Saturday, May 26, 2018

Historic, Under-Appreciated Willcox, Arizona

The Willcox Depot

I'm a sucker for authentic old western towns, unspoiled by tourism and kitschy re-creations of sites and events. Put a life-size diorama at an old fort site and I'm unimpressed. Do mock shoot-outs in the streets and I'm heading the other way. But leave the old buildings intact, and do tasteful markers and monuments - well, I get a bit weak at the knees.

That's Willcox. Still a cow-town with cow-haulers parked on the streets and the livestock auction grounds barely on the edge of town, it has that slow-paced and wonderful western feel. There aren't scads of out-of-state plates, nor do easterners clog the sidewalks. It's still genuine. Many of the old buildings are still intact, although perhaps the most famous building of all - what was once Brown's Headquarter's Saloon, where Warren Earp was shot to death - burned down in that most-Arizona-of-fates in 1940.

Willcox, part of the Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County, owes its origin to the Southern-Pacific railroad. The depot, shown above, was built in 1881 to service the area. It's the oldest extant redwood station in the country and has been lovingly maintained. To the left, partly obscured by the stop sign, you can see the old signal booth, complete with early phone numbers scratched into the metal on the door.

The historic downtown area is quiet now, but during territorial days, it was a notoriously tough town. Many of Arizona's most nefarious characters passed through, and many made Willcox their home. Working girls populated the saloons, and rival rustlers and cowboys engaged in gunplay on the street. Shootings weren't uncommon.  Train robber Burt Alvord, infamous in the state's history, was deputy sheriff under the famed Sheriff John Slaughter (a much tougher Arizona sheriff than Joe Arpaio ever was, by the way). Here in Willcox, Alvord killed the cowboy William King.

At left, the site of the original Headquarter's Saloon, where Warren Earp was gunned down in 1900.

Another notorious outlaw, train robber Bill Downing, kept a house of ill repute appropriately named the "Free and Easy Saloon" on Maley Street (the street across which the above photo is taken). Downing was killed by Arizona Ranger Billy Speed in 1908, just a year before the Rangers were disbanded after an eventful - and highly successful - eight-year run.

Willcox's most famous son, though, was cowboy star Rex Allen. As a boy, Allen performed in a barber shop on the street where today stands the Rex Allen Museum. The museum itself is in the old Schley Saloon building. Rex Allen never let his fame ruin his natural down-to-earth personality. He often visited old friends in Willcox. Leonard Sly performed in town, as well, before becoming Roy Rogers.

Although Marty Robbins was from Glendale, the Marty Robbins Museum and Gift shop stands next to the Rex Allen Museum. You can pick up my favorite Marty Robbins CD there, too - Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. I grew up listening to it on vinyl; it was one of Dad's most-played albums.

In the town square, a larger-than-life sculpture of Rex Allen by prominent Arizona artist Buck McCain looks over the town. Rex is keeping an eye on more than the passers-by, though. In front of the sculpture is a section of concrete imprinted with ranch brands, and beneath the concrete lies Rex Allen's famous co-star and stallion, KoKo. KoKo traveled half a million miles with Rex. 

KoKo's Grave

Throughout town are the sort of subtle gems that make photography a delight: ornate scrollwork accents on building facades; old signs painted on red-brick walls; the occasional amusingly misspelled business sign. 

Willcox is cult-free, so don't hesitate to step inside. They mean "Cutlery."

An accent piece on a vintage building.

Should you make your way to Willcox, stop in at the Friendly Book Store - they're friendly, and they have a good selection of Arizona history books.  The milk shakes at the Mother Lode ice cream store are not to be missed, either. You can pick up a free self-guided walking-tour map at the Chamber of Commerce (or many of the local businesses). 

If you'd like to enjoy some vintage photos and history of Willcox, you can pick up your copy of Arcadia's "Images of America: Willcox" book here:  Willcox, Arizona  (affiliate link).  Support local authors!

On the edge of town is the Old Willcox pioneer cemetery, too - but more on that later, so make sure you sign up to follow my blog by email.  

Copyright (c) 2018 by Marcy J Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are greatly appreciated * Thank you for linking, liking, tweeting, sharing, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thank you for stopping by and sharing my enthusiasm in the great American west.


  1. Thank you for such a nice article. I am in Willcox...grandparents came in 1955, and other family followed them here, including my family in 1967. Us kids graduated from Willcox High, and, I came to love Willcox AFTER my parents both passed away, So, I am living in their house and LOVE it!

  2. Thanks, Sherry! I really like Willcox and its rich history. It must have been a terrific place to grow up and stay at. Nice people and a lovely town center. I love hearing that you're living in your family home still!