In 1881, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad laid its tracks through an area known as Horsehead Crossing. The following year a railroad station was built, and the small settlement was called Holbrook in honor of H.R. Holbrook, the first chief engineer of the railroad. A year later, when the first post office opened, James H. Wilson became its first postmaster.
Primarily called home to cowboys, cattle ranchers, and railroaders, the settlement soon took on all the vices of a typical Wild West town, complete with a saloon called the Bucket of Blood. Law and order were non-existent, gambling was popular, and painted ladies far outnumbered “proper women.”
In 1883, four men by the names of Baca, Pedro Montano, F. W. Smith, and H.H. Scorse owned the land around the depot and filed a plat map laying out the streets of Holbrook, which remain essentially unchanged today.
Before long, Holbrook became a trade center for northern Arizona, where cattle, sheep, and wool were shipped out on the railroad. On May 17, 1884, the first issue of the Holbrook Times was published, which contained advertisements for clothing, hotels, saloons, grocery stores, and several other businesses.
In 1884, the Aztec Land and Cattle Company began operations in Holbrook, better known as the Hashknife Outfit. The second-largest cattle ranch in the U.S., the cattle company had some 60,000 head of cattle and employed hundreds of cowboys.
Holbrook initially welcomed the money of the cattle company and its associated cowboys until they saw what they were in for. The buckaroos of the outfit quickly gained the unsavory reputation of being the “thievinist, fightinest bunch of cowboys” in the United States. Many of the cowboys working for the Hashknife Outfit were wanted men, and on two occasions, they were linked to train robberies at Canyon Diablo.
The sudden presence of so many cowboys also gave rise to rustling, robbery, and gunfights. Much of the rustling was done against the Hashknife Outfit itself.
One such story is that a cowboy took off with a bunch of the outfit’s cattle and headed to Colorado. There, he set up a saloon with his profits. However, he was soon without money again and rejoined the outfit once more.
Stagecoach and train robberies became an almost recreational pastime for cowboys and drifters in the area. And, when the cowboys came off the range, with money in their pockets and whiskey on their minds, it was time for Holbrook to “look out!” In 1886 alone, there were 26 shooting deaths on the streets of Holbrook, which was called home to only about 250 people at the time.
It was somewhere along this time that the St. Johns Herald reported: “The Salvation Army is going to visit Holbrook. A good field for operation.”
There was a need for law enforcement in the settlement, and Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens is credited with bringing it to the wild and crusty town in 1887. It all started when a warrant against a man named Andy Cooper was issued for cattle rustling. In actuality, Cooper was one Andy Blevins, who had changed his name when he came to Arizona because of an outstanding warrant for murder in Texas.
When Owens went to the Blevins family home on September 4, 1887, the family was in the midst of Sunday dinner, and Cooper, a/k/a Blevins, refused to come out. Within moments, Andy’s half-brother, John, opened the door and took a shot at the sheriff, who quickly drew both of his six-guns, sending bullets into both John and Andy. A gunfight inevitably ensued, and Sam Blevins, just 15 years old, ran out the door firing at Owen, who returned the shots. A friend of the Blevin family named Mose Roberts also fired upon the Sheriff.
The melee, lasting less than a minute, left Andy and Sam Blevin and Mose Roberts dead. John Blevins was wounded. Today, the historic site of the gunfight still stands on Central Avenue in Holbrook.
In 1888, Holbrook was struck by fire, which nearly destroyed every building in the city. However, this town of hardy pioneers rebuilt and continued to grow.
Though still lawless, Holbrook gained the honor of the county seat in 1895, and just three years later, a new courthouse was built. This historic building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, continues to stand today, operating as the Holbrook Visitor Center and Museum.
By 1914 Holbrook was the only county seat in the U.S. that didn’t have a church. However, it did have one of the famous Fred Harvey Restaurants, housed in several old boxcars on a rail siding.
By the time Route 66 made its appearance, the wild and lawless town had become more settled, and the narrow strip of asphalt became a symbol of hope to the city and the many travelers of the Mother Road.
When World War II ended, the gas shortage was over, and tourism in the city flourished. During this time, dozens of other souvenir shops, including the PowWow Trading Post, opened, offering samples of petrified wood and Indian Treasures. In 1950, the Wigwam Village was built, which continues to serve customers today. Stop at Joe and Aggie’s Cafe in the center of town or Romo’s Cafe, just across the street when you need to sate your appetite.
Today this city of a little more than 5,000 souls offers a great opportunity to explore Navajo, Hopi, and Apache country, as well as the nearby Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest National Park, and its many Route 66 era icons.