It’s easy to write off Florence as a dusty, small town whose chief industry is prisoners in the state pen and a federal detention center. But visitors are advised to look a little deeper to find a charming town with close to 100 historic buildings and a terrific, walkable downtown.
Florence, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2016, is well worth a day trip from Phoenix an hour away or from Tucson about 90 minutes distant.
The hardware store on Main Street, a Norman Rockwell throwback, occupies the White-McCarthy Building and the former Mandell's Department Store. Step inside this nuts and bolts palace for a look at the stamped-tin ceiling, polished wooden floors and an intoxicating hardware store aroma.
It even has a hammer for a door handle. And a movie poster of the 1985 film Murphy's Romance, starring Sally Field and James Garner, that was filmed in Florence.
Levi Ruggles is credited as the founder of Florence. A former Union soldier from Ohio, he bought land, planted an orchard and established the townsite in 1866 on the southern bank of the Gila River. Ruggles served as the Indian agent for three years.
Town's buildings tell colorful stories
There are more than a few colorful stories from Florence's the historic buildings:
— The Truman-Randall House was built with adobe bricks in the late 1880s by Sheriff W. C. Truman. He was best known for capturing Pearl Hart, the woman who robbed the Florence-to-Globe stagecoach in 1899 with a sidekick named Joe Boot.
— Dr. Wallace Randall, second owner of the Truman-Randall House, was murdered by his nurse in 1922. A Florence historian says the nurse shot him because of his sexual advances but she went to prison nevertheless. Dr Randall's widow befriended the nurse and took soup to her in the Florence prison, according to the historian.
— Rancher and farmer John Nicholas moved his saloon and beer hall into one of Florence’s first fired-brick buildings in 1889. The flat-roof building with a full basement included a steam-powered fan to keep patrons cool while they sipped their beer and whiskey. It’s now a dentist’s office.
— The William Clarke House, built in 1884 by a mining engineer of that name, was restored in early 2000s by local publisher Donovan Kramer Sr. The adobe building is now the office of the Florence Reminder and Blade Tribune newspaper.
— The Pinal County Courthouse cost the taxpayers nearly $35,000 to build is 1891. The county ran short of money and could not afford a working clock for the courthouse tower. Officials settled for a “clock” frozen in time at 11:44.
Florence is also home to the McFarland State Historic Park, which occupies the first Pinal County Courthouse, built in 1878. The adobe building included a jail, sheriff's office and space for other county officials. It became a hospital after the 1891 courthouse was completed.
Today, it includes exhibits on World War II prisoner of war camps in Florence and the political life of Ernest McFarland. Mac, as he was known, was a U.S. Senator and Majority Leader, Governor of Arizona and Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.
The Pinal County Historical Museum has a fascinating collection of Florence's ranching, cowboy and territorial history. That includes remnants and photos from the Tunnel Saloon, where former Sheriff Peter Gabriel survived a brutal gunfight with his ex-deputy Joe Phy, who was killed.
The Florence museum also has a grim collection from the Arizona State Prison, which moved from Yuma to Florence in 1908. The display includes a trap door for hangings, a double gas
chamber chair for two brothers and a series of nooses with photos of those men and one woman who were executed by hanging.
Yes, Eva Dugan was hanged in 1930 for killing a Tucson rancher. She is the only woman to be executed in Arizona.
Tom Mix's last ride
Finally, the Pinal County Museum has a collection of Tom Mix memorabilia. The star silent-movie cowboy crashed his luxury Cord automobile in a fatal accident Oct. 12, 1940. There is a memorial for Mix 16 miles south of Florence on State Route 79.
Just north of Florence on the Hunt Highway is Poston’s Butte. Charles D. Poston, who dubbed himself the Father of Arizona, is buried atop the butte at an elevation of 1,748 feet. The hilltop site includes a pyramid monument where Poston is buried.
Poston (1825-1902) went to Washington in 1863 to convince federal officials to create a separate Arizona Territory from the New Mexico Territory. President Lincoln complied and Poston became the territory's first delegate to Congress.
In the early 1940s, Florence civic leaders petitioned to make Poston Butte a national park, an effort that went nowhere.
Poston’s Butte hikers should turn west off State Route 79 just north of the Gila River onto Hunt Highway. They can park near a railroad trestle about 1.5 miles west of SR 79 and walk under it to reach the trail. It takes about 30 minutes to hike to the summit.