What to do in Historic Old Town Cottonwood

The most important thing any visitor to Old Town Cottonwood needs to know is this: When confronted by a peacock, do not panic. Imagine how embarrassed you’ll be if someone sees you run away screaming from a bird.

And the chances of a peacock encounter in Old Town are pretty good. A couple of the plumaged showboats live in the neighborhood and regularly patrol the sidewalks, often stopping to preen in store-window reflections.

Self-admiring creatures aside, when it comes to the Verde Valley, Sedona and Jerome garner most of the tourism accolades. Between these traveler havens sits the oft-overlooked gem of Old Town, the historic heart of Cottonwood. Businesses housed in elegant Prohibition-era buildings and fronted by covered sidewalks make a postcard-quaint setting, just a stone’s throw from the Verde River.

Originally a farming settlement, Old Town developed commercially as mining activity in Jerome flourished. Neighboring Clarkdale and Clemenceau were established as company towns. Folks wanting to start a business or own property and those chafing under the weight of regulations settled in Cottonwood, named for the graceful trees lining the riverbanks.

After a devastating fire in 1925, concrete sidewalks replaced wooden boardwalks and most businesses were rebuilt using cast concrete. Careful preservation landed Old Town a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. When entering a building, always look up. Many feature ornate ceilings of hammered tin.

Below are ways to enjoy a visit to Old Town Cottonwood.

Go directly to jail
The former county lockup, built in 1929, now serves as the visitor center for the Old Town Association. Gather some brochures and ask questions. Take a minute to check out the jail’s river-rock construction. The smooth colorful stone, plentiful and close at hand, was the signature building material for years. Many modern structures around town include a touch of it as a salute to simpler times. This is also the trailhead for the Jail Trail, a self-guided nature tour. The 1-mile path meanders through a Fremont cottonwood/Goodding willow riparian environment, one of five in Arizona and 20 in the world.

Details: 1101 N. Main St., 928-634-9468 or www.oldtown.org.

Test your willpower
Walk into Old Town Cafe, glance at the pastry case full of fiercely creamy creations and try not to buy one. The European-style cafe serves sandwiches and salads and brews the best coffee around. But it’s the decadent desserts that separate even strong-willed folks from their diets. Beware the Big Kahuna, a delicate dough shell that contains luscious vanilla pastry cream and is topped with fresh fruit.

Details: 1025 N. Main St., 928-634-5980.

A different kind of java

If the cappuccino at the cafe doesn’t pop your eyes open, walk next door to Javadog Gallery for a jolt of color. Artist Ramona Stites uses a vivid palette to create bold landscapes and abstracts on a large scale. Works of other Arizona artists also are displayed, but the big oils by Stites are the ones that stay with you long after you’ve gone.

Details: 1023 N. Main St., 928-634-5217 or www.javadoggallery.com

All that glitters

Jerome gained fame for the vast amount of copper pulled from its mines, but that someday may be dwarfed by the staggering amount of glitter produced in Old Town. The Art Institute Glitter Inc. sells an estimated 60,000 pounds of it a year, ever since Martha Stewart began raving about this place. The institute is housed in a World War II-era Quonset hut and supplies art glitter and adhesives to artists and crafters around the world.

Details: 712 N. Balboa St., 877-909-0805 or www.artglitter.com.

Back to the future

It used to be a gas station and it still looks like one, complete with vintage fuel pumps, but Willy’s Burgers & Shakes is a classic diner with counter seating, metallic-blue booths and a swinging jukebox. The place is so 1950s-style authentic, you’ll think you smell Potsie’s Brylcreem. Yet this is no gimmick joint. The burgers are big, juicy, multinapkin elbow drippers, and the milkshakes are hand-scooped with Haagen-Dazs.

Details: 794 N. Main St., 928-634-6648.

Back to the future, Part 2

While you’re feeling retro, visit neighboring Larry’s Antiques, a sprawling 2-acre complex of relics, curios and memorabilia. Larry’s, formerly of Glendale, houses one of the largest collections in the country. Wandering through the lot overflowing with old farm equipment, horse tack and wagons is like visiting a post-apocalyptic Mayberry. Inside, you’ll find an awesome array of swizzle sticks.

Details: 796 N. Main St., 928-639-1822.

Good gosh, lavash

Perhaps the most unexpected menu item in Old Town can be found at the stylishly casual Tavern Grille. The lavash, also known as Armenian cracker bread, is what pizza hopes to be when it grows up. A large yeasty wheel, brushed with garlic olive oil and buried beneath an avalanche of Dofino havarti cheese and four selected toppings, the lavash somehow crackles with a delicate crunch while proving luxuriously hearty.

Details: 914 N. Main St., 928-634-6669 or www.taverngrille.net.

Attack of the killer beads

Alley Cat Yarn, Beads & Clothing offers an extensive selection of yarns and beads, as promised. It also carries looms and knitting machines and conducts classes and workshops in all aspects of clothing and jewelry making. There’s even a seating area for fidgety companions. It’s right next door to the bar of Tavern Grille.

Details: 918 N. Main St., 928-204-1379.

Show your love

Any time is the perfect time to snag a thoughtful token of your feelings. The Little Store is a trove of handcrafted and eye-catching gift ideas, with plenty of holiday extras. Desert Rose Designs features custom jewelry and home decor with an Asian flair. Bitts & Pieces Arte Boutique is an upscale gallery with styles ranging from rustic to contemporary.

Details: Little Store, 909 N. Main St., 928-639-1680; Bitts & Pieces, 913 N. Main St., 928-639-2033; Desert Rose, 907 N. Main St., 866-500-8504 or www.azdesertrose.com.

A magnificent batard

Orion Bread Co. turns out freshly baked artisan breads in loaves, rounds, baguettes and batards, which are short, plump baguettes perfect for sandwiches. Daily selections include honey whole wheat, red rock sourdough and olive oil and rosemary Italian. Specials range from kalamata feta to jalapeño Cheddar to the sinful chocolate brioche. They do custom orders with 48 hours’ notice. Don’t be surprised if you come for the bread but stay for the cookies.

Details: 1028 N. Main St., 928-649-1557 or www.orionbread.com.

Get in line

Most days around 5 p.m. you’ll notice a cluster of hungry-looking people waiting for Cottonwood’s pre-eminent restaurant to open. Nic’s Italian Steak and Crab House opened when Old Town wasn’t exactly thriving, and many believe this intimate joint played a significant role in Old Town’s resurgence. Steaks so tender you wonder how cows ever stay upright and a slate of pastas and seafoods keep locals and visitors coming back for more. A no-reservations policy and limited seating explains the line.

Details: 925 N. Main St., 928-634-9626.

About those birds

As town greeters, Cottonwood’s peacocks are not as aggressively punctual as the burros of Oatman. If they’re not roaming about, the most likely place to spot them is in the yard of a private home. Right next door to the Hippie Emporium sits Cottonwood’s first house. It was built by Charles and G.M. “Mack” Willard for their widowed mother in 1880.

Threatened with demolition in the 1970s, the house was purchased and restored by a family that lives there still. The peacocks originally belonged to a neighbor, but when she passed away, they moved to the old Willard house, roosting in the trees and mingling with the chickens.

Details: Hippie Emporium, 1123 N. Main St., 928-634-1970.

By: Roger Naylor