Vacationers to the Valley often spend part of it in Scottsdale, as the local tourism promotion machine is an impressive one. It’s one of those places that doesn’t require the word “Arizona” after it in conversation. People know where it is, for well or ill.
Today, I live not far from where I grew up in the most southern part of the city with none of the bright lights and loud music that the Old Town section now features as a sort of Las Vegas Lite.
But say you’re from there and people — from longtime friends to strangers you meet on airplanes — have something to say about either (a) the fun they had there, (b) the fun they want to have there, (c) how the city’s reputation is overblown or (d) some combination of the above.
It’s the modern incarnation of Scottsdale that every few years has people scratching their heads over the city slogan, “The West’s Most Western Town,” and whether it should be changed. Another Valley newspaper reported on the recurring debate a few weeks ago and a few of the local television stations picked up on it.
If you’re new to the East Valley, or have avoided this issue in favor of weightier ones, here’s the sendup about this discussion: As modern and, dare I say, hip as Scottsdale has become, the phrase has become outdated and funny sounding. And so, every so often, someone says out loud it should be changed and people take sides.
The facts? First, Scottsdale has no real Old West heritage. I’ve said this before and caught all kinds of rejoinders for it, but for all the fun of playing cowboy that still goes on in Scottsdale (something I do myself during the annual Parada del Sol celebration), the history that I have read doesn’t lie:
Scottsdale was founded in 1888, narrowly avoiding being called Orangedale because it was a citrus-growing village, not an outlet for cattle breeders and gun-packing tough guys.
It was named for its beloved founder, a teetotaling Baptist preacher named Winfield Scott.
What we call the rootin’, tootin’ shoot-‘em-up Wild West — based on Western movies’ descriptions of an era that seemed like the entire 19th century — in fact lasted only about 20 years between approximately 1870 and 1890, according to Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble, who heads the Southwest history department at Scottsdale Community College.
And Scottsdale in the late 1880s and 1890s had few if any of the trappings of those films’ depictions. Oranges, yes. Six-shooters, no.
Today, precious little that’s tangible survives of that time. An old house on Hayden Road south of McDowell Road dates to the 1890s, and that’s about as far back as any still-standing structure gets.
So how did things get most Western? In 1947, four years before Scottsdale incorporated, some civic leaders who later became the chamber of commerce had an idea that was marketing genius.
Scottsdale had the potential for being a resort town, and already a few of them had opened on a small scale. And while Scottsdale had sunshine, so did a lot of other places. So to make it stand out, they came up with something incredibly smart: Western movies reigned in Hollywood at this time, and when shivering folks back in the Midwest and East thought of the West, their images were of cattle ranching, gunfighters and Stetson hats. And so these leaders decided to give people what they want and decreed that all of the buildings in the tiny business district should feature Western architecture, Hollywood style. More such structure and “Western” events followed. Today, quite a few examples of that design are downtown, although there’s nothing along Scottsdale Road any more that dates before circa 1950.
You know the rest. Scottsdale’s early history was about projecting the cinematic Old West, but ultimately successors to those first civic leaders began to offer new images to different audiences, which is what good marketers do: They find new markets and appeal to them.
You’d think what you’ve just read indicates this writer favors dumping the “West’s Most Western” phrase. He doesn’t.
The Old West’s lingering legacy goes beyond the silver screen. If anything important is left of the old cowboy code, it’s that one’s word should be one’s bond, to be there to help a neighbor or someone in trouble or need and to treat the land with respect.
If a community can live up to such virtues, it’s worthy of being the West’s Most Western Town. Someday, I hope sincerely, my hometown truly will. Until then, as encouragement more than anything else, the phrase stays.
Read Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Watch his video commentaries at eastvalleytribune.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.