Saloons, Shootouts, and Scandalous Sceneryby John Scott on May. 16, 2012, under Uncategorized
The batwing doors swung open and all conversation stopped. As the piano music slowly faded away, all eyes focused with scrutiny on the stranger. I’m guessing if that ever really happened, it was because the stranger was dressed as a clown with big floppy shoes and a squirting flower.
Saloons in the Old West were legendary businesses. Cowboys off the trail would head directly to one and spend the majority of their monthly wages on liquor, gambling, and women of negotiable affections. In a way, they were 19th century man caves. They varied in style from simple tent buildings with a rough plank thrown over beer kegs for a bar, to grandiose buildings with fine furnishings. One thing that was commonplace was the quintessential painting of a nude lady. Men would toast to her, and put her on a pedestal. Jeez, she was just on a wall!
Due to the drinking, swearing, spitting, cigar smoke, and scandalous paintings, society women in the Victorian era were not typically found going in and out of saloons. It was not proper for a lady to be seen in them. Not to mention that drunk men would easily get into gunfights, which makes for a dangerous atmosphere.
Drinks varied from wine, rum, beer, champagne, and of course, whiskey. Tucson’s Cosmopolitan Saloon (now gone) mixed Mescal with whiskey and called the concoction pulque, which apparently caught on briefly in the early 1880′s. This was different than the original ingredients of the Latin American beverage, but the teamsters drinking it probably didn’t know the difference, as long as the alcohol achieved the desired effect. In an effort to make as much money as possible, saloon owners would cut whiskey (or grain alcohol) with numerous ingredients to extend it’s use. Cayenne, turpentine, even snake heads were known to “flavor” the beverage. This whiskey was jokingly titled rotgut, and didn’t win much favor with patrons of discerning tastes.
Historic saloons in Arizona are somewhat plentiful. Surely not the amount that lined both sides of the street in the 1880′s, but examples are numerous.
Prescott’s Whiskey Row has some terrific historic watering holes. Maybe the most popular of these is the Palace Saloon. Founded in 1877, it was not only a tavern, but a barber shop, restaurant, and gambling hall. During the fire of 1900, citizens pulled the historic (and no doubt expensive) mahogany bar into the courthouse square so it wouldn’t burn up. Today, it sits in its rightful place separating the bar area from the restaurant. Adorned with photographs and displays, it is a mini-museum of Prescott and the colorful characters that frequented it.
Tombstone also has representations of libation enterprises. The Crystal Palace, looking very much like it did in an 1880′s photograph, still holds the ambiance of a higher class drinking establishment. Adorned with a tin ceiling and wooden floors, one can experience the phantom scents of cigars, beer, and…whatever that other smell is.
It is interesting to note that many famous Old West characters owned saloons. Lawmen, gunslingers, gamblers, politicians, you name it. Ironically, a lot of them also died in saloons. They say alcohol and firearms do not mix. They’re right. Amazing that Miss Kitty never got shot with all the bullets flying around.
So, the next time you belly up to the bar in a historic saloon, don’t just think about brawls, gunfights, and poker while drinking your shot of Tarantula Juice. Ponder the important decisions regarding our great state that no doubt occurred at that scarred up counter. Treat them with respect, and please don’t shoot holes in the 130-year old ceilings.