships, a parade, dozens of re-enactors from around the world and free concerts. The 85th “Days of ’76 Rodeo” comes around this July. The award-winning event has bull riding, calf roping, barrel racing and other competitions—and tens of thousands of dollars in prize money.

The folks in Deadwood also do a remarkable job of tooting their own horn. Brochures, flyers, websites, compact discs, DVDs, TV specials, tie-ins with the HBO show—local promotion efforts are among the most comprehensive we’ve seen.

So if Wild Bill were to come back to Deadwood today, he’d probably feel right at home with all the history of the place. But he might also take some time away from his aces and eights to experience more of what the town offers nowadays. Deadwood ain’t dead, that’s for sure.

6. SHERIDAN, WY

Don’t let this ranking fool you—Sheridan, which was the top pick in our 2006 True Western Towns listing—is still a numero uno place to us. In fact, the folks from Sheridan decided that somebody else should have the honor and benefit of being True West’s Top Town in 2007.

Locals say the award was a big boost for the town in a number of ways—anecdotally, tourism is up, national media interest has reached new heights and the focus on historic preservation and restoration has increased in the past year. But in all honesty, it was the Sheridan folks who took the ball and ran with it. They really work hard at preserving and promoting the place.

Just to review: one of Sheridan’s claims to fame is hosting Buffalo Bill and his troupe back in the 1890s. In fact, the great showman auditioned acts from his seat on the porch of the Sheridan Inn. The town boasts three historic districts and about three dozen historic sites, and it hosts some 35 Western events per year. Nearby are the locations of several frontier forts—Fetterman, Phil Kearny and Bridger, among others. And the infamous Johnson County War between cattle barons and small ranchers took place just south of Sheridan.

Over the past year, there have been several developments. Last October, the town and the Crow tribe held a joint celebration of local history and culture. The event helped mend fences that had broken down in recent decades.

Structural improvements continue at the Sheridan Inn. A restaurant (and a good one) now operates out of the place, but it’s hoped that, eventually, some of the old hotel rooms will be ready for occupancy once again.

A project to reclaim the Goose Creek streambed is in the planning stages. Many years ago, a cement bed was installed to help guide the creek; now folks want it returned to its natural state.

And this year, new signage will line Interstate 90, offering directions to and information on the many historic sites throughout the region.

So Sheridan’s motto—The West at its Best—is still on target. And it should be for years to come.

5. CHEYENNE, WY

Cheyenne is one of those magical Old West names, one that conjures up images of cattle barons and cowboys, northern railroads and rodeos. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association was based here, enjoying the lavish surroundings of the Cheyenne Club. Tom Horn made the mistake of getting drunk in Cheyenne—and then he confessed to killing teenager Willie Nickell, a crime he probably didn’t commit (but he was hanged for it anyway). The stories go on and on. Cheyenne has history and plenty of it—and the town is determined to keep that history alive.

Nowadays, most folks know about the town from the legendary Cheyenne Frontier Days, “the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and Western celebration” according to the publicity. It is a huge shebang. But there’s also the annual “Cowboy Symposium and Celebration,” featuring cowboy poetry, music, demonstrations and exhibits on the Old West. And “Depot Days” honors the town’s railroad heritage, which dates back to Cheyenne’s founding in 1867.

Many of the buildings constructed in the late 19th century still stand: there are four National Historic Districts and a fifth has been nominated. An additional 46 structures are listed on the National Register. The locals take historic preservation very seriously, and they work hard to keep buildings structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing—as well as useful in the 21st century.

In the last five years, Cheyenne renovated its Union Pacific Depot to the tune of $13 million—and additional restoration is underway to expand the Depot Museum. The state of Wyoming put $2 million into renovating the Governor’s Mansion, and a like amount into restoring the roof and stained glass ceilings in the State Capitol. The owners of the Plains Hotel invested more than $4 million in that structure. And the owner of the Commercial Block and First National Bank Building—the building where Tom Horn made his fatal confession—put more than a million dollars into restoration.

There’s more to come. The Atlas Theatre Group plans to spend several million on restoring the 1908 building. And the Hynds Building will get an infusion of some four to six million dollars to convert it into a Marriott Hotel. Several other projects are also either underway or in the planning stages.

A lot of towns have their own slogans, mostly to use for P.R. purposes, trying to boil down who they are and what they do in a simple, neat, catchy phrase that grabs the eye and ear. Some aren’t very successful, frankly. Cheyenne’s motto is “Live the Legend.” That’s absolutely on target, both for the folks who live there and the more than one million visitors who come to town each year. Cheyenne is a legend—and it promises to stay that way.

