It took eight long years, but Tombstone finally blasted its way onto True West Magazine’s Top Ten True Western Towns for 2014. Tombstone comes in at No. 9, while Dodge City, Kansas, takes the top spot.
Bob Boze Bell, the executive editor of the monthly magazine, confirmed Tombstone’s ranking on the list, which is compiled each year through voting by the magazine’s staff as well as contributors from all over the world. The 2014 list will be featured in the February issue of the magazine, which has a circulation of 45,000 and bills itself as a major chronicler of the history of the American frontier.
Stuart Rosebrook, Towns editor at True West, said Tombstone has “an excellent committee of volunteers who host superior annual events in honor of Tombstone’s history and work hard to promote travel and tourism to Tombstone and Cochise County.”
Bell said that when he visited Tombstone businesses in March, he was especially impressed by the energy and attention to detail he witnessed at Doc Holliday’s Gunfight Palace, at 521 E. Allen St.
“True West is the word of the Old West. It’s an honor to be recognized by them. And many people have worked hard to gain this recognition,” said Stacy Foster, the show director at Doc Holliday’s. The business stages shows daily for spectators under the theme that contrary to legend and Hollywood, most Old West gunfights were brawls that broke out impulsively in saloons and brothels and ended quickly, if bloodily.
“We love Tombstone, we really do, but Tombstone kind of lost its way for a while,” Bell said. “But the spirit of the town is finally turning around. Their heart is in the right place.”
Every year, western towns submit applications for the Top Ten list that include detail such as money spent on historic preservation, efforts to promote heritage, and their success in tourism, especially in today’s economy. Bell said the application can be daunting to complete.
“People have told us its like filling out a bank-loan application,” Bell said. “But it’s a work in progress. It’s all about preserving the past.”
Brittany Williams, an administrative assistant at the Tombstone Chamber of Commerce, submitted the application this year. Williams said it took nearly two hours to complete.
Doc Holliday’s owner, Doc Najarian, said that keeping the Old West history intact is his priority, as well as ensuring authenticity. Najarian said he prides himself on the fact that his cowboys do homework so they look and sound the part.
“I’ve been doing this for 16 years, doing gunfights shows in Tombstone,” Najarian said. “We make it a point here that everybody that works here dresses in a certain way. Everything has to be period-correct: guns, holsters.”
Najarian and his cowboys travel for performances outside Tombstone, including corporate performances in Colorado and New Mexico.
“We are trying to promote Tombstone whenever we can,” Najarian said. “We are trying to let everybody know that Tombstone’s the place to be if you want to see an old western town.”
Without a doubt, news that Tombstone is officially certified by the True West crowd will be greeted enthusiastically in a municipality that is constantly battling to strike a balance between the modern needs of a small town and the requirements of maintaining a historical tourist attraction.
To do that better, Wyatt Earp Theatre owner James Ferguson said Tombstone’s historic district should be protected and returned to its historic 1880s appearance.
“If it were me, I would close Third Street, Fourth Street, and Fifth Street from Toughnut to Fremont, and declare this an historic district,” Ferguson said. “Get rid of all the cars unless you’re a resident. Put buckhorn wagons out there and put dirt back in the streets. Make Tombstone look like it did in 1880.”
Foster and Bell both said putting dirt back on Allen Street would bring back some authenticity.
At True West, which is based in Cave Creek, Ariz., about 30 miles north of Phoenix, Bell said he understands the dilemma faced by Tombstone residents and business owners, especially when it comes to balancing modern life with preserving Tombstone’s rich history and appearance.
“Tombstone is a living, breathing town,” Bell said. “People work and live there and some of them might want paved roads and curbs. Not everyone wants dirt in the streets.”
Ferguson said some businesses on Allen Street need sprucing up to attract and keep tourists coming back.
“For instance, other people in town need to grab a bucket of paint and paint the front of their damn building,” Ferguson said. “Clean it up. Make Tombstone look nice.”
Najarian said he would also like to see the historic district better protected.
“We’ve told them [city council] many times that Allen Street is for western history,” Najarian said. “Something that has nothing to do with western history is fine for the town of Tombstone, but let’s have the event somewhere other than Allen Street.”
Ferguson says city politics have a definite impact on the historic district.
“For instance, we have ordnances that say all signs have to be hand painted,” Ferguson said. “But you will go up and down Allen Street and see stuff that Goose Flats or somebody made that’s vinyl. If you’re going to have a historic district and you’re going to stick to historic fonts and paint, then you have to do it.
“But everybody complains ‘Well, it’s going to cost me too much to make a hand painted sign.’ Really? In the long run is it really going to cost you that much more,” Ferguson said.
“We’re all fighting for that same tourist dollar,” Ferguson said. “But that’s called America. People come for a better product. If you’re upset because people are not buying your product, then maybe you need to make it better.”
The lack of cooperation is something business owners have to deal with everyday.
“What we would like to see is groups like the chamber of commerce and the city council consult with the individual business owners, like myself, so we can coordinate better with promoting and doing the shows,” Najarian said.
Foster mentioned their idea of having skits on Allen Street to drum up interest before their regular shows. These skits would give tourists a taste of the action and history.
“We also trying to get permission from the city to do short teaser skits on the street right before our shows to get the excitement up to bring people in,” said Foster. “We’re having a little trouble getting that approved.”
Ferguson said promoting the town is everyone’s responsibility.
“I just took my camera, went up and down the street, and took photos of all of the businesses on Allen Street for our website,” Ferguson said. “This way, we can promote the rest of town. If people come here, they’re going to come to this coffee shop. They’re going to go the CrystalPalace. They’re going to go to the O.K. Café. They’re going to go the gunfight shows. They’re going to go to the mine tour. We have to get hem here. The problem is that we aren’t bringing people into town.”
Ferguson has some ideas on that very topic.
“I want to bring music here,” Ferguson said. “I want to bring folk music to Tombstone. There’s a whole group of musicians that I’d like to invite to Tombstone.”
The rich history of Schieffelin Hall begs for more use. Ferguson said the hall would be perfect to smaller shows.
“Schieffelin Hall, we have one of the most beautiful adobe buildings in the state of Arizona, Ferguson said. “We should be having concerts here. Eddie Foy and some of the most famous actors of the turn of the century and 19th century acted there. It should be utilized.”
Attracting more people to Tombstone may include bringing back famous musical acts, some of who haven’t been in Tombstone in many years.
“We should also be bringing headliners into this town,” Ferguson said. “Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard used to come here back in the day.
“I think it’s more of bringing these kinds of guys here and maybe doing three to four shows at Schieffelin Hall. Rotating people in and out. It’s about bringing these types of country-western singers to one of the most infamous and lawless towns in the Old West,” he said.
“There’s a lot of great ideas, a lot of potential here,” Ferguson said. “But to make it kinetic; get people to talk and work together. That’s the problem.”
“We chose to go down the path of tourism rather than the path of commerce as city,” Ferguson said. “We need to find the happy medium between both of those. Tombstone needs to have some jobs here other than service-orientated jobs. That’s where the town gets all screwed up.”