A year in the life of Prescott

PRESCOTT­ No longer a rough-and-tumble frontier town, but not yet a modern city of the 20th century, Prescott in 1916 was a community caught between eras.

A half-century after its 1860s beginnings, Prescott was largely leaving behind its image of raucous saloons and brothels. But the community was still more than a decade away from the Depression era, and the Work Projects Administration improvements that would lay groundwork for the city of the future.

And to some extent, local historians have overlooked Prescott's World War I era ­ a time when Prohibition ruled the taverns, and ranching, mining and the railroad drove the economy.

A new book fills in the gap. Local history buffs Nancy Burgess and Richard Williams have teamed up for "A Photographic Tour of 1916 Prescott, Arizona," a 232-page book chock full of black-and-white photos that depict one year in the life of Prescott's business district.

"We really don't know too much about this time in Prescott," Burgess, historic preservation specialist at Prescott City Hall, said of the 1910s. "It's not a time period that was very well-documented. It was just before the start of (U.S. involvement in) World War I, and Prescott was still a small town."

Priceless find

From a cache of old glass negatives that lay undiscovered for years in the basement of the historic Elks Opera House, Burgess and Williams were able to gain invaluable insight into the second decade of the 1900s.

The negatives focused exclusively on the interiors of local businesses. From bakeries to hat makers to blacksmiths, the photos showed the vibrancy and variety of the local business scene.

In one, a shoeshine man proudly displays his booth. In another, a baker looks on as dozens of loaves of bread rest in a dingy, brick-walled basement bakery. Another shows a hat maker tidying a rack of ladies' hats in her millinery shop.

Williams, who worked for years as a manager for theater owner Claude Cline, first came upon the old negatives in the 1970s, when the Elks on Gurley Street still served as a movie theater.

"They were in a box, all dirty and dusty," Williams said of the more than 100 old-fashioned glass negatives. After taking a closer look, he said, "I thought it would be neat to try to find out what (the photos) were."

A Prescott resident since 1962, Williams said, "I wasn't familiar with the older businesses." But he knew a lot of people in town who might be able to shed some light, so Williams got permission from the Clines to make prints from the negatives.

For years, Williams said he showed the photos to long-time Prescott residents, who filled him in on the details of some of the businesses.

Burgess guesses that the photos were originally part of an advertising endeavor. She pointed out that the Elks building housed a number of photo studios through the years, and one of them probably left the glass negatives behind.

Long-term partnership

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, while Williams was working in payroll for the City of Prescott, he talked with Burgess, a fellow city employee, about the old photos. "Nancy and I started talking about this, and we decided to collaborate on a book," he said.

Thus began a long-term undertaking for the two local historians. "This has been a 10-year project," Burgess said.

Along the way, Burgess and Williams got permission from the Clines to make another set of prints from the negatives. Ultimately, the Clines donated the negatives to Sharlot Hall Museum, and gave Burgess and Williams a 10-year exclusive right to use them.

During their extensive research, the authors conducted many oral interviews with old-time Prescott residents, a number of whom they thank in the book's acknowledgements.

Burgess, who is well versed in Prescott architecture and history, also cross-referenced the interview information with old insurance maps from the era, as well as with other local histories. The photos themselves also lent clues to the identification process. "I took the photos and looked at the ceiling tiles, and I was able to get some IDs that way," Burgess said.

Glimpse into the past

While Burgess and Williams were never able to identify the photographer, the photos tell their own stories.

For instance, Burgess pointed out that calendars were visible in many of the businesses, allowing her to pinpoint the time of the photos ­ sometimes to the day. "They were all taken between March and May of 1916," she said.

And the book is full of details gleaned from a close examination of the photos. For instance, the J.S. Acker & Co. store offered ­ amidst its stationery, books, tobacco and candy ­ postcards of Washington School, as well as war maps of Europe.

On another page of the book, an advertisement for the Prescott Fish Market ­ "If it swims, we have it" ­ offered crabs, lobsters, and oysters, as well as cut flowers. Still another page shows the Palace Barber Shop, which the book describes as an elegant shop that featured "chairs upholstered with well-worn velvet," and shaving mugs stored in a cabinet at the back.

Along with the photos, the book also includes text that divides the businesses into categories. To add to the interior views, Burgess included some photos of outdoor scenes from her extensive postcard collection, and Williams included a selection of business tokens from his collection.

The authors plan to attend the Sharlot Hall Museum book fair on Sept. 16.

Contact the reporter at cbarks@prescottaz.com.