Top 10 True Western Towns of 2009

Cheyenne-Frontier-Days-rodeo-entrance-by-Dandies-and-Miss-Frontier-and-Lady-in-Waiting10. WICHITA, KS

When a town is known today as the “Air Capital of the World”—Wichita is the home of airplane manufacturers Boeing, Cessna, Raytheon and Bombardier Aerospace’s Learjet—you might think that it would have cast aside its heritage. Not so with this major cowtown—pop. 589,000—located on the historic Chisholm Trail.

The Old Cowtown Museum re-creates the town in its 1865-1880 time period, featuring the city’s first log home, the home of the founder of the city’s newspaper (which is still printed today) and a Presbyterian church. It also hosts special events re-enacting cattle drives and shoot-outs, and even a frontier Christmas celebration.

The World’s largest Western store, Sheplers, first opened here in 1899, and the city is still home to its headquarters. William Coleman’s gas-powered lanterns was the impetus for his business in Wichita in 1902, and the Coleman Co. today remains known for its camping products.

These time-honored businesses are included among the more than 100 historic sites that can be seen on the city’s self-guided walking tour.

Locals are staying on top of maintaining these treasures. The 1922 Orpheum Theatre is currently being restored; it’s the nation’s first atmospheric theatre—a 19th-century design that focuses on making patrons feel as if they inhabited a landscape setting.

Even that oh-so-not-Old West part of Wichita still pays tribute to the heritage that has come before it. The Kansas Aviation Museum is housed in a 1935 Art Deco building that was restored in 2005.

The shining beacon of Wichita’s preservation efforts is its recently-completed “Keeper of the Plains Plaza,” part of a $20.6 million investment to beautify the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers. The land between this junction is sacred to the city’s namesake Indians. The project dates back to Blackbear Bosin’s donation of his 44-foot Indian warrior sculpture in 1974. Today, a “ring of fire” burns during scheduled times throughout the year.

On those same grounds, the Mid-America All-Indian Center is undergoing a $700,000 renovation to preserve its artifacts and will have a grand reopening in 2009. But the museum would not dream of shutting down completely. All community night events are being held at, where else, the Old Cowtown Museum. This town stops at nothing to pull together and keep its heritage alive.

Now that you’re ready to discover Wichita, go ahead and pack your bags. We have a feeling that you won’t have a problem catching a plane to take you to this burg.

9. VIRGINIA CITY, NV

The “Queen of the Short Lines” came to life in 2008, as the Virginia & Truckee’s 1914 Pullman Car rumbled down the tracks for the first time since 1938. The trip is a promise of good things to come. The Northern Nevada Railway Foundation is raising $30 million to finish building the tracks to Carson City, with 2012 as the projected construction date. This stretch of the line historically hauled ore, lumber and supplies for the Comstock Lode that brought this town to life in the first place.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has secured $10 million in federal funding, while former Nevada Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt secured an additional $1 million in state funding for the heritage railway project. The project is estimated to cost $55 million.

Downhill of Virginia City, the Gold Hill depot—one of the few wooden structures that survived the 1875 fire in Virginia City—was granted $75,000 by the State Historic Preservation Office. Other projects receiving grants for 2008 from the office included Piper’s Opera House—which did not survive the 1875 fire; this third incarnation was built in 1885—the Lagomarsino Petroglyph site, to continue work documenting and mapping the 2,000 panels of rock art, and the 1876 Fourth Ward School, which welcomes visitors coming through Virginia City’s southern entrance.

The town’s 1,000 residents may never enjoy the boon of $700 million in gold and silver like folks did during the heyday, but they certainly know and appreciate the limitless wealth that surrounds them.

Virginia City celebrates turning 150 in June 2009. Be sure to point your cars away from Lake Tahoe and Reno to this locale that is still every bit the “Richest Place on Earth” as it was when Mark Twain was reporting on everyday life for the Territorial Enterprise.

