When people reminisce about the Old West, they think of air thick with the smell of blood, dust rising off the unpaved streets. They see men in black frock coats facing off in a corral, the pop of gunshots.
For residents of Tombstone, such imagery is an inescapable part of daily life.
“I wanted to live out West since I was two,” said Burt Webster, the manager of the O.K. Corral. “I loved the history. I used to learn cowboy songs with my dad.”
Webster moved to Tombstone in 1995. He is originally from Long Island, New York.
The 1881 30-second gunfight at the O.K. Corral is the reason Tombstone exists today.
“Tombstone’s been trying to be a tourist town since the ’20s,” said Webster.
According to Webster the gunfight, which actually took place in a lot adjacent to the corral, didn’t become a major part of Tombstone’s history until after 1923, when the second mining boom ended.
“It was not a cowboy town, it was a mining town,” said Webster.
After the mines failed, all Tombstone had left was its position as the seat of Cochise County, he said. That’s when the town leaders mobilized history to keep the town alive.
“The mine in Bisbee was going great guns, so they wanted to move the county seat,” he said. In an attempt to stop the move, the citizens of Tombstone organized the first Helldorado Days celebration in October of 1929.
“They had over 6,000 people but the stock market crashed, so that was it,” said Webster. The seat was eventually moved to Bisbee anyway, but Helldorado Days lives on as a celebration of Tombstone’s history.
The history and community may have helped attract newer residents like Webster, but for those who have lived in Tombstone their whole lives, like Brenda Ikirt, the history was nothing special.
“To us it was just a regular little town,” said Ikirt, the acting city clerk and town historian, whose family has lived in Tombstone for generations. She said the stories she loved the most were the ones her grandmother told her.
“My grandmother told me the Birdcage used to have a red light out front because it was the red-light district, and no woman could walk on that side of the street,” Ikirt said, then laughed. “When we were in town I used to ask her if we could walk on that side of the street!”
Ikirt said that of all the stories her grandmother would tell her, the best weren’t about Tombstone but the people who lived there.
“It was a real tight community where everybody helped each other,” she said.
Webster’s favorite stories about Tombstone tend to be less personal.
One of those is the 1884 lynching of John Heath, a man who masterminded the robbery of the Goldwater- Castaneda mercantile store, where the mining payroll was stored.
“They weren’t the brightest in the world because they robbed it before the payroll got there,” said Webster. Angry, the robbers took what money they could and started shooting. One of the people they killed was a pregnant woman.
The men who robbed the store were soon caught and hanged. Heath was taken to the courthouse jail in Tombstone, awaiting a transfer to the jail in Yuma since he wasn’t involved in the shooting.
However, as Webster said, “in the Old West, people didn’t take kindly to the mistreatment of women.” People rode up from Bisbee, broke into the jail, and hanged Heath from a telegraph pole.
“And everyone in Bisbee and Tombstone agreed that’s what should have happened,” said Webster.
Tombstone no longer has an archivist, so Ikirt acts as town historian in addition to her duties as city clerk. Ikirt said that most of her duties as historian involve pointing people toward the cemetery.
“People come in here and say they’re looking for someone that was buried here,” she said. “I know where everyone is, so I tell them how to get there.”
The archives themselves, Ikirt said, are kept at the Marlowe House under lock and key.
Ben Traywick, the former town historian who retired in 2010, has written books on the history of Tombstone, most notably about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
“The only thing Tombstone has to sell is our history,” said Traywick. “If we don’t maintain that history, we’re going to be an old folks’ home with high utilities.”
Gabby Ferreira is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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