4.WICKENBURG, AZ

Plenty of Arizona towns could be on this list—heck, that want to be on this list. And several have the right stuff to be here. But for our money, Wickenburg is one that best represents the Old West way.

It certainly has the history, founded back in 1863 by a treasure seeker named Henry Wickenburg (natch). The Vulture Mine he dug brought out more than $30 million worth of gold. And voila! a town was born—it’s now the fourth oldest town in Arizona.

A bunch of history is still alive here. The 1895 Santa Fe depot is still around, now as the home of the Chamber of Commerce. The downtown historic district features a number of buildings dating back to the 19th century, all well preserved yet finding new uses in the 21st century. In 1923, the first guest ranch (the Bar FX) was started just outside town, which still refers to itself as the “Dude Ranch Capital of the World.” And then there is the old Jail Tree—that’s not a misprint. For more than 20 years after its founding, Wickenburg chained its miscreants to a big mesquite tree. It’s still there (although unused, so far as we know).

Several events grace the calendar. The “Gold Rush Days & Rodeo” dates back nearly 60 years, while the “Desert Caballeros Ride” is a year older. The relatively new “Cowboy Christmas Poetry Gathering” isn’t yet 20, yet it features some of the top practitioners in the field. All add to the Old West feel that permeates Wickenburg all year round.

Then there are the museums. The Desert Caballeros Western Museum is a remarkable place, especially for a town this size (about 10,000). The permanent collection includes pieces by Remington, Catlin, Moran, Bierstadt, Schreyvogel, Russell and Dixon. Robson’s Arizona Mining World has numerous artifacts from the area’s main industry of the past. The Vulture Mine—the one that got Wickenburg its start—is still there and open for visitors. And the Hassayampa River Preserve is a unique nature spot where visitors can spot some 280 different species of birds.

Preservation efforts continue to this day. The town is in the middle of a three-year plan for revitalizing the historic downtown, which includes moving utilities underground. Development company M3 Companies is working to restore and preserve the city block-sized Wickenburg Way Heritage Square—with particular attention to the 1890s-era Texas Hotel, which will become M3’s sales office.

The town’s motto is “Out Wickenburg Way.” As in, “The West is alive—Out Wickenburg Way.” We think it’s the right way to do things, too.

3. GUTHRIE, OK

“Unlike Rome, the city of Guthrie was built in a day. To be strictly accurate in the matter, it might be said that it was built in an afternoon. At twelve o’clock on Monday, April 22d [sic], the resident population of Guthrie was nothing; before sundown it was at least ten thousand. In that time streets had been laid out, town lots staked off, and steps taken toward the formation of a municipal government,” reported Harper’s Weekly on May 18, 1889.

Obviously, April 22, 1889, was a special day in Oklahoma history—it was the start of the first Land Rush, where settlers were allowed to stake claims in some of the Unassigned Lands of the Indian Territories. An estimated 50,000 folks lined up to grab their piece of heaven. But many stayed at the starting line: Guthrie.

The town would become the first territorial and state capital (it was later moved to Oklahoma City). It would be a major hub of commerce, transportation, politics and law enforcement. Guthrie was a player.

It still is.

For Guthrie is the example of how to preserve, maintain and celebrate the history and culture of its past. Countless other towns across the country look to Guthrie for the blueprint—and it’s little wonder why.

Guthrie has the largest historic district in the country, full of well-preserved buildings dating back to the turn of the 20th century or earlier. The city has been the leader in establishing laws, policies and guidelines to ensure that its history is maintained. Strong community support has been a crucial aspect of the effort.

Then there are the museums. The Territorial Museum has wonderful exhibits on the history of Oklahoma, and it houses important resources for the Old West researcher. The State Capital Publishing Museum is an outstanding repository of materials on the newspaper and publishing industries, dating back to before the Land Rush days. Of course, many of the ancient buildings are also museums unto themselves.

This year is a special one for Oklahoma—the centennial of its statehood. Many of the celebrations will be held in Guthrie, which has been doing everything possible to prepare for the anticipated rush of tourists. The city has been redoubling its efforts to preserve those beautiful old buildings that keep the Old West alive.

Looking further ahead, a local group has formed to bring part of the old Denver, Gulf and Enid Railroad back to life. Plans call for it to run from Enid through Guthrie and, eventually, on to Oklahoma City. If/when that comes to fruition, an important part of local history will be an important part of the area’s future.

And maybe, just maybe, that will result in a new Land Rush, this time of tourists, for whom Guthrie is not just the starting line but the destination.

