Barry Goldwater’s one regret: “You rascal you…..”

by Brad Courtney

Whiskey Row is arguably the most fascinating quarter of a city block in western America.  The centerpiece of this historic, jam-packed street has always been the Palace Saloon.  It is no wonder that one of Arizona’s favorite sons, Barry Goldwater (whose ties to Prescott are well-documented), once lamented, “My only regret is that I didn’t buy The Palace when I had a chance.”  His friend, Tom Sullivan, who had purchased The Palace in 1977, knew this.  So on July 26th of that same year, when writing the presidential candidate of thirteen years prior, his incentive was rather thinly veiled; his guilt-affliction quite transparent.  The bulk of his letter, however, disclosed his plans to restore the saloon to its former, early 1900s glory, to share its considerable history with its patrons in a museum-like style.  “I know of your very deep and sentimental interest in Prescott and…..any help that you may be able to give…..will be greatly appreciated.”

Interior of the Palace Bar, c. 1905, rebuilt after the fire of 1900. The “new” Palace Bar was to be built on the same location as the original and would be “the finest and best club house, saloon, café, etc. that Arizona has ever had, or in fact that can be found west of the Mississippi River.” Today’s Palace appears much as it did then when Barney and Nellie Smith ran the hotel….minus the cuspidors! (SHM Call Number: PB-008-I76-286p).


Goldwater’s response was a truly honest and magnanimous letter, dated August 10, 1977, which began with a good-natured, “You rascal you went and bought what had long been my desire to own.”  He went on to generously share some personal contacts to assist Sullivan in his undertaking, followed by two unforgettable tales directly involving the Palace.

The first tale, if true, occurred in 1889 and regarded the transference of the territorial capital site from Prescott to Phoenix.  Goldwater wrote, “As you know, the second floor was a house of prostitution.  I think the original brass beds are still up there as well as the bed pans, cuspidors, etc.  There is a story that Bert Fireman can elaborate on for you involving the movement of the capital to Phoenix.  The story is that the leader of the Senate, having one glass eye and who frequented the upstairs portion of the bar, had his glass eye stolen during the night.  As a result, he couldn’t take his place in the Territorial Senate and the lack of his vote sent the capital to Phoenix.”  Historians have been unable to prove, or disprove, this bit of Arizona folklore.  One longtime Prescottonian, Scott Anderson, had heard that this vainglorious scoundrel, who represented Yavapai County and therefore Prescott, had a favorite “lady of the night” working at the Palace.  She, so the legend goes, was thus hired by some Phoenician politicians to steal the fake eye if possible.  They knew this delegate’s vanity would prevent him from attending the voting session scheduled the next day, even with the issue of the territorial capital at stake.

The second anecdote from “Mr. Conservative” was equally amusing and survives as a testament to the celebrated wit of the five-term senator: “I always can remember old man [Barney] Smith (a pioneer and former owner of the Palace) would go to work at eight in the morning, walk behind the bar, grab any bottle at hand and start the day’s drinking.  Around four his wife (Nellie), a very large woman who taught piano, would come in and play and drink beer.  The two them would wobble out and go home about six.  I am told all he ever ate was raw hamburger and he lived to be one heck of an old age, so I am taking up raw hamburger with my bourbon.”

Barney Smith, owner of the Palace Bar from the early 1900s, shown here in his mid-80s, c. 1938 (SHM Call Number: PO-0622pb).

While it may not be wise to advocate a comparable lifestyle, perhaps this frontier story demonstrates that Benjamin Franklin’s “early to be bed, early to rise….” adage might prove a healthy one after all.  Or should there rather be a discussion regarding free-range, steroid-free beef?  Jesting aside, Barney Smith lived to be 90 years old, having died, according to his obituary, after a “brief illness.”  Indeed, a photograph of him taken a few days before his death shows him gardening in his backyard, looking a spry 90 years young.

Barry Goldwater was clearly unashamed, but indeed intimate with and proud of his beloved Prescott, which, as one early historian put it, “began with the opening of a saloon to supply the necessities, [and] later a grocery store… furnish the luxuries.”  Although it was not Prescott’s first saloon, the late senator believed that the Palace, without a doubt, was the grandest.

Barry Goldwater leads the Frontier Days Parade down Whiskey Row in 1960 in front of the Palace Bar he wished he had bought when he had the chance (SHM Call Number: PO-0931pc).

(Brad Courtney is a retired teacher who lives near Prescott and is currently researching for a book on the history of Whiskey Row.)

Publish in Prescott Courier:  September 23, 2012