The fabled image of the Western cowboy still rides high in Prescott, Ariz., towering almost as large as Thumb Butte—the massive granite promontory that overlooks the area. In this town, that heroic symbol of American independence and self-reliance is exalted through two ongoing institutions: cowboy art and one of the world’s oldest rodeos.
“It’s strictly American—the cowboy and the rodeo,” says artist Bill Nebeker, 61, a Prescott (pop. 33,938) resident of 51 years. “It is a romantic ideal of the Old West. It only had a span in history of 40 years, but it made a tremendous impact on human life.”
Aiding those remembrances through artistic expression are people like Nebeker. As a result, Prescott has become the mecca of American Western realism, that form of art—be it painting, sculpture, or other—that celebrates the cowboy way of life. The movement began in the mid-1960s, the inspiration of a group of artists headed by George Phippen, who wanted to see their love of the West furthered through art. They called themselves the Cowboy Artists of America.
“They were a bunch of guys who loved to ride horses and play around at ranches,” says Nebeker’s wife, Merry, “but who also made their living by art—trading it for groceries and selling it out of the back of their station wagons. They had been inspired by Charles Russell and Frederick Remington, but there was a 50-year gap where nobody did any Western sculpting, partly because there were no foundries in those days.”
In the late 1950s, Phippen and a friend, Joe Noggle, a local contractor, opened the Noggle Bronze Works in Prescott, which now boasts more than half a dozen foundries. Nebeker attributes that development as one of the main reasons for the influx of great Western artists to Arizona, and particularly Prescott.
Still, if the Cowboy Artists of America are the romantic sheen of Prescott, the underlying current is Frontier Days and the World’s Oldest Rodeo—a combustible Fourth of July blowout that presents its 116th celebration this July, featuring a golf tournament, dances, a major parade, and a fine arts & crafts show, along with the PRCA-sanctioned rodeo. Documentation exists indicating that “cowboy contests” took place in Prescott beginning in 1888. The town relishes its prestigious fit with the American West.
“We think that the rodeo embodies the tradition of Prescott,” says Lindsay Mills, president of Prescott Frontier Days and the World’s Oldest Rodeo. “You have that small-town sense of Western ambiance. You should see this place over the Fourth of July! It’s just spectacular. Thousands fill the streets for the Saturday parade. It’s the second largest in the state after the Fiesta Bowl Parade (in Phoenix).”
Deborah Reeder, executive director of the Phippen Museum of Western Art, honoring its artist-sculptor namesake since 1984, notes the town’s bond of past and present: “I suspect, in the future . . . the past will stay important,” she says. “It’s also nice that there are other things going on here; other kinds of activities and other kinds of art and culture.” To which the venerable Sharlot Hall Museum and the Smoki Museum are to be mentioned, both facilities offering comprehensive displays of the area’s early settlement and rich American Indian history.
The town’s ambiance is further flavored by the downtown Courthouse (and its sprawling plaza), a white granite icon from the pre-statehood glory days, when Prescott served as capital of the Arizona Territory (1864). Across from it, Whiskey Row, once the pulse of old Prescott with its 26 rowdy saloons, today brandishes a collection of art galleries, antiques and gift shops, and, of course, saloons. The old Palace, a treasured landmark, its bar still intact from the great fire of 1900 that wiped out all of Whiskey Row, leads a contingent of 500 Prescott buildings listed on the National Historic Register. During its heyday, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday are said to have bent an elbow a time or two at the Palace.
Prescott will undoubtedly remain a city that will entertain change and growth at its own pace and desire. And you can bet that the prized remnants of its legendary past will stay in cherished evidence.
“One of the reasons that I came here was for the Old West-style of living,” Mills points out, “where my horse is still going to be welcome 10 years from now.”