8. WICKENBURG, AZ

The Santa Fe Railroad once brought the world to Wickenburg. When the last passenger train ran in May 1969, the depot could have easily been torn down like so many were in towns throughout the West. But Wickenburg has always honored its heritage, and it makes perfect sense that today the Chamber of Commerce resides in the 1895 depot. The one-story frame depot still stands in its original design, without any modifications. The late Wickenburg citizens Viola “Vi” and George Wellik, of the Flying E Ranch, acquired the depot and refurbished the structure to its yellow and red glory. Celebrating a decade of charitable service in 2008, the Wellik Foundation has been a key contributor to the town’s efforts.

Wickenburg’s citizens—about 10,000 strong—continue to give their hearts, souls and dollars into preserving the city’s ranching, mining and rail heritage. Even the depot is getting another facelift. Historical architect Bill Otwell completed his renderings of the original storage room and baggage scale so it can be turned into a conference room; remodeling is expected to start in Spring 2009. Other conscientious citizens include Roy and Tucker Coxwell, whose Gold Nugget Art Gallery resides in the city’s oldest building, Jim Corbet, owner of the Hassayampa building, formerly the Vernetta Hotel. Historic downtown is also shaping up, as it finished out its second year of a three-year revitalization plan, putting in utilities underground and pedestrian pathways in the alleys.

The town also knows how to mix fun with its history. Gold Rush Days & Rodeo celebrated its 60th year in 2008; Fiesta de Septiembre and the Cowboy Christmas Poetry Gathering both celebrated 20 years in 2008.

The Vulture Mine, discovered by the namesake founder Henry Wickenburg in 1863, still draws folks in. The mine never paid off for ol’ Henry or later investors, but give folks a treasure map and set them off to explore Vulture City, and you’re talking an experience that’s richer than gold. Just like all those folks who work hard to preserve Wickenburg’s heritage—their hearts can’t be bought, and what they’re saving is priceless.

7. PENDLETON, OR

Into the highlands of the Blue Mountain foothills, through the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, locals bike past farms and ranches that are still found on the same land owned by their descendants a century later.

In historic downtown Pendleton, cattle ranch-raised Parley Pearce and Blair Woodfield saved a piece of Pendleton’s legacy by restoring the Hamley Saddle Shop, est. 1883, in 2005. Today, they run a complex of Hamley-related businesses to provide an authentic experience of the “real” West: the cowboy cathedral-looking Hamley Steakhouse, the Coffee and Wine shop serving “Peacemaker” and “Boots and Spurs” roasted coffee, and the Slick Fork Saloon with an 1890s oak bar where Western performers like Ian Tyson have performed. Pearce and Woodfield are innovators who bring the kind of quality, history-oriented development to downtown Pendleton that will keep this city at the top of many travelers’ lists.

Others looking to find similar success downtown include Al Plute, at work on the Temple Hotel, and Ted Betz, for his four storefronts. Both are utilizing the city’s Facade Restoration program. To date, $2.8 million worth of work has been scheduled on facades in the downtown area, with $1.6 million worth completed, City Manager Larry Lehman says.

Locals here don’t just save buildings; they also preserve traditions. When they weren’t busy working their wheat ranch, Mike and Jill Thorne, and Pendleton Round-Up organizer Jennifer Hawkins, were instrumental in raising money for the new rodeo grounds, in anticipation of the rodeo’s centennial in 2010. Two-thirds of the $1.1 million needed was raised by press date, and construction is due to start in 2009.

The city planners are doing their part too. As of 2008, the Court Avenue and River Parkway Enhancement Project is in phase four—bidding—with the next and final phase being the construction of the project that will connect the brick-front downtown to the Umatilla River, which settlers passed by in the 1840s while traveling on the Oregon Trail.

As Pendleton—pop. 17,310—prepares for the state’s 150th anniversary, one of its proud contributions to the celebration will be featuring commemorative blankets from the historic Pendleton Woolen Mills, which also celebrates a milestone in 2009: 100 years in the textile mill business.

