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The Poetry of Small-Town Mythologies in Arizona

The origin story of Show Low, Arizona, involves a card game from the 1870s.

The origin story of Show Low, Arizona, involves a card game from the 1870s. Timothy B. Clark / Route Fifty

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Show Low and Winslow gained fame from an 1870s card game and a line in a hit Eagles song 100 years later.

SHOW LOW, Ariz. — For a veteran poker player, one who has won many a hand in seven-card high-low stud, it’s tough to resist the allure of a town named after a winning low hand.

So it was that I found myself tooling up Deuce of Clubs, the main drag in Show Low, during a tour of the central Arizona highlands this spring. In a park along the highway, a new statue will soon celebrate the famous game that gave the town its name—a contest between Corydon E. Cooley and his ranching partner Marion Clark way back in the 1870s.

My odyssey had taken me from Sedona to Flagstaff and then east into the historic homelands of the Navajo and Apache tribes. Along the road to the Petrified Forest National Park, the road passes along the edge of Holbrook, whose only motel consists of a bunch of concrete teepees sent in a parking lot along the main drag. We’d already dashed through tiny Winslow, with memory searching for that song, ah yes, “Take It Easy,” the 1972 hit by the Eagles:

Well, I'm a standing on a corner
in Winslow, Arizona,  
and such a fine sight to see:
It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford,
slowin' down to take a look at me.
Come on, baby, don't say maybe,
I gotta know if your sweet love is
gonna save me…

Speaking of famous people of the 1970s who spent time hereabouts: the greatest boxer of the modern era, Muhammad Ali, trained for his 1976, $6 million bout with Kenny Norton in the the Show Low airport hangar.

But we’re ahead of the story. Corydon Cooley and Marion Clark moved to the area in the 1870s to establish a farming and ranching operation at the edge of the beautiful Ponderosa pine forest. It proved too small to support them both and so in 1876 they agreed to a card game to settle ownership rights. It lasted the night through, until one said: “Whoever shows low wins.” Cooley unveiled the deuce of clubs, the legend says, and Clark moved south.

Corydon Cooley (Photo by Timothy B. Clark / Route Fifty)

This was truly life in the old West. Cooley’s farm was supplying the Army with hay, corn and beef at an outpost that became known as Fort Apache. At the same time that the soldiers were battling hostile Indians, Cooley came to respect the peaceful White Mountain Apaches. He learned their language, adopted their lifestyle, and in 1871 married the daughter of Chief Pedro, whose White Mountain Apaches had made peace with the white man. Molly, as Cooley renamed her, had a sister, and following the Apache custom, she too became Cooley’s bride, and took the name Cora.

They were Indian “princesses,” and were cousins of the intrepid Apache scout Alchesay, whose heroics in wars against the Tonto Apaches in 1872-73 earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor.

The story of this town is found in the 17 rooms of the Show Low Historical Society Museum just off Deuce of Clubs—and in a 128-page book of photographs the Society helped assemble for publication by the Images of America series about old-time America. It begins with ancient petroglyphs found along Show Low Creek, and continues through the earliest U.S. government military encampments, and early ranching and homesteading, to today’s modern town of nearly 11,000. It’s the largest town in Navajo County, about 20 percent bigger than Winslow and twice as large as Holbrook and Snowflake. And it’s some 4,000 souls larger than the next big town south down U.S. Route 60, Globe, the seat of Gila County.  

Ranching and farming and timbering of the Ponderosa pines supplied the livelihoods of the white pioneers in the area for many decades. The ranches needed cowboys, and they created local rodeos, then competed successfully in statewide bareback riding, bull-riding, roping and bulldogging contests. It was a pony town: at mid-century, teenagers were strutting their stuff in horseback square dances. (Dancing was for many years a popular pastime here.) And the longest-lived hostelry in Show Low is called the Paint Pony Lodge.

It was an isolated place, sitting high in the mountains above the railroad lines that made Flagstaff, Winslow and Holbrook come alive in the 1880s. But in the late 1930s, Route 60, among of the first transcontinental roads, came to Show Low. The segment between Show Low and Globe was among the last completed, and it required towering bridges over deep canyons and engineering feats that allowed the road to hug the hillsides of the starkly beautiful Salt River Canyon, a scenic second only to the Grand Canyon up north. Route 60 made the trip from Phoenix to Show Low much easier, and brought commerce and tourism to the remote town, which did not incorporate until 1953.

The Salt River Canyon between Show Low and Globe in Arizona. (Photo by Timothy B. Clark / Route Fifty)

As Clair Thomas, executive director of the historical society museum, told me in an e-mail:

“For decades ranching of cattle and sheep and harvesting trees were the main industries in and around Show Low. Slowly industrial growth began with Southwest Forest Paper Mill and two electrical generating stations within forty five miles of Show Low; many residents drove and worked at these businesses. Our schools, medical and service industries also began to grow in the mid 50's and 60's. Our largest industry now is tourism and retirees escaping the Phoenix and Tucson summer heat.”

The town promotes retirement and tourism on its website, and also appeals to businesses by advertising a low-tax environment. Its first page features the town’s logo: the deuce of clubs playing card in a circular frame. And it boasts that Show Low was “Named by the Turn of a Card.”

Thomas’s terrific museum tells the story of Emma Adams, whose puritan sensibilities were offended by a move shortly after incorporation to name various streets in town after such winning poker hands as a royal straight flush. She prevailed and so Deuce of Clubs remains the only one.

A model railroad display at the Show Low Historical Society Museum (Photo by Timothy B. Clark / Route Fifty)

The museum also features a large, first-class model railroad display of the region by the Silver Creek Railroaders club. The display features the towns of McNary, Holbrook and Winslow, native American dwellings, and mining, ranching and timbering operations, all in a large room with lovely murals by local artist Steve Taylor. Perhaps its most evocative railroading feature is “The Last Train to Maverick,” whose 1968 ending was commemorated by a mournful song that aired for months on many Arizona radio stations:

"Today my heart is heavy,
As I take this train ride.
It's the last train to Maverick
For the White Mountain line.
Today Maverick is dying,
Because it's a company town,
Kept alive by the hum of the sawmill,
But today the mill's closing down.
So the people must all move on,
Say 'Goodbye' to their town and their home,
Today is a page in history,
Today a ghost town is born."

The story of the last train to Maverick was beautifully told in the local newspaper, The White Mountain Independent, in 2004.

These days, the big news in Show Low is that a new bronze depiction of Cooley and Clark playing their fateful card game is about to be unveiled and placed in the Festival Marketplace along Deuce of Clubs. The town council voted to commission the $50,000 statue after the original plexiglass version, installed in 2000, fell victim to vandalism and fire in 2014.

And before we leave the region, let’s go back to Winslow, which also has an bronze statue—of a man standing on a corner. It commemorates that famous song by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey that helped vault the Eagles into the very top echelon of rock stars.

On such small but iconic phenomena—a mythic card game and a line in a song—do the outsized reputations of some towns rest.

Timothy B. Clark is Editor at Large at Government Executive's Route Fifty.

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