#3 Wilcox, Arizona

Legend has it that when the first train came rattling through the dusty southeastern Arizona burg of Maley in August 1880, Gen. Orlando B. Willcox, the commander of the Department of Arizona who happened to be on board, received an ovation.

True or not, the town officially changed its name to Willcox in 1889.

Even before the name change, the town was an important cattle shipping and business center. Thanks to the good folks who work hard to keep that heritage alive, Willcox and the surrounding areas remain rich in history.

During Arizona’s centennial celebration last year, we made much out of the Sierra Bonita Ranch. Established by Henry Hooker in 1872, it was the first permanent cattle ranch in Arizona and today, it lies about 20 miles northwest of Willcox. The Earps made a stop at the ranch during their famous 1882 Vendetta Ride. Regrettably, Warren Earp, youngest of the brothers, was shot and killed in Willcox in 1900.

Most of the town’s historic structures stand, not surprisingly, in the historic district. The town’s park, located on the aptly named Railway Avenue, is adjacent to the 1881 Southern Pacific depot that is now City Hall. The Willcox Commercial, Arizona’s oldest, continuously-operated mercantile, opened in 1880. The Schwertner House, built in 1881, once served as a reception center for Army officers.

Willcox Wine Country, an association of local wineries and vineyards, is working to revitalize the town’s historic district. The group has opened three tasting rooms, paying homage to the town’s history of slaking the thirst of hard-working cowpokes (in 1891, the local brewery turned out 1,000 bottles of beer a day!).

The town continues to pay tribute to icons who glorified the West’s cowboy legacy and thus earned a place in many a kid’s heart. See for yourself at the Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum and the Friends of Marty Robbins Museum (each on Railroad Avenue). Around the corner is the Chiricahua Regional Museum and Research Center. Always at work to improve its history offerings, Willcox recently spruced up its Cowboy Hall of Fame, and redid its Barbed Wire and Branding exhibits.

Several Western-themed events help residents remember the town’s past. Willcox celebrates Rex Allen Days every October with a parade, rodeo and stage show. And Marshal Bo Downey and his re-enactment group perform every week for folks in the historic district. (Downey also sells traditional Old West garb at Marshal Bo’s Mercantile.)

For a town of roughly 3,775 people, Willcox sure is working hard to preserve all aspects of its Old West heritage.

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