Western Trips

Western Trips

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Road Trips Ideas / Navajo County Arizona

Western Trips came across a truly fascinating piece of western history located in the northern Arizona town of Holbrook. If you're looking for road trip ideas in northern Arizona, this just might be it. Holbrook Arizona presents a good representation of an old western town during the latter 1800's and early 1900's.

The really good news is that Holbrook took steps to ensure that artifacts and general information of that era have been preserved for future generations. The focal point for your visit to Holbrook is the old county courthouse located at the northeast corner of Arizona Street and Navajo Boulevard. There are plenty of road trip destinations and if you're planning a road trip across America, and particularly along Interstate 40, then Holbrook is a great addition to your Arizona trip planner.

holbrook arizona museum
Old Navajo County Courthouse
The Navajo County Courthouse came into being in the year 1895 when Arizona carved out the county from a western portion of Apache County to be called Navajo County Arizona. This was also when Frank and Jennie C. Zuck donated a piece of land which was known as City Park. Bids were put out for the courthouse construction and the firm of Kennedy and Grim of Flagstaff Arizona won the contract.

With a new county office structure being built south of Holbrook in 1976, the old courthouse was eventually turned over to the Holbrook Historical Society. After artifacts were obtained from local residents, the courthouse was turned into the Holbrook Museum in 1981, and what a fine northern Arizona museum they built. Holbrook is located along Interstate 40 about 97 miles west of Gallup New Mexico. The town is on the southern border of the Navajo Reservation. There are too many old west stories that occurred in and around Holbrook, including one hanging on the courthouse grounds, to include in one article but we've come across a few you're sure to fine interesting.

It Happened in Holbrook

When you think about old west towns you might come up with names such as Tombstone, Deadwood or Laredo. In addition to these be sure to add Holbrook. Holbrook was known to be a bit on the violent side when it came to shooting things up. The town was shot up almost daily by a combination of outlaws, rustlers and drunken cowboys. In fact, some will tell you that Holbrook was the most violent town in the latter 1800's. In a period of one year it was said that twenty-six people met a violent death. Adding to this was a violent range war going on to the south of Holbrook involving cattle ranchers and sheep ranchers. Tombstone might be considered a peaceful town compared to what was going on in Holbrook at the time. As a side note, a great book about the frontier ranchers and how they dealt with rustling is The Cattle Kings, by author Lewis Atherton.

Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens

The first story occurs in the 1880's when Holbrook was part of Apache County Arizona and the newly elected county sheriff was a man by the name of Commodore Perry Owens. The public domain photo below of Owens shows his long hair and Winchester rifle. Owens, born in 1852, was given his name by his mother who wanted to honor the famous Commodore Perry of US Naval fame. Owens was charged with trying to stop the rustling which enraged the local ranchers. Owens, who carried two 45 caliber pistols on his hips and a Winchester rifle, was just the type of sheriff the ranchers wanted. He was a crack shot. With straw colored hair almost down to his hips, Owens stood out. His targets were the rustlers, many of who were chased out of Texas by the Texas Rangers, and the Navajo Indians who also were suspected of rustling and horse theft.

sheriff owens of arizona
Sheriff Owens
Commodore Perry Owens was involved in what has been named the Owens-Blevins Shootout, the most violent shooting in Holbrook Arizona history. In September of 1887, Owens rode his horse into Holbrook armed with a warrant for a man named Andy Cooper whose real name was Blevins. The warrant was for horse theft. Owens approached the rented home that Cooper and the extended Blevins family, brothers, wives and children, were residing at. Carrying his Winchester, Owens was on the porch of the house when he encountered Cooper just inside.

The exact course of events were a bit hazy but one thing led to the other and after about only five minutes several of the Blevins including the alias Cooper were shot. One brother survived his injuries but in this short time span one of the family, a fifteen year old boy, was also shot and killed. Andy Cooper who the warrant was named for was one of the killed. A coroners inquest ended up clearing Owens of the somewhat controversial  killings but, because of the death of the teen, Commodore Perry Owens did not seek reelection for another term as sheriff of Apache County. Owens took a job later as a security agent for the railroad but did come back in 1895 as the first appointed sheriff of the new county of Navajo. He served about two years at that post and eventually moved to Seligman Arizona to the west of Flagstaff and married.

Sheriff Wattron

The second story also involves an elected sheriff. In 1897 Francis Joseph Wattron became sheriff of Navajo County. Wattron was everything you might expect a western sheriff to be in a dime novel. Some would say that Wattron was a bit of a showman and took advantage of the popular perception of the western lawman. While Owens had his hip length hair and twin revolvers, Wattron had a bloodhound and a gold badge encrusted in diamonds. His deputy wore a sold silver badge. Flamboyant and humorous, Wattron played the role of sheriff quite well. He played that role as he thought the citizens wanted him to. The story about Francis Joseph Wattron that has made the history books of Navajo County Arizona pertains to a hanging he was charged with carrying out in 1899. The Arizona Penal Code obliged the sheriff to send out community invitations for the actual execution. In this particular case, Wattron sent out the following invitation not only to the local community but nationwide and to some dignitaries in Europe. The invitation as described in the book, The Western Peace Officer, by author Frank Richard Prassel, stated....."You are hereby cordially invited to attend the hanging of one : George Smiley, Murderer. His soul will be hung into eternity on December 8, 1899 at 2 o'clock PM sharp. The latest improved methods in the art of scientific strangulation will be done to make the surroundings cheerful and the execution a success". 

old navajo county arizona jail
Old Navajo County jail cell
Wattron's invitation was met with outrage by higher up officials and he was ordered by the Arizona governor to send out a new invitation. Much to his chagrin, Wattron complied with the governor's orders and sent out a new invitation that had heavy black borders on the paper. The new invitation included in part...."With feelings of profound sorrow and regret, I hereby invite you to attend the private, decent and humane execution of a human being,; name George Smiley; crime, murder. The said George Smiley will be executed on January 8, 1900 at 2 o'clock PM. You are expected to deport yourself in a respectful manner, and any flippant or unseemly language or conduct on your part will not be allowed. Conduct, on anyone's part, bordering on ribaldry and tending to mar the solemnity of the occasion will not be tolerated".  Sheriff Wattron made certain to send the governors new invitation late so that he would not receive it until the execution was already carried out.


Two additional articles we have on Western Trips regarding northern Arizona historical sites are the famous Fred Harvey La Posada Hotel in Winslow and the famous Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Also see our article on a visit to the world famous Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

There are plenty of places to visit in Arizona. If your western vacation or road trip takes you by Holbrook Arizona, I would highly recommend a stop at this excellent museum. I think you'll find a lot of interesting things to explore there including the old jail adjacent to the old sheriff's office. This particular jail was constructed in St. Louis Missouri in 1898 at a cost of $3,000 and shipped to Holbrook by railroad. The courthouse is a fun and educational trip stop for the whole family.

(Photos are from author's private collection. Photo of Commodore Perry Owens is in the public domain)

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