In 1880, when Southern Pacific established a whistle-stop in Willcox, there was peace everywhere in the country except in Cochise County. Here the Army was busy battling Cochise and Geronimo in the Chiricahuas. Stupid decisions made by Army officers prolonged the Apache Wars, but that’s another day’s story.
The U.S. Army operated from several forts in the southeast corner of the Arizona Territory, and the newly built railroad was an efficient way to get officers into Arizona. So, the Army immediately paid to have a boarding house built within walking distance of the Willcox train station. The green officers had a place to stay until troops escorted them to Fort Bowie, Fort Grant, or Fort Thomas.
After hostilities ended, Joseph Schwertner bought the barracks for his family’s home. Joe was a well-off Schley saloon owner, one of several that lined Railroad Avenue at the turn of the century. After Joe died in 1929, his heirs continued to live in the house until 1980, when they gifted it to the local historical society. Today, the pretty little yellow house with green shutters is one of several buildings in Willcox on the National Registry list and is open for tours.
In this week’s picture, I shot the historic home at dawn just after I got my first cup of coffee and my eyes finally opened. I called the shot Schwertner House—its proper name. In addition to the lovely morning light on its yellow front and new metal roof, I like the picket fence (I’m a sucker for picket fences because they’re rare in Arizona). The dark green shutters should be next on the TLC list.
What if you’re not into history and old buildings? What else is in Willcox that makes it worth a visit? A mile or so east of the railroad crossing is the town’s golf course. It’s not fancy, and it will never be on the PGA tour, but that’s not important to most golfers. I’ve never been good at stick-and-ball sports, so I’m not keen on golf. However, on the road and just past the course is something that I do find exciting.
We started our Willcox story a couple of weeks ago by explaining why Southern Pacific picked this spot for a stop. The railroad located the town along the northeast part of the Willcox Playa. Usually a dry lakebed, there is enough seasonal water to fill the low spots. Because these shallow pools are dependable year after year, migrating waterfowl stop for food and rest.
The most notable flock of birds is the Sandhill Cranes. The large stilt-legged gray birds are in the ponds late winter until the weather warms enough to continue to Canada. The playa is the best place to watch the red-faced birds this side of New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache preserve.
Since the access road encircles the ponds, you can watch the cranes from your car. In freezing mornings, the birds cluster in tight groups, communicating with trills, clucking, and squawks. Before they take to the air, their cacophony gets louder and the pace quicker. Then a half dozen take a couple of steps and flap their long broad wings rising gracefully above the pond. In winter, the air in Sulfur Springs Valley has temperature inversions, so the birds fly up to where the air is warmer and soar over town. The locals proudly call the phenomena Wings over Willcox, or WOW.
You can see a larger version of Schwertner House on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week, I have a final shot of historical Willcox, so come back and see what we’ve dug up.
Until next time — jw