Old Town businesses, buildings hold much history

This is the second of a five part series focusing on the past, present and future of Old Town Cottonwood's Main Street historical district. Look for future articles each Friday.

Opening the door to history.

That's what merchants in Old Town Cottonwood do as they open up shop for the day. The buildings that now are home to the Main Street businesses frequented by many were once car dealerships, grocery stores and hotels.

Nancy Elkins, also known as the Tour Lady, has created a number of different Verde Valley tours. One is a walking tour of Old Town Cottonwood. Elkins has the knowledge and a great affection for the area.

"Before I even moved here I fell in love with Old Town," she said.

Her walking tour is a one-hour, four-block adventure. One of Elkins' favorite buildings is the Cottonwood Civic Center. She explains that it was built as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1939.

The women in the town helped raise funds during the depression. Elkins tells about a 'come as you are' breakfast fundraiser, one of the events that helped raise quite a bit of money.

"They raised $10,000 in this small, little town during the depression," Elkins said.

The rocks used in the structure came from the Verde River and the project was really a town effort.

"One of the things that makes Old Town so interesting is the unique architecture," Elkins said.

During her tour she points out that the stores were built with no space in between. Many of the structures had high parapets and the windows used are different than what you would see in modern buildings.

"It was just the style of the time," she said.

Jim Van Wert owns Jim and Ellen's Variety Store at 1019 N. Main St. He appreciates that style and has kept the historic building pretty much how it was when it was built in 1928.

The building used to be Jim Haskins Motors. The Plymouth and Dodge dealership was later turned into a furniture store, ceramic studio and what it is today.

Van Wert said it is still possible to make out the words Plymouth and Dodge on the front of the building.

He points out that the old showroom was where home décor items are now. A customer waiting room used to sit in the middle of the current store.

Van Wert has talked to many customers who come in and remember what the building used to be like.

"It gives them a warm feeling … a building like this has such character," he said.

The open ceilings are the same as they ever were. The open wooden beams have a Cottonwood connection too. Van Wert said the lumber used was actually sawed at the local sawmill.

"[The building] has a very close connection to Cottonwood in general," he said.

The Cottonwood Hotel is on the other side of the street and was built in 1924. It's one of the only Old Town businesses to still have its original name.

The structure burned down in 1925 but was quickly rebuilt.

Owner Karen Leff said people would come from miles around and land in Cottonwood. There was gambling and bootlegging in the area, Leff said.

"For some reason the law was staying out of the Cottonwood area," she said.

Still used as a hotel, the building has a history that includes John Wayne and Elvis Presley. Leff said Wayne stayed at the hotel and Presley filmed Stay Away Joe in front, right on Main Street.

She bought the oldest hotel in Cottonwood because she had heard some of the history.

"I wanted to bring the history back," Leff said.

Besides the hotel and the former car dealership, Elkins points out where the old soda fountain used to sit and where the corner drugstore used to be.

"In those days Cottonwood was the biggest town to come to," Elkins said.

For more information on the variety of tours that Elkins provides, go to her Web site at www.tourlady.com or call 274-2272.

For more on the Historic Cottonwood Hotel, go to www.cottonwoodhotel.com.

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