6. DEADWOOD, SD

It’s no secret that Deadwood has a preservation budget that is the envy of most, if not all, Western towns. Deadwood’s Historic Preservation Commission, which serves this city of 1,293 folks, will have more than $7 million to play around with next year. That’s the big bucks a town can get when legalized gambling lures 1.5 million people to the city where Wild Bill Hickok drew his last breath.

Hey, the famous gunfighter died at the still-existing Saloon #10 holding cards himself. Let’s face it; gambling is part of this city’s heritage. What better way to usher in the funds to save the rest of its past? And it’s got to feel nice to gamble in a city where you know, if you lose, you’re actually donating to the world of riches that is found outside those gambling halls.

Like most years before it, 2008 was a doozy for Deadwood.

In the spring, folks from the local Adams Museum & House to National Trust officers to architectural historians attended Deadwood’s annual preservation symposium. The highlight of the conference is a two-hour tour of the city’s current projects. (Two hours? That’s a lot of projects!)

The summer brought Western drovers, horsemen and history buffs out on the Fort Pierre-Deadwood Stage Trail to commemorate the last overland wagon run to Deadwood in 1908 (we will be featuring this in our April Travel issue).

The Days of ’76 Museum is still in the midst of its $6 million campaign to pay for a new museum. In 2008, an auction of historic items was put together by Auction Productions (Humboldt, AZ) and Dakota Plains Auction Service (Rapid City, SD), which donated some of the sale’s proceeds to the museum fund. (Colt also donated a single-action Army revolver to the cause.)

The Adams Museum’s eye-opening story of the city’s Chinese community, cultivated from archaeological excavations in the 2000s, continued to draw in folks (four times more than who visited the museum in 1980) in the exhibit’s last year on display.

Children joined in the city’s mission to save the past by attending an archaeology camp that allowed them to participate in a real dig, with field professionals showing them historic preservation and mapping techniques.

That Deadwood includes youth in its efforts to preserve its history is yet another example of forward-thinking leadership that has made this town one of the best in the West.

5. AUSTIN, TX

Scene: Austin, 2003. Neighbor against neighbor, pitted in a fight over urban renewal and historic preservation. One side wants to change with the times. The other does not want to risk the loss of Austin’s cultural identity.

For a town that has doubled in population every 20 years since it was founded in 1836, Austin—pop. 743,074—almost destroyed its 30-year-old legacy of protecting historic properties in the midst of this public controversy.

Two citizen task forces were brought on to discern the cause of the city’s skyrocketing housing prices. The members gave the preservation community great news: it was not the cause, and even more, such efforts could help maintain affordable housing for Austinites.

The city formed a Historic Preservation Task Force in 2003. Although Austin is home to 14 national register districts, allowing the city access to federal funds, it lacked local protection for these neighborhoods. The task force allowed all historic districts to become local historic districts, so issues that start at home—like attaining alteration permits—could be better handled.

One of these districts, designated “Old West Austin,” was awarded as one of 10 great neighborhoods in America by the American Planning Association in 2007. The district is a former black freedmen’s community settled by Charles Clark in 1871 and also a former land grant assigned to D.S. Parrish in 1841. Large shade trees and front porches invite conversations with neighbors, and the formation of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association enabled residents to negotiate with developers about planned changes.

Today, Austin makes decisions for each historic district based on its individual needs and own complex local history, instead of the broad-brush decisions that had impacted all districts equally in the past.

And when you have kids roaming the districts as “heritage hunters,” seeking the answer for where Bigfoot Wallace and Thomas “Peg Leg” Ward are buried, you are seeing preservation success firsthand. Austin is truly a place where residents can honor the Old West, and still not get stuck in the past.

4. FLORENCE, AZ

Quiet, modest growth has allowed Florence—pop. 26,656—to preserve many of its historic structures and its traditions. Wait, actually, only 9,433 of those folks are free; the other 17,223 are locked up in prison.

