If Prescott is known as “Everybody’s Hometown,” then Flagstaff must be called…ummm…let’s see, that’s a hard one to nail down. No one term seems to quite describe it: The City of Seven Wonders; Winter Wonderland; University Town; Pre-historic; Grand Canyon Gateway #2; Mountain Paradise; Route 66 Stopover…. City of contrasts. A stimulating university town that proudly bares its pre-historic roots, gift-wrapped with hometown texture.
Those early Route 66 pioneers probably heaved a sigh of relief and thought they’d hit the big time as they puttered into Flagstaff. Picture this:
A Flat-topped, 1925 pick-up truck rolls into town. Timeframe: 1932. Four people in the cab; Dad drives, Mom holds a ten year old girl and Mom’s dad props his arm on the open window. A broad-shouldered boy (pushing 16) stands in the back, leans on wooden racks. He’s pushed to one small corner by a hand plow, table, three mattresses, 2 bedsprings, four chairs, two spare tires, a wooden cupboard, and a few scattered boxes. Hogging about a third of the space, an immense lump of canvas tent and poles hunkers to the side. They’ve barely made it through hot and barren New Mexico and the eastern part of the state. That thirsty look includes their steam-belching truck. By some miracle, they’ve made it.
The boy leans over the rails toward his grandfather and speaks quietly. “Do you think Pa would consider staying right here?” he asks. “They said in Winslow that the lumber mills are hiring.” Hope hangs in every word. He’s tired. And hot. Flagstaff offers the first tangible, green coolness since Oklahoma.
“The man in Winslow says we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We haven’t even hit the Mojave!” Then He lobs his best argument, making little effort to tone down the yearning. “And they say they have a teacher’s college!” Grandpa just pats his arm to let him know he’s heard. They’re all tired. If they can get work, California can wait. He’ll take care of it.
And some of them did stay, I’m sure. What’s not to like? After yawning through the flat nothingness of the Texas panhandle, enduring New Mexico’s (mostly) barren mountains and deserts, and constantly refilling the radiator clear across the windy, hot, high desert of eastern Arizona, the view up Route 66 to Flagstaff must have looked rather heavenly.
Compared to the rest of the country they’d come through, Flagstaff seemed to be booming. Between the railroad, sheep and cattle ranching, the logging industry and all the eateries and other businesses that sprang up to service Mother Road refugees, Flagstaff seemed to hold its own relatively well through the depression. The city looks as if it’s flush with forward-thinking and entrepreneurial residents who support its growth through lean times, in spite of its only bank closing in 1932. Even their university president, Grady Gammage, saw a college education as a “depression industry,” and he was right. Enrollment increased from 321 to 535 through the 1930s, the heart of the Depression.
We plan to stay a few days in the area, so we drive north of the city on Highway 180 to camp in the Coconino Forest. From experience, we know there are numerous places in the National Forest where there are clearings that campers have used for decades. We have to be self-contained and follow all forest burn rules, but other than that, it’s a beautiful, free place to camp. And the quiet is priceless.
We find a gorgeous, level clearing under the trees to park the Betsy LaRue and pull in. Larry is outside putting out the awning when a man in a pick-up drives by slowly on the adjacent forest road. He stops and leans out to ask the obvious. “Y’all camping here tonight?” Larry says yes, but that we’ll be leaving day after tomorrow. The poor man sadly shakes his head. “Yeah, me and my buddy spotted this place and left to go get our camper. Oh well, we were too late, I guess!” and drives on. They both know – code of the forest is that the first one to put down roots gets the spot. The loser moves on, preferably beyond eyesight.
It may be mid-summer, but that evening we wear heavy flannel shirts as we sit outside to BBQ on our little grill and watch the sunset. The next morning, at first light, it’s 55 degrees inside and 39 outside! Yikes! Larry jumps out of bed, flips on the furnace and quickly snuggles back under the covers. BRRRR! I always forget how cold Flagstaff still gets at night, even when it’s in the 70s during the day.
No matter, there’s lots to do and see, and we’re ready to explore by 9 o’clock. The Museum of Northern Arizona and the Pioneer Museum, once known as the “County Poor Farm,” lie just a mile or two east of where we’re parked. We’ve been to the Museum of Northern Arizona before, and remember well its excellent prehistoric and natural historic exhibits. (Put both on your don’t-miss list.)
Founders of the Museum of Northern Arizona, Dr. Harold Colton and his artist wife, Mary-Russel Ferrell Colton chose to construct the main building of native basalt, like many other buildings in Northern Arizona, and modeled the museum on their own home. The building is now on the Registry of National Historic Places. Billed as the “Gateway to the Colorado Plateau,” MNA “is among 30 finalists for the 2015 National Medal for Museum and Library Services, “the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries for service to the community,” according to their website. Everything here is of high quality and well displayed with more information than one can absorb in several visits.
