By James Bishop, Jr.
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
Sedona AZ (March 3, 2014) – 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, sometimes through roping contests for families that had been struck by tragedy. It was a family place so if customers got rowdy, sometimes they’d end up in the street.”
Sometimes, indeed; the late Jim Biddle, Sedona’s premier savant and nurseryman, vividly called 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. It developed that a prominent Sedona personality was getting out of hand. At the late Oma Bird’s direction, her husband Lee chucked the over served man out onto the street, bloodying his head.
“Come on,” said Biddle after 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 sometimes fought in those days, was nothing fancy. It was called a Prairie Fire consisting of one shot of tequila and one shot of Tabasco sauce, one after another, until the drinker yelled for mercy. No one remembers how much that frightening drink cost, but for reference, a beer cost 25 cents then, about the same as one gallon of gasoline. Another potion, which only trappers dared to drink, was called a Mexican Firing Squad. In those days, it was “home sweet home” to trappers and cowboys, ranchers and artists, horse thieves and ladies of the night. Soon the filmmakers discovered 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 for humor. In a cold sometimes scary world you can walk into a spot like the Wrenwood in West Sedona feeling bad and a little sad and then someone you never met will say, ‘life goes on. This is the only say we’ve been given. Have a drink on me.’”
The Wormwood, as habitués called the Wrenwood, was the premier home-away-from home for politicians and defrocked priests, college professors and goat-ropers, runaway husbands and runaway wives. Moreover, the Wrenwood earned the reputation statewide for community spirit by raising more money for muscular dystrophy than any other tavern in Arizona in 1990. Also, when local publisher Sir William Randolph, founder of this bizarre sheet [the Sedona Excentric] needed back surgery, the saloon sponsored a fundraiser that brought in more dollars than were 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.