The free folks don’t lock up their history. Want to see the prison records that date back to the other territorial prison in Yuma? They’re available on DVDs for public use. Want to see the knife with which Deputy Joe Phy killed a bystander at the Tunnel Saloon in 1888, only to die himself? Or how about all the nooses of those legally hanged at the prison, with their photographs (including one of the first, and last, woman hanged there, Eva Dugan)? The Pinal County Historical Society Museum is the place for you.

The town put its foot down in the 1960s, when its historic buildings were being demolished under orders of the county health department. Today, more good folks continue to help stabilize the more than 100 structures—many of which are made of fragile adobe—in its historic district, thanks to $3 million in town and grant funds. You’ll find the Chamber of Commerce housed in the recently-restored Brunenkant Bakery on Bailey Street. Projects are underway to stabilize the 1882 First Courthouse in McFarland State Historic Park, the 1891 Second Courthouse—where stagecoach robber Pearl Hart was tried—which already features a repaired cupola and roof, and the Silver King Hotel.

The Junior Prada is inching toward its 80th year, and the rodeo is held on city-owned grounds that local citizens donated 2,500 hours of their time to help refurbish and upgrade.

Every May, State Historic Preservation Officer Jim Garrison leads a walking tour of the city’s historic district—which includes the home of San Carlos agent (and later Tombstone Epitaph founder) John P. Clum—and awards are given for the year’s best-completed preservation project.

When you look around Florence, the history left for you to see and enjoy is the result of unseen hands from the town’s many preservation organizations—the city’s Main Street Program, Historic District Advisory Commission, the Pinal County Mounted Posse, the Arizona Rangers Superstition Company, the Industrial Development Authority (responsible for reconstructing the Tunnel Saloon on Main Street), the Florence Preservation Foundation and the Pinal County Historical Society.

Florence’s citizens today work as tirelessly as the Albert W. Gressingers, Della Arcadia Redondo Meadows and John Swearengins who came before them. The town’s riches far extend beyond the Silver King Mine. It’s no wonder that the man often regarded as the “father of Arizona,” Charles Poston, is buried atop his favorite butte here, where he had once wanted to build a Temple to the Sun.

3. SILVER CITY, NM

Owner John Fleming and Apache Medicine Man Geronimo met in the north parlor, circa 1885. In its 125th year, in 2008, that brick Stine-Fleming House was further preserved via a roofing grant.

John P. Risque built a circa 1870 home, orienting its adobe walls and windows for solar gain. In 2008, the current owner, Paula Geisler, shared the home’s eco-friendly qualities in a documentary distributed nationally on public TV.

The childhood home of Billy the Kid (known locally as Kid Antrim) is no more, but you can visit the grave of his Irish mother in the cemetery off Highway 180, leading into Silver City.

To think that, only 40 years ago, Silver City’s downtown was filled with boarded up buildings. The town’s 10,545 hardy citizens transformed it into a national historic district. And today, the downtown is one of two New Mexico Arts & Cultural Districts, which means that state tax credits for approved preservation projects have been increased to $50,000 from a ceiling of $25,000, says Silver City Museum Director Susan Berry.

Looking toward the future, the town’s 1886 Water Works Building is on its way to becoming a heritage tourism center, thanks to a federal Preserve America grant, which only recognized two New Mexico towns (Las Vegas was the other one), says Tom Drake of the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division.

In May 2008, the town was given yet another special recognition: the Excellence in Economic Development Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation-led Strategies to Enhance Economic Development. Yes, that’s a mouthful. But what it means is that the state’s oldest Main Street project, Silver City’s, finally got the national recognition it deserves.

“Creating a climate of opportunity for new and existing businesses has been a successful strategy,” says Frank Milan, the Main Street manager. “The importance of historic properties and initiatives taken by private citizens and public entities can not be underestimated.”

We agree. Silver City is a shining beacon of what can be possible when citizens and government work together to preserve a town’s history, even when it may seem like history has been forever boarded up.

