Old West Florence

This Arizona town relives its 1800s history
Nora Burba Trulsson

Calling itself "the cowboy cradle of the Southwest," the small town of Florence doesn't just honor its past ― it revels in it. If you're looking for an excuse to get off the interstate between Tucson and Phoenix, this backroad hamlet offers plenty of reasons to slow down and step back a century or two.

Time your trip for January 18 to catch the reenactment of the town's best-known event: an 1888 gunfight between the former sheriff and his ex-deputy. Even if you miss the show at 11 or 1:30, you can still see the original bullet-pierced saloon window at Pinal County Historical Museum (closed Mon; 715 S. Main St.; 520/868-4382). Other displays range from used hangman's nooses to mementos of silent-screen cowboy Tom Mix, who died in a 1940 car crash nearby.

Not to be outdone, the museum at McFarland State Historic Park (closed Tue-Wed; $3; Ruggles St. and N. Main; 520/868-5216) commemorates the first county courthouse and town jail, where an angry mob hung two inmates in the corridor.

Florence itself is a museum of architectural styles, with more than 120 registered historic sites. On February 8, docents in period costumes explain local lore at 14 landmarks, while the Pinal County museum runs Tom Mix movies. Get a self-guiding brochure ($10) at the chamber of commerce.

For a light lunch in a general-store setting, stop at Christina's Tea & Coffee Emporium (closed Sun; 110 N. Main; 520/868-5748). At L & B Inn (closed Sun; 695 S. Main; 520/868-9981), the menu features recipes that once fed stagecoach travelers.

One unusual stop as you leave town is the Arizona Prison Arts & Trades Outlet (closed Tue-Thu; State 79 at Butte Ave; 520/868-3014), which sells inmate-made crafts, T-shirts, and denim jackets. (No, the staff's orange outfits aren't for sale.)

Katie Montano, McFarland park manager, puts the past in perspective. "The area has calmed down quite a bit from its beginning." She's referring to a town where storekeepers still know residents by name, where kids still play on the streets, where you can linger on a balmy winter day.

Finding Florence

WHERE: Florence is about 60 miles southeast of Phoenix on State 79.

CONTACT: Chamber of Commerce: 291 N. Bailey St.; www.florenceaz.org or (800) 437-9433.