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Arizona Back Roads

1891 Courthouse Tower Last week when I drove down to the Casa Grande ruins i ran into a problem. The route that one would normally follow is south via Interstate 10 (which goes to Tucson). However, ADOT (Arizona Department of Transportation) was working on I10 and traffic was restricted to one lane. Well, that effectively meant that where I live in south Phoenix, I10 was a parking lot. Fortunately, where I entered the freeway at Warner, I10 has an extra lane that extends to the next exit at Ray — so I was on and off in the blink of an eye.

Hmm, what to do. I seemed to recall that there was another route south — non-freeway, but I was not going very far. So I pulled out my map and plotted my new trip plan using Arizona 87 south out of Chandler. I had forgotten how cool it is to get off the freeway and discover rural America — which starts very quickly when you leave the Phoenix metro area. Surprisingly, there is quite a bit of farmland and the ever-present desert — plus, this being Arizona, a few remote golf courses.

I decided to do a bit of exploring after visiting the ruins starting with Coolidge, the town next to the National Monument. Disappointing. The edge of town has the Walmart, McDonalds, Safeway, etc. that have killed off so many small towns. I tried exploring some of the side streets — still disappointing.

Checking my map, I noted the town of Florence just to the east of Coolidge. I seemed to recall that our newspaper, The Arizona Republic, had noted Florence as an interesting town to visit and explore — so I drove the short distance east — and was rewarded with a richness of cultural and photographic opportunities. The first landmark I spotted was the tower on the 1891 Courthouse. It is being restored but what a marvelous example of historic Americana.

1891 Courthouse

1891 Courthouse WindowOne of the aspects of older architecture that I particularly enjoy is the detailing around things as prosaic as a window. Modern architecture goes for clean surfaces and lines (read plain, cheaply built, often boring).

You also notice that something as simple as bricks are not perfectly manufactured or laid. There is a character to the small variances in the both the shapes and position of the bricks in these older structures — probably the result of the characters who manufactured the bricks by hand and others who laid them by hand, aligning them by eye rather than with laser precision.

First Presbyterian Church Just across the street from the government complex is the First Presbyterian Church of Florence, founded in 1888, this current structure was built in 1931. According to the Historic Site sign in front of the church, it was built with help of inmates from the nearby Arizona State Prison. [An aside, signs on the main roads around town warn drivers not to pick up hitchhikers because of the prison.]

First Presbyterian Church CourtyardAlong side the church was a lovely little courtyard which included this bell and potted plans plus benches and a small fountain. A quiet little spot for relaxation and contemplation.


Church of the Assumption Church of the Assumption As I drove around town, I kept seeing the Historical Landmark signs in front of churches, commercial building and homes. Here is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, built in 1912 to replace the earlier structure which was built in 1884 and burned down in 1893 — which replaced an even earlier church on the same site.

First Courthouse Next I encountered the McFarland State Historical Park which is actually the original county courthouse predating the impressive building pictured at the top of this issue. It was later turned into a hospital and is now a museum.

Inside is a reconstruction of one of the courtrooms, a hospital examination/treatment room complete with antique medical instruments (of torture?) and an exhibit about the WWII POW camp that was built outside Florence. One interesting tidbit was that the German and Italian prisoners of war who promised to not attempt an escape were given tan colored clothing. Those who refused to provide that promise were given black uniforms. I guess anyone stupid enough to try to escape into the desert wearing black would get what they deserved.

First Courthouse Rear This photo shows the back of the courthouse. Note the yellow tape covering a portion of the wall. The building was actually constructed of adobe bricks. Some of the structure is in disrepair and I assume they are requesting and waiting for funds from the state to repair the ravages of time.

Hotel 1 Across the street is another old structure — this one was a hotel. I was told that it was built for miners who were working the silver mines outside town. As the mines were depleted, it was turned into a public hotel. In more recent years, it has deteriorated and there have been periodic attempts to restore it and find a new use for it.

Hotel 2 The back of the hotel property contains ruins (some are visible to the right of the photo) but it is hard to imagine how this historic site can be re-purposed without substantial support from a generous donor or the state of Arizona.

Main Street Part of the reason for my skepticism is simply looking at the main street of Florence. It looks interesting from a photographic standpoint but on closer inspection, most of the building are not in use. I presume that downtown Florence is suffering the same fate as many small towns (such as Coolidge) where the large corporations such as Walmart build their stores on the edge of town (where land is cheap) and suck up all the business from the local merchants, driving them out of business and killing off the old heart of the town.

When I returned home I did a bit of Googling and discovered that Florence contains a large number of historic sites — many more than I found on my own. It has been the county seat for Pima county for many years which may account for some of the historic preservation. If you venture there, be sure to do a modicum of research beforehand — I think you'll find your visit even more rewarding than my serendipitous encounter.

One last thing to share — more flowering cactus that I encountered here. Enjoy.

Cactus Flowers Cactus Flowers

 Life is good.

 B. David