Weekend Planner

Flagstaff revels in Wild West heritage

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / April 19, 2006

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- When Sherry Mangum was a little girl, her father told her never to walk along Front Street by herself -- it was too dangerous.

Today Mangum and her husband, Richard, make a living promoting this city's pioneer heritage and the natural beauty of northern Arizona. Lifelong Flagstaff residents, the Mangums have written several books about the region, including ''Route 66 Across Arizona" (Gem, 2001). During the summer they dress in period costumes and give tours of Flagstaff's historic center.

Though visitors today need not worry about gunslingers and gamblers along what locals called Front Street, a stretch of Route 66 also once known as ''Whisky Row," Flagstaff still has a Wild West edge. It seems everyone wears a cowboy hat. Red neon and bare incandescent bulbs figure prominently in the downtown's decor, and country music spills onto the sidewalks. The 1927 Hotel Monte Vista, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, offers rooms, a cocktail lounge, and a tattoo parlor (plus a Thai restaurant) all in one building.

At the northeastern edge of town, the Museum Club hosts rising country stars. Said to be the Southwest's largest log cabin, it was built in 1931 by a taxidermist to house a collection of preserved animals, hence its nickname ''the zoo." Mounted wild turkey, fox, bear, and elk heads still stare down on the wooden dance floor. The structure was built around several trees, which are for the most part worn smooth. A floor-to-stone fireplace, wagon-wheel chandeliers, and tables fashioned of varnished slices of tree trunks complete the look. Line dancing is popular.

Flagstaff owes its name to travelers from Boston, Richard Mangum said. In 1876 two groups of them set out to colonize the area. The first quickly abandoned it after late frosts killed their crops, and the second arrived in the summer to find a ghost town. On July 4, 1876, they had an Independence Day celebration, using a pine tree as a flagpole. When they left, they took the flag but left the staff. From then on, directions to the spot would tell travelers to ''look for the flag staff."

A downtown walking tour starts at the visitors' center in the 1926 Tudor Revival train station. If you're not lucky enough to join one of the Mangums' guided tours, pick up the Historic Walk brochure and head out on your own.

Many of the buildings are made of native stone and brick, accented with Moencopi sandstone, a rich red stone soft enough to carve. The 1886 McMillan Building at the corner of Route 66 and North Leroux Street, originally a hotel, is particularly striking; the 1911 doctor's office has nice sandstone carving around the door.

The Hotel Weatherford, with its wraparound balcony, seems to be right out of a classic Western movie. It opened on New Year's Day 1900. In November it marked 30 years of restoration with the return of the ornamental cupola, also know as a witch's cap, that served as a landmark of downtown Flagstaff in the early 1900s. The hotel is also the focal point of a Flagstaff New Year's Eve tradition with the midnight lowering of a giant pinecone.

It's impossible not to notice the Babbitt name on everything from a mercantile building to a car dealership. According to Richard Mangum, David Babbitt was one of five Babbitt brothers who came to Flagstaff in 1886 and established a business empire. In 1990 descendants of the family removed the aluminum siding from Babbitt's 1888 department store to reveal the original red sandstone, launching Flagstaff's historic renovation effort.

The Riordans were another of Flagstaff's first families. Brothers Timothy and Michael Riordan developed a successful logging business, the Arizona Lumber and Timber Co. They also took an active role in the town's social and economic growth, offering health care to employees and supporting schools and churches. To provide recreational opportunities and fresh water, they created the Lake Mary reservoir, which still provides Flagstaff with drinking water. The Riordan brothers married the Metz sisters, Caroline and Elizabeth, who were cousins of the Babbitt brothers. The two families built an Arts and Crafts-style mansion (designed by Charles Whittlesey, creator of Grand Canyon's El Tovar Lodge) consisting of two mirror-image homes connected by a common area. The brothers' reverence for wood is evident in Ponderosa pine floors, decorative box beam ceilings, and an oak bedroom set Michael Riordan designed. The house and grounds are now a state park, and mansion tours are given several times a day.

Two museums practically across the street from each other celebrate the area's history. The Pioneer Museum, in a former hospital for the indigent, is a quirky combination of medical and everyday artifacts. It houses the state's first operating room and an early X-ray machine and iron lung. Displays also include saddles and equine accessories, machines used in logging, old typewriters and adding machines, and toys and games from the early 1900s.

The Museum of Northern Arizona takes a broader look at the region and its earliest inhabitants. Its highly regarded gift shop features one-of-a-kind carvings, Hopi baskets, Navajo rugs, kachina dolls, textiles, pottery, sculpture, and other crafts.

If you visit Walnut Canyon National Monument, just 10 miles east of Flagstaff, in the early morning, you will be greeted by the chatter of birds and the sharp smell of pine. It is dizzying to look 400 feet down into the canyon, and easy to see why the Sinagua people who built shelters in the sides of these cliffs between 1125 and 1250 felt safe. A paved rim trail offers a vista of mixed textures and colors -- green Douglas fir, white limestone, striated rock in several shades of gray -- while a steep trail into the canyon allows a close-up view of the cliff dwellings. Other natural attractions close to the city include the Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki national monuments. The Grand Canyon is about 1 1/2 hours away by car.

It's this combination of natural attractions, historic preservation, Native American cultures, and a four-season climate that keeps the Mangums in Flagstaff. ''We were fortunate to be raised in a place we also love," Sherry Mangum said. ''We have snow and desert, red rock and prehistoric ruins. We've never had the desire to leave."

Especially now that she can walk down Front Street by herself.

Contact Ellen Albanese at

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