western-towns_wilcox-arizonaThey say that in the 1870s, native grass grew stirrup high in Sulphur Springs Valley.

True or not, ranchers flocked to southeastern Arizona. So did rustlers, and the mountains surrounding the valley served as hideouts for many an outlaw over the years.

Once the Southern Pacific Railroad reached Willcox in 1880, the town boomed. By 1891, a local brewery was turning out a thousand bottles of beer a day to help dusty cowboys slake their powerful thirsts.


Most Old West aficionados know how Warren Earp, Wyatt’s youngest brother, got himself shot and killed in a Willcox saloon in 1900. And how he’s the most famous denizen of the town’s pioneer cemetery.

But here’s a bit of history you may not have heard before: In 1895, a couple of local cowpokes decided robbing a train might be an easier way to make money than cowboying.
Grant Wheeler and Joe George uncoupled the baggage cars, took them down the track a few miles and packed dynamite around the train’s two
safes. The blast opened the smaller safe, but not the larger Wells
Fargo strongbox.

The robbers tried again, but the safe stood intact. Determined, the dim-witted duo packed the remainder of the dynamite around the safe and lit the fuse. Success! Sort of.

Much like the famous scene in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the blast not only blew apart the safe, but also the entire baggage car.

Wheeler killed himself in Colorado a couple of months later; George simply faded from history.


No visit to Willcox is complete without stopping by the Rex Allen Museum, which honors the hometown boy who became one of the greatest of the singing cowboys. After seeing Allen’s guitars, saddles, boots, sequined suits and movie posters, you will want to check out the statue of Allen across the street. Inside it is an anatomically correct bronze heart, the artist’s way of showing that the singing cowboy’s heart will always stay in Willcox.


Rest your head inside the 19th-century adobe at Dos Cabezas Spirit and Nature Retreat, a bed and breakfast a few miles southeast of town. Then head over to Big Tex Bar-B-Que, inside a former railway dining car, to order the Super BBQ Plate, a hearty meal of ribs, chicken and brisket.


Willcox hosts its Rex Allen Days celebration, first held in 1951, on October 2-6. Along with the traditional rodeo and parade, you will find concerts, tractor pulls and Aztec dancers.

John Stanley, the Arizona Wildlife Federation’s 2007 Conservation Media Champion, is a  former travel reporter and photographer for The Arizona Republic.

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