The lobby is extraordinary (in an Arizona sort of way), with carved beams on the perimeter of the room, stripped pine saplings cover the ceilings in a herringbone pattern. I enjoy seeing Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton’s paintings, but, in terms of excitement, movement and Arizona historic relevance, I find the striking 1985 “Sockdolager” sculpture by Clyde Ross Morgan to be most impressive. As a multi-colored bronze, it accurately commemorates John Wesley Powell’s passage down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869. Right down to Powell’s missing arm. The boat shoots the rapids, nearly standing on end. Spectacular! These are the rapids that could do you in – like the “Sockdolager” or “Haymaker” in boxing.
Don’t stop there, though, go on through and spend time at the pre-historic exhibits and discover Arizona’s surprising, aquatic beginnings.
The Pioneer Museum or “Poor Farm,” as some called it, sits about a half mile further east, and the huge black locomotive parked out front serves as good as any signpost to signal your arrival. Built in 1908 in typical turn-of-the-century farm house style, the founding doctor constructed the structure with the readily available “Pumiceous Dacite.” These stones got tossed out of the local volcano, Mt. Elden, when it erupted about 500,000 years before.
The farm functioned as a county “Hospital for the Indigent” 1908-1938. Plaques at displays inside claim that, as they were able, patients would assist staff who worked on the grounds and in the gardens to help pay for their care. One gets the impression they preferred to do so. The hospital also boasted the first “iron lung” in the county, and, although the huge black contraption did its job, I’m sure, it looks more like a medieval torture chamber than a machine to save lives.
*There’s enough stuff to do in Flagstaff to keep anybody busy for a month’s vacation, but today, we choose 3 of the lesser known places to visit. One of my favorites connects to Northern Arizona University, the Riordan Mansion. Donated by the family to the state of Arizona and now listed as a state park, we’ve even attended a wedding on the gorgeous grounds. Think romantic and lovely amongst fragrant Ponderosa Pines!
The 13,000 sf, Arts and Crafts style house was built for the two Riordan brothers who had purchased and expanded a lumber business in Flagstaff, ultimately becoming the main employers of the area. Tim and Michael eventually married sisters, cousins to the well-to-do Babbitt family. Apparently, they all got along quite famously, because the brothers built one house, featuring two separate, 6,000 sf living areas, and linked them by a 1,000 sf common area they named the “Rendezvous Room” or the “Billiards Room.”
By chance, in 1908, the brothers had met Charles Whittlesey, designer for El Tovar, the world famous hotel at Grand Canyon. He agreed to design the house, and the families moved in, one year later; even before El Tovar was done. Innovative for its time, the home featured stained glass windows, original Gustav Stickley furniture, an oval dining room and table, taut, leather-topped tables, a “light well,” a wicker porch swing in the living room in front of the fire place, indoor plumbing and bathrooms, hot and cold running water, and the first Flagstaff telephone. Almost everything retains its original finishes and upholstery. It’s so unique, and beautifully restored, I love to visit now and again just to see what additional spaces are now open. What a fun way for the 8 Riordan children and grandchildren to grow up!
It’s a bit of a challenge to find, but hang in there, you’ll find it tucked behind student apartments and among the college buildings, well worth the search. Arrive about 10-15 minutes before the hour, and you can purchase an exceptionally informative, guided tour.
For original Route 66 ambiance and furnishings, eat breakfast at the Grand Canyon Café, right downtown, toward the east end of Santa Fe (main street). It’s been in the same Japanese family since the 40’s and the stacks of books and magazines in an end booth and fish plaques and signs on the wall make it feel a bit like entering someone’s cluttered dining room.
When we were here for the 2000 Arizona Highways article on Route 66, I interviewed tiny, Millie, who’d been serving the cowboys and early risers their bacon and eggs for more than 50 years. She’d been working here since high school, and this down-home restaurant was her life. She told me she had no intention of quitting, they’d probably just have to carry her out feet first. And she was almost right.
According to our current server…One day she didn’t feel well at all, so they took her home before she collapsed. Within just a few weeks, the legendary server was gone. To us, it doesn’t seem quite the same without Millie, I still expected to see her round the corner, arms stacked with warm plates, ready with a straight-faced wise crack.
The room still looks the same, though, with its forest green, orange and cream color stripes under the old fashioned serving counter. The long row of original swivel chairs still belly up to the bar; oriental lanterns hang from the ceiling, a reflection of the owner’s ancestry. Some say Millie’s ghost and personality still linger. I agree, although I didn’t get to commune with her like a few claim to have done. Perhaps you’d like to go in and give it a try?
For a more modern take on Route 66, have lunch at the Galaxy Diner just west of where Historic Route 66 joins Milton Avenue. From its art deco, red, white and black décor, to the big juke box and star photo covered walls, the eatery evokes the theme of the 50s. However, no corporate decorator can capture the genuine feel we get when walking into a place like the Grand Canyon Café. On the other hand, the food here is great, and caters to a more modern, preferably less greasy palate.