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Prescott, Arizona’s historic 4th of July Water Wars

Prescott, Arizona is a great place to live. It was also a fantastic place to grow up. Moving here just after my 2nd birthday, my parents decided on Prescott after looking at 4 other locations to raise their family. Prescott was love at first sight. We moved into large house right on Gurley St, across from Ken Lindley Field. Those early, glorious days of Prescott (you remember, when it used to snow in October on Halloween every year?) were the best. Back during a time when the only source of summertime entertainment was softball tournaments at Ken Lindley Field, before the installation of cable TV or the invention of the Atari. It was not unusual to see American Indians in full dress walking on the Courthouse Plaza, and Billy Jack was a local hero. It was also the day when Prescott had one Junior High, one High School, and 4 elementary schools with 1 on the way.

During this time, thousands of tourists would flock to Whiskey Row to celebrate the 4th of July. The courthouse plaza was lined with food booths and makeshift mini versions of the old-town buildings; one of which was a little jail that you had to pay 1 dollar to get released from if you were unlucky enough to be caught NOT wearing a piece of western clothing by the staged constable. The dollars went into the city coffers to pay for event planning. I personally remember my mother getting put in the jail because my she was not wearing any western clothing. I screamed until the constable let her out. That was last year. 🙂 During this unique period in history, grade school children used to have parades in downtown Prescott, one of which was the Halloween Parade. Locals would watch as students dressed up in their scariest costumes and walked in long lines around the Courthouse Plaza. Most schools participated, and it was great fun to get outside with our friends and show off our best costume. During this time I was a student at Washington School. In fact, I attended from K-6th. Back then, 6th grade was still elementary level, and Gene Loving was our principle.

The water battles started in the early 80’s by grade-school children on the last day of school before summer break. I have other sources that indicate the water wars started in the early 70’s when the downtown carnival was still held at Prescott Junior High on the 4th and the fireworks were at the High School. I’ve heard stories of water balloons being thrown at the 5-points junction (now Miller Valley and Iron Springs.) Of course, the tossing of water balloons by individuals for no reason does not necessarily constitute a starting place for the water wars. We threw water balloons regularly during the summer. At least in my neck of the woods, Washington School regarded the last day as “water war day” and let all the kids go at it on the playgrounds.

We would inevitably carry on the water fights after school was let out at noon on the last day. It was a way to see all our friends one last time and a way to have fun and cool off as the days began to get hotter. The battles started on school grounds at first but then graduated to grudge matches between Washington School and Lincoln Elementary. The equidistant, neutral ground between them was the innocent Courthouse Plaza. Eventually the older kids joined in from Prescott Junior High and Granite Mountain Junior High.

It was not unusual to see shaving cream balloons along with the traditional “water-bombs” being chucked. However, the single greatest tactical weapon was the invention of the “water weenie”. A long stretch of surgical tubing tied off on one end in a knot, with a ball-point pen top in the other. The pen tip had the ability to be forced into typical school drinking fountain heads. The water pressure would fill up the tubing like a balloon. The diameter of the surgical tubing contributed to the intense water pressure. It was not unusual to see water shoot  30′-40′ distances. Before the invention of super-soakers or the water canon (which would come later), the Water Weenie dominated. They were somewhat dangerous if they exploded while wrapped around your neck. We heard stories of kids getting serious lacerations and injuries, and as a result, we cut our stock of tubing down to 18 inches or less. The trend was so popular, Prescott’s medical suppliers ran out, as did Flagstaff.  My father worked at the VA hospital as a histotechnologist, therefore, he could get tubing. It was so popular, we made money trading tubing for other items. Eventually, we never had to buy tubing, we simply traded for it. I can’t say that I invented the water-weenie. I wish I knew who did. But I can tell you it was someone we knew. For some reason, I think it might have been the long-haired guy who ran the DJ booth at Skate Town USA. I think his name was Dave, or Mike. He was the coolest skater in the world, and he had long hair, and we thought he was a rock star. I saw him about 6 years ago on the outdoor hockey rink in Prescott at Pioneer Park. I was practicing my wrist-shot, and he was just there skating on 4 wheels with his girlfriend or something. We wound up talking and figuring out each, who the other person was. We talked for a good hour. It was really good to see him, and I was happy he was doing well.

Because we lived downtown, we were always right in the middle of all the activity. My siblings were older thus expanding my perspective. They experienced life in different circles of influence, which of course had an influence on what I thought was possible. Inevitably, they brought home stories and experiences I was too young to participate with. Of course during the 80’s, I was creating my own experiences with my own friends as an adolescent and teenager. One exploit was rocketing water balloons from the Ken Lindley Field wall into Gurley St. We had several friends who did stupid things also. One of the cooler things my brother did was to create a huge rubber band, which at the time, had no mental association regarding what was to come years later. My brother worked at the Courier and could get rubber bands by the bag full. The owner gave him as many as he wanted, and at night we would tie them all together, adding to our huge chain of rubber. One day we stretched the band from Gurley Street up Virginia St all the way to the graveyard. We only had one objective…to let it go and see what happened! Nothing happened really, so we needed to feel like all those years of work meant something; leading us to our next idea…making a giant slingshot.

