The more I ponder the pages of Hoist a Cold One!: Historic Bars of the Southwest, the more I realize that the HBO TV series Deadwood did incalculable damage to the image of the saloonkeeper, at least in my mind. Although the show is historically set in 1870s South Dakota (not, say, Arizona), the evil resonance of a character like Al Swearengen, who runs a saloon/brothel called the Gem Theater, makes it hard for me to accept early bars as anything but glorified dens of prostitution and violence.
But author Melody Groves and her photographer-husband, Myke, have persuaded me otherwise in an excellent coffee table-grade book documenting 26 drop-dead-gorgeous wooden-front-to-back saloons across the Southwest. Indeed, these bars survived long hauls over rough terrain, boot spurs of countless customers, the dark ages of Prohibition, and the slate-wiping hand of progress to serve thirsty visitors into the 21st century. Melody and Myke bring these historic watering holes to vivid life.
Melody Groves' introduction repairs the representation of the friendly bartenders of yesteryear. She writes, "The bartender was essential to saloon life. A philosopher, an encyclopedia of sporting information, and a sympathetic humanitarian, he was always ready to head-wag appreciatively at the injustices of life or smile at rotten jokes. At least as long as the customer was still flush." But, as the writer reminds us, it's a vast alcoholic alchemy that today's tattooed, flair-happy barmen have largely neglected, even if today's drink-preparer isn't quite so hostile to the rubes:
"A matter of professional pride among the barmen in fancy saloons was the ability to concoct some 150 different cocktails, rickeys, fizzes, cobblers, punches and diverse 'cups.' But the staples remained beer and whiskey. Mostly the job consisted of pulling the tap or handling the bottle. If a rube came in, the bartender might switch out what was called the 'cops' bottle—the cheapest in the house."
Ugh. My stomach quivers at the thought of downing a shot of "rotgut" whiskey.
Tucson Weekly readers will want to hone in on the Arizona chapter, which features seven of the Grand Canyon State's old-timey social centers, starting with the beautiful Bisbee Grand Saloon. As the author notes, setting foot in this bar is like stepping "into another world, a historical world," where the bartender knows everyone's name. Here you can meet all kinds—Cochise College profs, Red Hat Ladies Society dames and, um, guys who wear women's lingerie while bar-crawling through Bisbee every August.
As many Arizonans know, Bisbee is an old mining town, so unsurprisingly it boasts another historic bar: the Stock Exchange Saloon, which served as home to the only New York Stock Exchange office in the West until 1964 and still possesses the stock board. On that board, figures and tallies, titles and companies remain listed, "the same ones listed the day the office closed." Very cool and oddly educational. Indeed, the Groves do a marvelous job of making me want to stop in here during my next Southwest road trip.
Of course Tombstone boasts some amazing historic watering holes. Case in point: Crystal Palace Saloon, which endured multiple fires, Prohibition and had a bar built and placed in storage in Mexico. Well, as Groves lets us know, "The bar never made it back across the border, a replica was hand-built in Tucson in 1964," and the saloon was restored by Historic Tombstone Adventures, a group that preserves Tombstone landmarks. "After poring over old photographs and every available written record, HTA commissioned craftsmen to restore Crystal Palace," Groves adds. Judging from Myke Groves' pictures, the bar's carving, beading and mahogany molding look incredible, like time-machine snapshots. I need to visit Tombstone.
The Western saloons of New Mexico and Colorado and Rosa's Cantina in El Paso, Texas are also evocative of an old Hollywood movie set. You can practically hear the floorboards creaking under the villain's (or hero's) boots as you bask in the images and text. The passion they put into this project is evident on every page. My only gripe: I suspect the prostitution and gambling aspects of these bars are downplayed. Surely a Swearengen or three once ran one of these places.
Melody Groves' 2006 introduction to the sport of rodeo, Ropes, Reins, and Rawhide: All About Rodeo, which I reviewed in these pages, still stands out as a terrific primer for anyone seeking to know more about cattle-wrasslin'. She and her husband have accomplished a similar feat with Hoist a Cold One! It makes me want to drop everything, pick up my car keys and belly up to these breathtaking bars.