2. VIRGINIA CITY, MT

Virginia City, Montana, which became the territorial capital in 1865, is one of the oldest and most intact gold rush-era settlements in the nation. Today, the Montana Heritage Commission protects the district’s more than 200 structures. This “living laboratory” has made it the perfect backdrop for the historic preservation certificate training programs offered by the Virginia City Institute.

Not surprisingly, if you have folks around who offer technical support to other towns on historic preservation maintenance problems, then you also have an incredibly smart bunch that uses the most innovative stabilization techniques and specialized tools, combined with a high understanding of preservation ethics, saving historic Virginia City.

Mind you, this city has only 150 residents. So the heritage commission folks and conservator Jeff MacDonald recruit volunteers from the international Heritage Conservation Network to restore this 19th-century mining town. In 2008, volunteers worked on stabilizing the roof pitch and shoring the structure of gold rush resident Susan Marr’s home, known locally as “the worst looking house with the best looking yard.”

For the upcoming year, city planners will be looking into developing the state’s oldest park site and the site of the old capital, North Park, as a campground and special event site. They will also be rerouting Daylight Creek around the state’s oldest brewery, the stone Gilbert House established in 1863, to protect the area’s historic structures.

The gold quickly panned out after the 1863 discovery. Then the owner of the city’s historic structures was forced to sell. Luckily, the state found the millions needed to purchase the buildings, and the town is a labor of love to this day. Located 60 miles northwest of Yellowstone Park, Virginia City remains architecturally frozen to its 1800s past—which warms our hearts to no end. Thank you Montana and your incredible team of stewards and preservationists.

and Number one…

CHEYENNE, WY

The city’s slogan, “Cheyenne—Live the Legend,” has never held more true than it does today. In fact, this town of 55,314 citizens inspires legends.

Just as one historic district—its sixth, Moore Haven Heights, with 495 properties—has been approved by the Wyoming Preservation Office and is pending national district approval as of press date, Cheyenne is already at work on applying for its seventh district: the Round Top Water Treatment Plant Area, which was built in 1906 as the first sand settlement filtration plant west of the Mississippi River.

Wow. These folks don’t even stop to catch their breaths.

It’s almost hard to keep up with them. Around this time last year, Cheyenne had just finalized the fifth historic district. And much of what they were in the midst of developing in 2007 was open and fully operational by 2008. That includes the downtown livery stable (already expanded with an outside corral because of high usage) and the cell phone audio tour system for the city’s eight museums that had 4,100 individuals calling in during its first 16 months of operation.

Here’s what’s next on the list to save. The Wyoming Capitol is undergoing a $1.2 million skylight restoration project. Three owners of 1880s homes, originally from Fort D.A. Russell, are preserving these homes instead of demolishing them to put in a parking lot. (Joni Mitchell is smiling somewhere above these saviors.)

The city’s “Tracking Trains” tour already has visitors checking out iron horse sites such as the former Union Pacific Depot and the state’s oldest locomotive built in 1890. In 2008, the city finished a survey of the old Burlington Northern Railroad route. Most likely, the results of that survey will add to what is already an impressive adventure for train buffs.

The city’s proudest moment was undoubtedly when elders from the Northern Arapaho tribe visited Belvoir Ranch in May 2008; tribal members have not been on the land since settlers pushed them off it in the 1860s. The community being developed here will incorporate teepee rings, bison kill sites, ancient rock shelters and the Denver to Fort Laramie stage route. Now that the Arapaho are on board, the city is beginning a dialogue with Shoshoni and Northern Cheyenne tribal elders for their input on the site.

Given all that Cheyenne has accomplished, it was no surprise to us that in 2008 the city hosted not just one, but two, preservation conferences: Preserve Wyoming and the 14 State Western Planners Association conferences. When you’re a legend, everyone wants to come and check you out. With all the rich historic sites to see in Cheyenne, now is the time for you to jump on the bandwagon too and check them out for yourself.

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