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Mon, June 24

Graham: Courthouse plaza still delivers welcoming feel

As the new guy in town, every time I go to downtown Prescott I am reminded of what a cool blast from the past the courthouse plaza is.

For more than 140 years, it has served as a gathering place for residents, whether they have business in the courthouse, are attending one of the dozens of activities the grounds host every year, or are just hanging out for lunch or after school.

Even on a day like Monday — with cool temperatures, the wind blowing and whatever that wet stuff was falling from the sky — people were out for a walk, a bike ride or a stroll. (All this in addition to the fact it is a great spot if you play Pokémon Go.)

It helps too that the business district around it includes an eclectic collection of historic buildings, restaurants, bars, shops and even the new Western Heritage Center.

The plaza an amazing history, including the story most people know about how fire destroyed the building housing The Palace across the street on Whiskey Row in 1900, but not before the saloon’s patrons carried the bar across Montezuma Street and continued drinking.

I have lived in enough places in my life to know not every city has such a gem. The town where I spent my teenage years, Okmulgee, Oklahoma, had many of the same elements as Prescott: a long history, a city centered around downtown, and status as the county seat. However, those pieces did not result in the same picture.

The Okmulgee County Courthouse was built in 1916 -- coincidentally the same year as the latest version of Yavapai County’s courthouse. However, it is not the centerpiece for downtown. It sits a few blocks west of the town square, away from the business core. It’s probably a good thing, too; shoppers and tourists do not need to hear what the prisoners in the top-floor jail would yell at passers-by.

Instead of the county courthouse, Okmulgee’s town square is built around the Creek Nation Council House. The city serves as the capital of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, established after the tribe was forcibly removed from its homelands in Alabama and Georgia by the federal government during the early 1800s. The stone council house in downtown was built in 1878 and was the first permanent structure; the town basically grew around it.

(A historical sidebar: The U.S. Department of the Interior took control of the council house from the tribe in 1906. It was converted into a museum in the 1920s, then the government sold the building and grounds to the city in 1971. The tribe finally regained ownership of the building in 2010, and the National Historic Landmark recently reopened after renovations.)

For whatever reason, the area around the council house was not a downtown gathering place when I was growing up or when I later worked at the newspaper, which was located just a block away from the square. If the city held a civic event (such as the former Pecan Festival) it was at the square, but then the weekend would end and things would return to normal.

Prescott does not have that problem. As “the new guy” I do not have a historical perspective, but since I moved here last August, I would have to take off both shoes to count the number of big activities that have been held with the courthouse plaza as the centerpiece. And when everything is over, the return to normal brings the hustle and bustle of a crowd of people any day of the week.

You can even find people there late at night, walking around after dinner or a few drinks. And maybe even some ghosts from Whiskey Row across the street, perhaps reliving the night of the great fire of 1900 and enjoying a spectral shot of the hard stuff.

Doug Graham is Community Editor for the Daily Courier. He can be reached at dgraham@prescottaz.com.

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