November 28, 2023

A Whiskey-Golden Time . . . By Bishop, Special Eccentric Excentric


As soon as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience oblivion of care, and a freedom from concern…there is nothing which has yet to be contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced by a good tavern.
                          Samuel Johnson, London, 1777

 The news spread faster than a Tea Party Lie. In legendary London, and in villages nearby, 7000 pubs are being closed—forever leaving local quaffers and boozers to face a dreaded, dryer future: No local community gathering place to have a nip, hear the gossip and bet a bit on Cricket.

Longtime Sedonans know that feeling, those that remember the Wrenwood, the old Rainbow, or the Turtle. Then there was the Lemon Peel started by Dick and Peggy Olsen, a young couple from New York City located near where Biddle’s Nursery stands today; the smell of popcorn always filled the air and a mesquite fire crackled in the fireplace whatever the weather outside.

Most nights around midnight, the Olsens grilled rib-eye steaks, and a local performer always closed the evening by singing “God Bless America.” One night a local celebrity was in his cups at the bar, quaffing away when a stranger wandered in and asked Dick whether he was the town drunk. “No,” he replied. “Sedona is too small to have a town drunk. So we all take turns.”

Celebrated cowboy artist, Joe Beeler, while relaxing in his studio off Dry Creek Road with this scrivener not long before he passed, shared memories of the old Oak Creek Tavern: “It was a combination pool hall, city hall, and bar. In those days, everyone knew everyone else. If you needed a plumber, an electrician, any kind of repair, or a check cashed, that’s where you went.

“There was always fundraising going on. If someone was sick, or had an accident, money was always raised for those struck by tragedy. It was a family place, so if customers got rowdy, sometimes they’d end up in the street.”

Indeed; the late Jim Biddle, Sedona’s premier savant and nurseryman, recalled a night decades ago when someone pretty famous in town had been over served and was asked to leave the bar. Biddle was a volunteer ambulance driver that night when he got a call that someone needed medical help at the tavern. At the late Oma Bird’s direction, her husband Lee chucked the over served man onto the street, bloodying his head.

“C’mon,” said Biddle, wiping away the blood. “I’ll take you home.” “No, no,” the noted personality pleaded. “I can’t go home, my wife is there. Take me to jail; I’ll walk home in the morning.”

A favorite drink at the old Rainbow, where real cowboys drank and fought in those days, was called a Prairie Fire, consisting of one shot of tequila and one shot of Tabasco, one after another, until begging for mercy. No one remembers how much that frightening drink cost, but for reference, a beer was 25 cents then, about the same as a gallon of gas.

Another potion, only trappers dared drink, was called a Mexican Firing Squad.  In those days, the Rainbow was “home sweet home” to trappers and cowboys, ranchers and artists, horse thieves and ladies of the night. Soon the film makers found the place. Quicker than a city minute they saw in the red rocks and canyons stuff for their dreams, and a way to make money.

“After sunset,” the distinguished author, and now departed Elizabeth Rigby once recalled, “there were no lights to speak of, and there was no point at all to go the Village of Oak Creek. There was no ‘there’ there.”

Years ago, Kay Gibbs, a fine writer, ruminated over an icy cold Gin Martini at the long gone Wrenwood that Sedona needed her saloons: “We need them because they are our extended families, places for contacts and humor. In a cold, sometimes scary world you can walk into a spot like the Wrenwood feeling a bit sad and someone you don’t know will say, ‘life goes on. This is the day we’ve been given. Have a drink on me.’”
The Wormwood, as habitués called the Wrenwood, was the premier home for politicians and defrocked priests, college professors and goat-ropers, runaway husbands and their wives.

Moreover, it earned the reputation statewide for community spirit by raising more money for muscular dystrophy than any other tavern in AZ in 1990.  And when local publisher Sir William Randolph, founder of this bizarre sheet needed back surgery, the saloon brought in more than was needed. “It was a magical day,” Sir William recounted before he departed for the great saloon in the sky where the gin is clear—and free.

There’s an old saying in Hollywood when some old actor waxes sentimental about the past- It’s not like the good old days, and they never were. “Oh yes they were,” counters Henry Lockett, former sheep man and rodeo rider turned a Sedona man-about-town. “True, there used to be more fights, but with TV, incorporation and a serious police force most places calmed down, or went out of business. These days, there’s more law here but it still isn’t ruckus free.”

As for  Prairie Fire, it is not served any longer. Chocolate Martinis are all the rage.

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