Florence: a prison town, sure, but Arizona in miniature, too

2011-11-27T00:00:00Z 2014-07-22T11:23:37Z Florence: a prison town, sure, but Arizona in miniature, tooTom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 27, 2011 12:00 am  • 

FLORENCE - When H. Christine Reid gives a talk about her adopted hometown, she titles it, "Fascinating Florence: Not just a prison town."

Indeed, Florence was a town before completion of the Arizona State Prison in 1912 - just not much of one.

The 1910 census recorded a population of 807, but the tiny town's residents had made substantial contributions to Arizona history.

Florence was home to Arizona's last territorial governor and is the final resting place of the man known as the "Father of Arizona." It has also hosted its share of villains.

The Pinal County Historical Society Museum, where Reid is a writer and researcher, documents its Wild West past.

Its image since 1912 has been all prison, and the museum tells the tales of its infamous residents: Winnie Ruth Judd, the "trunk murderess"; Eva Dugan, the first and only woman hanged in Arizona; and the Hernandez brothers, who were executed simultaneously in a tandem gas-chamber chair, now on display.

Today, the sprawling prison complex, with its miles of chain link and razor wire, is the first view of Florence from Arizona 79, whether you're driving north from Tucson or south from Phoenix.

To minimize the "Prison City" image, a consultant suggested in 2005 that "more prominent signage is needed to direct traffic heading for downtown in that direction at earlier opportunities."

The entire Florence town site is a designated National Historic Site, with building styles that reflect the Sonoran, Victorian and territorial influences in Arizona's fifth-oldest European settlement.

Deputy Town Manager Jess Knudson calls the collection of historic buildings and homes, some renovated and some crumbling, "our cleverly hidden downtown."

IN THE SHADOW

Downtown Florence is not really hidden. It is simply overshadowed by its collection of prisons and jails.

Florence has nine ways to lock you up - from juvenile detention to death row - in facilities run by county, state and federal governments and for-profit corporations. And while the original administration building of the Arizona State Prison is a lovely Spanish Colonial Revival building, the rest is blockish dreck behind what appears to be the world's largest collection of razor wire.

Officially, men outnumber women in Florence 5-to-1, but it's no place to go looking for Mr. Wonderful, with more than half the population behind bars.

The official population in 2010 was 25,536, but the town claims 9,324 of them.

About half the "Florentinos" live in historic Florence and its adjoining suburbs. The rest are in planned communities to the north that are officially part of the town but removed from it physically and psychologically.

Gravity pulls north, notes the consultant's 2005 economic sustainability study. Sun City Anthem at Merrill Ranch and two all-ages communities being developed by Del Webb and Pulte Homes are described in promotional literature as being "in the Southeast Phoenix Valley, just north of Florence."

About 2,000 of a planned 9,000 residences are built at Anthem.

Other subdivisions, totaling 80,000 residences, have been approved in town plans, said Knudson.

At mid-decade, the town felt it needed to prepare for "the inexorable tide of development that is bearing down on Florence from the north and west," according to the report from consultants Elliott D. Pollack & Co.

That tide ebbed when the recession put huge swaths of exurban Phoenix under water financially.

For now, Florence has a brief respite, some time to forge ahead with redevelopment plans for its historic downtown, which it would like to position as a trendy place with a rich history - and enough services to lure suburban newcomers.

Russ Woodmansee said he is seeing a small but growing number of customers from Anthem at his Main Street hardware store.

Woodmansee and his wife, Cheryl, opened their True Value store at Eighth and Main in 1991, then purchased an adjoining historical building and spent six years renovating it.

"The natural flow of traffic is probably to the north," he said, but his hardware store benefits from being closer than the Home Depot 15 miles away in Queen Creek.

Knudson said the town hopes to attract more business to its downtown. Its restaurants already serve lunches to the estimated 5,000 workers who commute daily to jobs at the prisons and in county government.

The town has begun to spiff up Main Street. It recently renovated the historic Silver King/Florence Hotel, offering it as a "business incubator" that has already attracted a cafe, a vintage clothing shop and a beauty salon.

A walking tour of downtown's historic buildings highlights the varied styles of architecture - from the earliest flat-roofed Sonoran adobes, through Transitional and Victorian trends.

Florence's first courthouse, a Transitional adobe with peaked roof, has been restored as Ernest McFarland State Historic Park.

Florence's second courthouse, completed in 1891, is a two-story brick building with Victorian ornamentation. It will become home to the Pinal County Board of Supervisors when renovations are completed next year.

A VARIED HISTORY

Florence doesn't lead the pack in any particular aspect of history, the Historical Society's Reid said, but it embraces all the major themes of Arizona's development.

It has been a Wild West cow town, a mining camp and an agricultural crossroads.

It was founded in 1866 by Levi Ruggles, an Indian agent, who assembled some land and laid out a town site south of the Gila River, where Indians had farmed for centuries and Mexicans began establishing farms in the 1850s.

It became the county seat when Pinal County was formed from portions of Maricopa and Pima counties in 1875.

The discovery of silver near what is now Superior led to creation of the Silver King Mine in 1877 and an economic boom for Florence.

Never quite important enough to attract a railroad, Florence languished when silver prices dropped in 1890.

The county ran out of money to complete the courthouse, and painted faces on the clock tower instead of installing actual clocks. As a result, it is always 11:44 in Florence.

In 1912, just as statehood came, the silver mine closed.

Florence limped along as other towns grew large on water-reclamation projects, rail routes and interstate highway connections. The prison sustained it as the metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson grew toward it.

Attempts to attract more diversified industries were blunted by reality. "Florence doesn't have a labor force," said Peter Villaverde, president of the Florence Industrial Development Authority.

The IDA has instead been busy with historic restoration and preservation, he said.

As the centennial approaches, Florence has cause for hope, said Knudson.

It continued to grow through the state's real-estate meltdown. It issued 95 building permits for single-family homes this year. Its population grew by more than 4,000 between 2000 and 2010.

And it may finally get the major transportation link it has sought throughout its history.

The town would like to be selected by the Arizona Department of Transportation for its north-south corridor from U.S. 60 in Apache Junction to Interstate 10 near Eloy and Picacho.

One proposed route would flank the west side of Florence, said Knudson, giving motorists a view of the town, not the prison.

Famous Florentinos - Heroes & Villains

Charles Debrille Poston is sometimes called "The Father of Arizona" for his lobbying efforts to carve Arizona out of the New Mexico Territory. Poston was enamored of Zoroastrianism and planned to build a temple to the sun atop a nearby peak. The 300-foot-tall Poston Butte today bears a stone pyramid and contains Poston's remains.

Pearl Hart was a tough-talking, whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking outlaw who robbed a stagecoach near Florence. Hart was caught and tried there before being sent to the Territorial Prison at Yuma.

Ernest W. McFarland, Pinal County attorney and Superior Court judge, went on to become governor of Arizona, U.S. senator and chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.

Eva Dugan, convicted of killing Tucson-area rancher Arthur Mathis, was the first woman to be executed at the state prison in Florence and the last person to be hanged there. The state switched to lethal gas after Dugan's head was severed during her hanging.

Richard Elihu Sloan, a Florence district attorney, was appointed governor of Arizona Territory in 1909 and held that post until statehood was granted on Feb. 14, 1912.

Josephus Phy shot the former sheriff - four times. Peter Gabriel shot back, killing Phy, who had once been his deputy. Gabriel survived for 10 years after the June 1888 shootout in the Tunnel Saloon, which had an underground drinking room for those hot, testy summer days.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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