Those Pre-Pro Whiskey Men!
Monday, April 4, 2016F. G. McCoy of Prescott, AZ's “Whiskey Row”
For more than a century a two-block stretch of South Montezuma Street in Prescott, Arizona, for excellent reasons has been known as “Whiskey Row,” one of the most famous “sin” strips of the Old West. When F. G. McCoy established his Wellington Saloon at 136 South Montezuma, he was neither the first nor the last to establish a rip-roaring “watering hole” on that notorious street, just one of the more creative.
When McCoy opened his saloon in 1902, Whiskey Row already was in full swing. The original strip, as shown above, was largely of frame construction. Dozens of drinking establishments — some said as many as 40 — had stood shoulder to shoulder for two blocks since the early days of Prescott. Located in the center of the state and the seat of Yayapai County, in 1864 Prescott was designated the capital of the Arizona Territory. In 1867 the capital was moved to Tucson for 10 years and then brought back to Prescott. In 1889 Phoenix became the permanent capital.
According to local legend, prior to 1877, Prescott’s Whiskey Row had been located several blocks from its present location. It was moved, some say, because wives and local employers insisted. They complained that patrons of the Row were forced to cross a footbridge over Granite Creek and in the wet season those who had taken a “drop too many” were in danger of falling in and drowning. Prescott poet Gail Gardner wrote:
"Oh they starts her in at the Kaintucky bar,
at the head of Whiskey Row,
and they winds up down by the Depot House,
some forty drinks below."
In July 1900 the Row was destroyed by fire. Patrons of the Palace Saloon, Arizona’s oldest, were not deterred. They carried the saloon’s ornate Brunswick bar across the street to safety and continued drinking. Within a few days of the fire, rebuilding commenced, this time using brick and masonry. Most of the buildings were constructed between the Fall of 1900 and 1905. Shown above, they were built in typical early 20th Century styles.
Enter F. G. McCoy. In 1902 with a relative, J.E. McCoy, he established the Wellington Saloon at 136 South Montezuma, between the Palace at 122 and the Owl Saloon at 138. Unlike many of his fellow Whiskey Row neighbors, McCoy was not just selling liquor as received from wholesalers. He also was decanting whiskey into flask-sized bottles in half-pint, shown left, and pint size, shown right, both with his own seal.
Show left is another bottle of a slightly different shape in purple/puce. Uncommonly too, McCoy also incorporated his business. The embossing on his bottles read: “F. G. McCoy Co., Inc., The Wellington Saloon, Prescott, Arizona.” Arizona bottles of this kind are rare and are highly prized by collectors of Western whiskey bottles. Although they rarely come up for sale, when they do, McCoy’s bottles draw fancy prices.
McCoy also was selling bottles of mineral water from the Bartlett Springs Company in Lake County, California. The November 10, 1903, issue of theArizona Journal-Miner, the local daily,reported that McCoy had just received a carload of “this famous water for the Prescott trade.” The newspaper glowingly described the health benefits of this water over nine column inches of type, including the following observation: “It is also claimed that Bartlett Water removes all desire for alcohol in persons who unfortunately have developed a taste for and acquired the drinking habit. Every effect of the alcoholic poison is corrected and the system toned up and invigorated until the necessity for a stimulant no longer exists.”
That McCoy would promote a beverage to remove the desire for alcohol was another sign that he was not just an ordinary saloonkeeper. His Wellington Saloon prospered by promoting that “alcoholic poison” and by encouraging “the drinking habit” in its denizens. Among incentives McCoy provided to buying a drink was a token good for five cents in trade. For that amount, equivalent to about $1.25 today, one could get a shot of prime whiskey. A full glass cost fifteen cents. Although such tokens were common along Whiskey Row, McCoy’s coin had a fancy “face”: Note the decorated “5.”
Each Prescott saloon had its own regulars, cowboys, miner, soldiers or businessmen, and each had its own attractions. McCoy’s Wellington Saloon encouraged gambling on premises. A local artist caught the action of a game of chance there. From the dress of the gents in the Wellington picture, McCoy’s clientele were from the local business community. They were shown playing faro. That was a card game, more related to blackjack than poker, popular in the Old West for its fast action, simple rules, and better odds than other games.
In 1904, the owner took a second relative, B. L. McCoy, into his operation as a partner. F.G. McCoy’s tenure at the Wellington, however, proved to be relatively short. By 1907, the saloon was no longer listed in directories. The reason may have been Arizona’s off-and-on flirtation with prohibiting alcohol sales. In 1901 a “local option” law was passed permitting individual counties and towns to decide on how to regulate alcohol. Although no evidence exists that Prescott went “dry,” McCoy may have felt it affected his business in adjacent towns. The law was repealed in 1909.
By 1912, F. G. McCoy surfaced again in the saloon business. This time he was recorded as running a Prescott saloon with F. C. Whisman. Frank Whisman had been a Prescott bartender, likely working at the Wellington Saloon. The partners called their enterprise simply “McCoy and Whisman.” It too was a short-lived enterprise, forced to shut down when Arizona voters in 1913 approved a statewide ban on alcohol that went into effect on New Years Day, almost six years before National Prohibition.
The outcry from Whiskey Row, shown above circa 1914, was strong. Several saloonkeepers posted signs on their locked doors reading: “Closed. Our business and our right to earn a living have been destroyed by a crowd of imported agitators.” Well, not exactly. The perpetrators primarily were the ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, more than a few of them the wives of Whiskey Row customers.
The actual effects on the town’s once booming liquor industry were less than catastrophic. Although the Journal Miner opined that “Prescott will have the appearance of the proverbial deserted village,” the changes largely proved to be cosmetic. The fronts of the saloons were converted into ice cream parlors, but liquor was readily available in back rooms and basements. With the local sheriff taking a lenient view toward enforcing “dry” laws, a 1920 census indicated some 60 saloons were still operating in Yavapai County.
National Prohibition similarly seems to have had little effect on the drinking habits of Prescott residents. Because getting to the town from Phoenix by road was difficult, Federal agents likely had trouble reaching there and few news accounts exist of liquor-related arrests in town. Post-Prohibition Whiskey Row, as shown below in 1935, rebounded quickly in neon lights and busy bartenders to satisfy a thirsty Arizona clientele.
During the superficially “dry” years, F. G. McCoy faded into the mists of time. He seems to have avoided the U.S. census takers during his life and his place of interment has not yet been recorded. Still, we remember F. G. McCoy as a “whiskey man” who created the Wellington Saloon on Whiskey Row, achieving recognition by artists, historians and collectors, and leaving behind flasks and bar tokens as his lasting legacy.
Note: Today the 100 block of South Montezuma Street is still touted as the famous “Whiskey Row” and visitors to Prescott are encouraged to stop at its shops and eateries. Unfortunately, the current strip has been described as “too touristy,” by some who are disappointed that it does not present a more authentic Wild West setting and appearance.