The Black Cat - Seligman’s Favorite Haunt by Leo Banks
I didn’t walk into the Black Cat bar in Seligman mistaking it for the Arizona Biltmore. Maybe a storage shack at the Biltmore. Or the building at the hind end of the property, where they park the riding mowers.
But a business doesn't have to gleam and glitter to qualify as a beloved institution. The Black Cat, Northern Arizona's storied cowboy hangout, sits right on Historic Route 66, a stack of cream-colored cinder blocks that look as if they’ve worn out generations of cowboys. You can’t miss it. Look for the nifty painting on the building’s east wall, depicting two life-size Harvey girls standing in front of a train, and the pickup trucks in the parking lot.
If you listen carefully, you might hear a funny sound coming from those trucks. You see, for as long as anyone can remember, cowboys from neighboring ranches have come to the Cat, enjoyed their evening’s ya-hoo, then spread their bedrolls out in their flatbeds to notch some sack time. That sound? Why, it’s those old boys snoring under the moon.
The bar’s liquor license marks it as one of the oldest in Yavapai County, and the bar boasts a menu from long ago that offered porterhouse steak dinners for the fantastic sum of 65 cents. It doesn't get more authentic than that.
At the Cat, you won't find trust fund cowboys pumping quarters into the juke to hear the latest Kenny G. smash. The wranglers who come here wear boots caked in mud, they worship Reba, and they’re fresh off some of the biggest ranches in the West. Take the fabulous Diamond A, north of Seligman. Its boundaries run roughly from Peach Springs to Williams, and from Route 66 up to the Grand Canyon, about 730,000 acres. Where I come from, we don't call that a ranch — we call it Rhode Island.
"It’s a hard life up here, like going back a hundred years," says former owner Mike Gillen, who owned the bar for 11 years before selling it in 2005. "On these big ranches, they do everything on horseback because the country is too tough, even for ATVs, and they still run chuck wagons. These cowboys need a place to go."
Seligman sits along Interstate 40, and folks here joke that the town is 75 miles from everywhere - Prescott, Flagstaff, Kingman. Depending on what's been happening on the obit page, its population hovers around 1,200, and daily life comes with the constant hoot and rumble of trains. Something like 135 of them pass through here every 24 hours, their screeching whistles making you feel as lonesome as a character in a George Jones song.
But you can find a friend at the Cat. Several years back, NASCAR driver Kenny Hendrick blew a transmission while passing through town, and came into the bar for some comfort. So much comfort in fact that he spent the night, and when his new transmission arrived the next day, off he went, happy again. Gillen later received a gushing thank you note from Hendrick.
Some customers come and go like that, quick as the wind. One fellow, a woodcutter who supplies fence posts and such to ranchers, used to pop in now and then, buy two bottles of peppermint schnapps and retreat back to his lair in the woods.
Others, like rodeo cowboy James Dixon — better known by the nickname Strawberry — were decades-long regulars. For years, he'd been a successful rodeo cowboy, having chased animals through arena dirt all over the country. All the young cowboys thought he was the bee’s knees. Well, one night Strawberry elbowed to the bar to snuggle up to his glass of lightning. Several of the youngsters, excited to stand in the presence of cowboy greatness, gathered round. The bucks wanted to know how to get good at the rodeo, and peppered him with questions.
Hey, Straw, is it better to get experience riding at inside or outside arenas?
"I've ridden both," Strawberry responded. "Inside at the Prescott rodeo, the Calgary Stampede, and outside at Madison Square Garden and every place you can name."
"Well which do you like best?" they pressed. "Indoors or out?"
Strawberry gave his chin a good stroking as the young cowboys drew closer, practically panting to hear the legend’s answer.
"Inside. No doubt about it," he said.
"Inside? Really? How come, Straw?"
"On account of the bathrooms are closer."
You won't hear that kind of wisdom at the Arizona Biltmore. Leo Banks