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The Old West is alive and well

Tombstone. Florence. Globe and Miami. Each is in southern Arizona, each is small and one has a population of a little more than 1,000. Arizona had a lot of such places _ mining towns that boomed, usually around the turn of the century, and all but died when the good times ended. In recent years they've made comebacks, growing a bit, usually while rediscovering their past.

Walking through these towns, asking residents about why the rest of us might stop by, I was struck with something: They said interesting things in interesting ways.

In Tombstone, which runs about a half mile between wood sidewalks, general stores, saloons and a restaurant called Big Nose Kate's, Jack Gordon told me had come from Ohio in 1956, in search of the western fantasy he'd read about as a boy. "This is the true Old West," he said. "But you know, it's a real peaceful place today. No crime. No drugs. Lots of churches. My wife and I never lock a door at night."

Gordon was dressed in a cowboy suit and had a gray moustache, making me me think of Wyatt Earp, the town's most notorious resident.

I was told I'd find the local historian at Tombstone's courthouse, which is a place of elegant lines that belie the disorder that made the town famous. It is now a state-owned park and at the door I met the historian, Hollis Cook, a sturdy man with a deep voice.

I asked how faithful to history Tombstone was. He answered me seriously: "If you look at the big picture it's accurate. But if you look at some of the details _ the way a certain building or two may be touched up _ it's not so authentic. Towns like Tombstone can be open to that kind of manipulation.

"But if people want a look at an Old West town the way it truly was, they need only go to the far end of Allen Street and look westward. They'll see the real thing."

On another day, while driving from Tucson to Phoenix, I turned off about halfway and headed for a town named Florence, considered one of the most intact examples of territorial architecture in Arizona. The courthouse was built in 1891 and is still the courthouse.

Florence is said to be the fourth-oldest town in Arizona, founded in 1866. Many of its buildings are constructed of adobe _ earth, straw and water rapidly dried in sun _ so that almost the entire place is a National Historic District. It, too, was a turn-of-the-century mining town, with 28 saloons.

Yet there there is nothing touristic about it _ no big signs shout as you enter, and the main street is quiet and pretty. The general store has been operating in the same building for 105 years.

A guidebook from the visitors center mapped a stroll around Florence. Each building has a story: Brunenkant's City Bakery, for example, was the home of a man who came from Holland and settled in Florence in 1889. A home dating to the 1860s is a Sonoran-style row house of adobe, with a roof made from the ribs of the famous Saguaro cactus. One building had served as the home and hospital of physician George Huffman. A plaque said something of medical practice in early Arizona: "During his early years the doctor made housecalls carrying his supplies on a mule. He carried a 25-caliber pistol and was accompanied on his rounds by an undertaker."

And the courthouse's ornate, curvaceous clock tower has a charming eccentricity: Its painted wood clock has shown the time as 11:46 since the day the building was finished, Feb. 2, 1891.

I asked visitor center staffers Ruth and Steve Stevens about the town's publicized population of about 7,500 _ the place seemed small for that number. "That's about the number," said Steve Stevens, "but about 3,000 are inmates."

I'd forgotten about the state penitentiary on the edge of town. When I asked if townfolk worried over escapes, he shook his head emphatically. "Never," he said. "After all, if any of them ever got out they want out of Florence fast. They want to be someplace else."

Later, I headed east of Phoenix, along The Old West Highway, to the town of Globe. The road approaching it is not beautiful: Massive mountains of dirt, the tailings of copper mines of the past, scar the landscape all the way through the little town of Miami, which almost joins Globe. Some locals call the tailings one of the great ecological challenges of the century.

Atop one section of the finely ground rock is a herd of cows, placed there in the hope that their manure will help turn the tailings into soil. Already grass is sprouting.

We checked into the Copper Hills Inn in Miami, across the road from the tailings, and then headed to the main intersection of Globe for a special event: Apache Day Celebration. Every year, the people of Globe join with American Indians from the nearby San Carlos Apache Reservation. Usually more than 20,000 people come for the commemoriation, which includes youngsters singing and dancing, and other Indians painting and weaving in more than 100 booths. The observance gives a sense not just of the variety of their culture but also a of people working to come together.

"We've felt for years that we owe a lot to the people of the San Carlos district," said Ellen Kretsch, a local journalist who came to Globe from Illinois. "They are a large part of our economy. These celebrations are a way in which we say thank you."

Globe and Miami have a combined population of 18,000. They may not be the prettiest small towns of southern Arizona, but they offer a feeling that matters more: an honest spirit in which people, perhaps because they are a bit out of the way, pull together in work and in life.

Next morning we drove a couple of miles to the edge of Globe, to a museum called Besh-Ba-Gowah _ an Apache term describing the housing that was there centuries before Christ. Besh-Ba-Gowah is the well-cared-for ruins of a prehistoric Indian tribe, the Hohokam, who lived there about 900 A.D. I looked into ancient stone rooms and later enjoyed songs and dances of native people. An elderly member of the Yaqui people from Mexico and an American Indian boy from Tucson performed a deer dance. And I listened to a man named Boe Titla, an Apache, sing poignant songs about childhood.

I left Arizona a couple of days later, taking with me memories of the rugged beauty and the gritty spirit that has kept these small towns alive.

Kenneth Bagnell is a Toronto-based freelance writer.


Getting there: American Airlines provides daily service to Phoenix from Tampa.

For information: Contact the chambers of commerce at these addresses:

Florence Chamber of Commerce

291 Bailey St., P.O. Box 929

Florence, AZ 85232

Phone (602) 868-9433

Greater Globe-Miami Chamber of Commerce

1360 North Broad St., P.O. Box 2539

Globe, AZ 85502

Phone (602) 425-4495

Tombstone Chamber of Commerce

P.O. Box 995

Tombstone, AZ 85638

Phone (602) 457-9317