By Bob Harner
Although the popular image of Prescott in the late 1800’s may be of a wild frontier town centered on Whiskey Row, with drunken cowboys and miners engaging in frequent bar brawls and shootouts, the reality was far different. While the town had its wild west aspects, it also had a thriving and active “high society,” with the same kinds of community activities, sophisticated entertainments and social conventions as more “civilized” Eastern cities.
Two sources provide ample evidence of this: local Prescott newspapers and the daily diary of Lily Fremont, 5th Territorial Governor John C. Fremont’s unmarried daughter, who lived here from 1878 until 1881. In her late 30’s and well-traveled, Lily was familiar with the social graces of the time.
Like other Prescott women of her class, Lily devoted her time to various interests, including reading, writing, crafts (Lily sewed almost every day), visiting or receiving visits with townspeople, charity work, joining or hosting dinner parties and attending theatrical performances, music recitals and balls. For a time, Lily tutored a young Fort Whipple Army officer in French.
Prescott’s upper classes practiced the same cliquish behavior as elsewhere. Lily laments the difficulty of organizing dinner party seating. At one point, she writes, “…this ridiculous party which is being managed by the ladies of the Bashford & Parker families who have dropped about twenty families who are usually asked to such ‘they not being in our set’! Society distinctions up here! but it is going to make a lot of trouble.” Lily experienced this personally when she wasn’t initially invited to an Army ball, possibly because of a financial scandal surrounding her father’s business partner.
Visiting (or calling) was a common social practice. On a relatively ordinary day, Lily reports, “Mrs. Cory made us a visit before noon. Fanny & Grace called in the afternoon. Mr. & Mrs. Churchill dined with us. Capt. Eagen . . ., Mr. Foster & Mr. Kitchen called during the day & evening.” On New Year’s Day in 1880, Lily received 25 callers in the afternoon, while her father called at 41 houses.
In addition to attending theater and music events, members of this social class often performed in them. Lily’s brother Frank (in his mid-20’s and on medical leave from the Army) acted in plays by the Prescott Dramatic Club. Lily writes, “In the evening we went to the theatre. ‘Richelieu’ by request (Frank in the part of the King) …. Frank did his king’s part right well & looked well in the clothes of the period.” A review of a different play in the January 17, 1879 Weekly Arizona Miner states, “The play passed smoothly and was well received …. the lover, by Mr. Fremont, was well taken, and he satisfied the audience to a moral certainty that he is no novice in the art of making love, and especially in kissing.”
Frank also played piano in music recitals. Lily notes, “Frank did his duet with the violin uncommonly well—besides which he played all the accompaniments [for singers] & seems to have lost none of his old touch.”
Balls (to which non-members were invited) were held frequently by Prescott fraternal groups like the Masons and Odd Fellows. Roman Catholics held a ball in October 1878 to raise funds to build a church. The press covered these extensively. The March 5, 1880 Weekly Arizona Miner features a lengthy article on a “Long looked for and much talked of masquerade” ball, naming all thirty-nine couples who attended, along with descriptions of their costumes.
Prescott in the late 1800’s still displayed “wild and wooly” characteristics; but it was also home to a prosperous upper class that brought sophistication and culture to a frontier town.
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