2. SILVER CITY, NM

The best lawman in Old New Mexico wasn’t Pat Garrett—not by a long shot. Take a look at Harvey Whitehill, the Grant County sheriff based in Silver City. He wasn’t the fast-drawin’, butt kickin’ hardcase type. He was an administrator and leader, a pillar of the community back in the 1870s-90s. His many business ventures, plus his integrity and farsightedness, did more to bring law and order to southeastern New Mexico than just about anybody else’s. Besides, in 1875, he was the first man to arrest Billy the Kid (who had some stolen laundry in his possession). Okay, so the Kid broke jail and ran. Whitehill’s record is still strong.

The town of Silver City has followed in his footsteps, honoring and preserving the past while keeping an eye firmly on the future. It’s a dynamic place that is quickly hitting the radar for folks who want to live in a great Old West town. But the effort is relatively new.

As we noted last year, as recently as the 1980s, some 40 percent of the downtown was boarded up and shuttered. The economy was in decline. Silver City was badly tarnished. But that was when several local residents organized and affiliated with New Mexico’s Main Street program. The aim: to help renew the downtown by looking for restoration money, finding buyers for many buildings and then providing advice on how to bring back the old structures. If you visit Silver City, you can see the results for yourself—a vibrant town that lives with its history and promotes it to folks who are looking for a place to visit or live.

Several projects continue, including the renovation of the historic Silco Theater, which is now a multi-use facility that not only hosts music and drama events but also has become a meeting space. Then there’s the Big Ditch, created by floods in the 1880s which collapsed the then Main Street. More and more shops and restaurants are locating to today’s Ditch to create something akin to the San Antonio River Walk. In 2006, Silver City received a federal grant to develop a master plan for renovation and reuse of the town’s Waterworks building, which is on the Register of Historic Places. And other money was obtained to establish sound archives of indigenous folklore and stories.

So Silver City is on a roll, continuing a remarkable turnaround that seemed impossible 25 years ago. Harvey Whitehill must have seen a similar trend during his lifetime. And the old pioneer would likely approve of his town in the 21st century.

True West’s Town of the Year: Helper, Utah

In early 1897, three cowboys set up shop in the central Utah town of Helper. Folks didn’t get to know them that well, but they seemed friendly enough, so the locals didn’t pay them much mind. The men took frequent short trips out of town, but nobody really knew where they went.

Until April 21, when the trio held up the Pleasant Valley Coal Company offices at nearby Castle Gate. The take: about $7,000. The bandits hastened up the Outlaw Trail to Wyoming—although there are stories that at least one of them, the leader, later came back to Helper for the occasional visit. He must have liked the place.

That guy was Butch Cassidy, pulling off his only robbery in his home state of Utah. While he’s long gone (wherever he died and was buried), the town of Helper is still around—and hasn’t changed too much from those days of yore. That’s because the citizens of Helper, all 2,022 of them, are determined to keep their history and culture alive. They’ve done a remarkable job—which is why Helper is True West’s 2007 True Western Town.

For more than 30 years, the town’s centerpiece has been the Western Mining & Railroad Museum. It not only houses amazing exhibitions from the area’s past, the operation (staffed entirely by volunteers) has also been the driving force behind historic preservation efforts. For example, museum director SueAnn Martell spearheaded the reorganization of the Helper Historic Preservation Commission in 2006. The aim: to redouble efforts to save and maintain the many old buildings in town—and to further encourage private owners to take the initiative in restoring and preserving their structures. To that end, a survey of local residents was conducted to determine interest in saving and maintaining older homes, and it found that the interest level is even higher than first thought. As a result, more homeowners may apply for placement on the National Register. And there is talk of putting together a pamphlet on historic homes and placing plaques outside many of them.

Speaking of the Western Mining & Railroad Museum, construction on a new facility begins this spring. The facility not only increases the space available, it will include more interactive and “living history” exhibits. And the town didn’t have to pull off a Butch Cassidy robbery to pay for the project—$800,000 was raised through grants, corporate gifts and private donations. “This is our gift to the people of Helper,” SueAnn Martell says. And to those who visit the town, too; the grand opening is set for the end of 2007. New marketing and promotion strategies are being implemented to encourage greater tourism.

Let’s be honest—Helper, Utah, is not a familiar name for Western buffs. It doesn’t have the reputation of many larger cities. It doesn’t have the financial resources a lot of places have. But what it does have is a grit, a determination, a will to maintain its history and culture—and to accept the responsibility for making sure the job gets done and gets done right. That attitude is pure Western, and it shows just why Helper is such a special place. Even Butch Cassidy knew that.

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