By Dr. Jay Cravath

The venues for culture during the immigrant influx into Arizona Territory concentrated around mining towns, where striking it rich meant gaining disposable income.  Nouveau riche miners wanted to show their taste for the good life.  Gambling halls, restaurants—where cuisine was as fine as any in America’s large cities — opera houses, saloons, and brothels began serving their needs.

One form of entertainment came directly from the mine work, as skilled miners pitted their talents and brawn against one another in rock drilling contests.  Rock drilling was the livelihood of many miners, and their peers wanted to see the best.  The object was to plant dynamite to move rock.  Double-jack mining required a two-man drilling team.  One man (the “shaker”) gripped a steel chisel with his bare hands and bravely held it in place.  His partner (the “driller”) struck the chisel with an 8-12 pound sledge hammer, slowly making a hole in the rock.  After a day’s work at this, or an afternoon’s competition, miners needed to let off a little steam.  A “honky-tonk” saloon would be a good place to start.

 “Honky-Tonk:” The onomatopoeia in the word suggests activity, fun — perhaps even a slide past cultural norms with, maybe, a bit of rowdiness thrown in. The origin of the term “honky-tonk” is a bit obscure. A 1900 article in the New York Sun described how a gaggle of honking geese distracted theater-goers from finding the entrance to their show — that might be an origin of the “honky” part. “Tonk” is no doubt a reference to a popular piano maker of the day. Pianos were popular in establishments frequented by miners. The music springing from their keys was ragtime, newly popularized by Scott Joplin.

Coming off shift, a miner could expect to find a honky-tonk or saloon nearby. Gambling, drinking, and dancing were the norm. A famous gambling story in Arizona lore took place in Prescott’s Cabinet Bar on a cold January night in 1898; a young mother entered with her babe in arms and a note saying the child was homeless.  The note identified the father as “William Bell.”Alas, other than the shotgun, no child support system existed back then. The Cabinet had been the center of activity in Prescott for a quarter century. According to the newspaper—the Courier—the young lady was a “rather comely young woman.” No fewer than forty brawny men infected with the empathy of whiskey, volunteered to give the infant a home. It was suggested that a gambling game decide her fate. Thirty of these earnest gamblers began throwing dice for rights to the infant. Charles Hicks, the county probate judge was called in—probate judges handled all adoptions in territorial Arizona. Judge Hicks “decided the question by announcing he would take [the child] himself.”His wife petitioned her own husband to adopt, and ten days later, as the Courier recounted: “the little waif of the Cabinet saloon has fallen into a home good enough for any child.”

For a more refined and proper night out, miners flocked to Prescott’s Elks Lodge, designed to serve as an opera house.  Shortly after it opened in 1905, the prominent and popular actress Florence Roberts appeared in the play “Marta.”  The best seats went for an astonishing twenty-five dollars, and the citizenry filled the place.

For a less-refined evening, there were brothels, of course.  Mary Katherine Horony came to Tombstone with her boyfriend Doc Holliday and opened the town’s first brothel. Known there as Kate Elder, or Big-Nose Kate, she erected a large tent, ordered barrels of cheap whiskey and hired several “working girls.” It wasn’t fancy, but men flocked in from all directions. The rule of the house was to never let a man leave with money in his pocket.

These and other stories will be recounted by Dr. Jay Cravath, with period music and archival images, at the Centennial Center, 1989 Clubhouse Drive, Prescott, on August 6 for the Thirteenth Annual Western History Symposium, sponsored by the Sharlot Hall Museum.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.