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History

Florence flourishes as 'True West' town

While Tombstone didn't make it on True West magazine's list of the "Top 10 true western towns," another Arizona town, Florence, not only made the list but cracked the top two.

Many of Florence's cherished, faded adobe buildings, most of which are in decent shape, are on its Main Street. A few brick shops stand between them.

Florence residents have worked hard to retain the old western town feeling. It was only two years ago that True West first recognized Florence as an old west town.

"They didn't even know we existed," said Lynn Smith, chairwoman of the collection management committee at the Pinal County Historical Museum in Florence. "We wanted to be known."

So Smith and co-workers stepped up. They applied for and received criteria from True West (the same information as the rest of the cities that apply), and they put together a 36-page application. They were listed the No. 4 western town that year.

This year, with a new and improved lengthy application of anecdotes and photos of artifacts and featured historic charms, as well as the restoration of numerous buildings, Florence was bumped up the list to No. 2.

Smith and her sister, Pat Faux, went through the entire Pinal County Historic Museum and took pictures of each artifact: nooses used to hang prisoners from the 1800s, preserved furniture carved out of cacti, the window from the shootout at the Tunnel Saloon and more.

"To be second to Virginia City is fabulous," Smith said. "We're in good company to be up there with them. It's hard to compete with somebody who has a railroad, and they have even restored it. I'm just thrilled we got as close to them as we did."

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Florence is the sixth oldest town in Arizona. Its boom peaked in the 1870s when wagonloads of silver ore from the Silver King Mine passed through, along with single men who had time and money to spend.

Local cowboys would join them in the 18 established saloons that Florence had at that time, where men could drink, gamble and enjoy female companionship.

Many of the adobes from that time still stand today. Smith's current home — a historic site — is a combination of two adobe saloons that were connected.

The town of Florence took on four restoration projects within the last two years and continues to slowly restore bits and pieces of the old Pinal Courthouse from 1890 as well as the 1870s courthouse, which is known today as McFarland State Park.

Neither courthouse is used any longer, but the town has future plans to reopen both as offices for town officials and museums for the public.

McFarland State Park is one of the last standing adobe commercial buildings. It has been closed in the last year because of the state budget crisis, but residents still have worked on its preservation.

Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West, said that Florence has benefited from its original architecture, which distinguishes it from other cities such as Tombstone.

"[Florence doesn't] have the legend that Tombstone has, but we don't look at it that way," he said. "Architecture is important and in Arizona it is acknowledged because so many buildings are torn down."

Another major landmark in Florence is the Silver King Hotel, which has stood since 1876. The town took it upon itself to cover the costs of preservation. It bought the hotel and currently rents it out to small businesses for a reasonable amount. Grants and federal funds that the hotel had received for repairs were not enough.

The exterior of the building continues to represent the old west with its original brick and green wooden trim.

The old Florence High School was condemned roughly 10 years ago. Windows and doors were boarded up, vandalism took a toll on the interior and exterior walls, and residents were embarrassed, Smith said.

The neoclassical revival-style school was designed by Phoenix architects Royal W. Lescher and John R. Kibbey and completed in 1916. It drew students from Eloy, Picacho, Mammoth, Coolidge and Red Rock.

Residents of Florence raised the money to restore the old school, and it now has reopened and serves as the local school district's headquarters.

Smith said residents of Florence will continue working to keep the town on the True West list. "We don't know if we'll have enough to show and change next year," she added. "It's up to the editors sitting around the table making the decision."

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Julie Alfin/ArizonaNewsService.com

Florence was listed as number two on a list of Top 10 true western towns by True West magazine. Many adobe buildings from Florence's boom period of the 1870s still stand along Main Street.

Top 10 True Western Towns

  1. Virginia City, NV
  2. Florence, AZ
  3. Fort Davis, TX
  4. Dubois, WY
  5. Glenwood Springs, CO
  6. Fort Pierre, SD
  7. Tahlequah, OK
  8. Lincoln, NM
  9. Dodge City, KS
  10. The Dalles, OR

On the Web

True West: Top 10 True Western Towns of 2010