Prescott had been the territorial capital of Arizona only five weeks when the first July 4 celebration was held there.
While Prescott today may, unofficially, be considered the state’s independence headquarters, back in 1864 the town site was little more than a vacant field.
Still, July 4 became the perfect occasion for the newly appointed body politic to send a poignant message to area residents, then mostly Southern prospectors.
That message, according to Prescott historian Melissa Ruffner, was "we are civilized, and we are Union. Consequently, Prescott’s July 4 activities mirrored events held in the East." In attendance that year were roughly 150 people.
Today, thousands converge on the city for activities that extend through July 5. It is estimated that nearly all of the city’s 1,400 rooms will be occupied as cooler weather and family-oriented events prove an irresistible draw. Some activities attracting visitors today include the Frontier Days Parade, the second-largest parade in the state, the Whiskey Row Boot Race, Fireman Hose Cart Race and Frontier Days Rodeo. The latter event is in its 116th year and the oldest continuous rodeo in the world.
But cowboy culture wasn’t always a part of Prescott’s festivities, Ruffner said.
In those early years, the reading of the Declaration of Independence, in English and Spanish, was a focal point of the holiday. Some of the competitions that have come and gone over the years include greased pole climbing, miner’s drilling, burro races and pie eating. Music, supplied by the 11th Infantry Regimental Band, could be heard in the town center. Achille La Guardia, father of future New York Mayor Fiorella La Guardia, headed up that band from 1892 to 1898. Parade participants on horseback waved to families picnicking in the town center. And, in the evening, the Calico Ball was followed by a midnight dinner.
For some of Prescott’s residents, these events weren’t fun enough. "The more rowdy element held their own races and contests, dashing on horseback through downtown establishments, competing to out-drink and out-lie all comers, shooting off firearms and, in general, doing their best to disturb the peace," Ruffner said, reading from the pages of her "Prescott: A Pictorial History."
Tired of the havoc perpetrated on the fine folk of Prescott, prominent citizens schemed to remove the ruffians from the town limits. Among those leaders were Morris Goldwater, William Bashford and George C. Ruffner, the first sheriff of Yavapai County and Melissa’s great-grandfather. Raising funds to hold a "cowboy tournament" outside town, prize money was to be awarded entrants to guarantee participation. (Interestingly, there were more female contestants than male that first rodeo. The ladies, however, were prohibited from competing for the cash.)
As the years progressed, and July 4 festivities grew, more volunteers were needed to put on events. During the summers of 1928 and 1929, a vacationing Richard M. Nixon, then a teenager, served as a "wheel of fortune" barker in the faux-gambling district of "Slippery Gulch." "It is believed that he started his political training there," Ruffner said, smiling.
Another evolution of the July 4 festivities has been to reduce alcohol consumption on Whiskey Row — actually, on the street outside the infamous Whiskey Row bars. In the 1940s, Yavapai County Attorney David Palmer put the kibosh on open containers, as well as flagrant gambling. But drinking is not the center of activities.
What is at the center of activities is atmosphere, a kind of old-fashioned patriotism that speaks of simpler times. "I still get emotional when I see the parade coming around the corner at Cortez Street," Ruffner said.
In 1994, she and other Ruffner family members shared the parade’s grand marshal honors with Ben Johnson, the only World Champion rodeo cowboy to win an Oscar, as best supporting actor in 1971 for "The Last Picture Show."
This year, the Frontier Days Parade pays tribute to the New York police officers and firemen who fell on Sept. 11. Grand Marshals this year are husband-andwife police team Michael and Janis Meehan and fireman Kevin Meehan, all of New York, leading the parade. Honorary grand marshals will be six members of the Navajo Code Talkers’ Association.