One day, using two trees in our yard, while borrowing my brother’s giant rubber band, my friend & I launched a water balloon that hit the Ken Lindley football field, 580 feet away. When we went to look for the balloon, we were actually just scoping out the goalposts on the field as a potential slingshot. We thought, “Hey, that looks like a giant slingshot…what if we tied our huge rubber band to each side and stretched it back a 100 yards?” So we did and were getting distances of 800 feet. (I only know this now because of Google Earth) This led us to our next invention…a slingshot using surgical tubing we had used previously as water weenies. With this new strategy, we were able to hit Washington School at just over 1,100 feet away using triple-banded 1/4″ tubing with two of us pulling it back. Our greatest fear was a line breaking and hitting us in the face. So we dressed in heavy winter clothing and wore baseball caps over our faces with the eyes cut out, and sunglasses underneath. We discovered quickly that the lines were breaking often due to the sharp bark on the tree. We quickly solved that by using old towels (or new…who knows, we just grabbed them) to wrap the tubing in around the tree. This also prompted more protection features quickly. This all transpired in a 2 hour period of time. When you’re a kid, you know you can’t leave anything to chance. So we had to work rapidly to see if our idea had credence. We hid our supplies under the bridge right near our house which ran under Gurley St. We could only confirm the hits by finding the left over object we launched. It wasn’t always balloons…tennis balls worked well also.

This was about 1984, give or take, and the local water wars were not yet even a thought in our minds. We were still content with our end-of-the-school-year antics downtown. Unfortunately, as we grew older, so did the other kids. Unfortunate because some of them grew into troublemakers. We were always good kids. We didn’t want to hurt anyone or anything, but we were fearless and adventurous at the same time. Some of our friends grew up in bad environments, and as a result, fell into the wrong crowds. This inevitably led to open conflicts and territorial battles over the years, some ending violently. Yes, in Prescott. Many don’t realize this, but Prescott was a dangerous place during the 80’s. We had gangs, and we had Hells Angels rolling through town by the hundreds on a regular basis. We always got along with them. During the 1976 Bicentennial, approximately 300,000 people came to Prescott. I remember bikers sleeping all over our yard for two days. My mother would go out and ask if they needed anything. As a result, they all liked our whole family. Back on point, Prescott was a great place, but it was still the wild west. People would walk around downtown openly drunk by the hundreds. Lots of bar fights in the streets, and a small police presence. It was scary as a kid, but looking back I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was like watching a piece of old America disappear before my eyes.

After confirming our hits on the school (during the summer…no one was there) we quickly determined the Courthouse was the same distance from the school as the school was to our house by walking it off by foot. I have to admit, we never launched on the courthouse. Someone else had beat us to it. We walked up on a guy in a truck one day that had built a giant slingshot out of steel and mounted it in the bed of his truck. As kids, it was coolest thing we had ever seen.

He was testing his device using 12 inch balloons full of water. The launch was so smooth, the balloon never broke. He was hitting distances of 1800 feet and more. This means he could hit the Palace Bar, and any location downtown from Washington School. His theory was genius. Use 3 bands of surgical tubing at various lengths. He had one pull mechanism which appeared to be some sort of rubber handle. By using this technique, he was able to quickly pull back for short, quick distance warfare, and also jump off the tailgate and take the slingshot back to full length, thus engaging the other tubing bands, creating even more power. We put him to the test. We ran back & forth around the neighborhood as he tried to hit us for about 30 minutes. He never did connect, and I’m glad because it probably would have done some damage. This was likely around 1985-86. It was during this period the water wars started. But they didn’t reach their apex until 1992-93. What happened in between is a piece of Monster-Truck history.

For some reason, jacking up your rig was THE thing to do in Prescott during the late 80’s. My wife’s uncle was at the center of all attention in Prescott in this field. He owned “The Critter”. The Critter was a 1967 Plymouth Fastback jacked up 3 feet on 4 foot tires with a green and black paint job that would make the Bigfoot team jealous. A giant lightning bolt ran down the length of the car with the name written on the side. He had several other cars as well, but it was by far Prescott’s most well known vehicle. Along with The Critter came dozens of giant monster trucks from Phoenix and other outlying areas. They all came to cruise the best strip this side of Vegas…Gurley Street. The cruise strip started at the Sharlot Hall Museum, and ended at What-a-burger Restaurant (or vice verse), right across the street from Ken Lindley field. Most locals thought the strip ended at the Copper Kettle Restaurant Parking lot, a large slab of concrete 40 yards deep and 20 wide. This used to be the old A&W back in the day, but they turned it into one of Prescott’s best breakfast joints. It also was directly behind our house, and it closed at 4pm. It eventually closed its doors all together until Century 21 purchased the building. So, you may be able to envision what is happening here. Our home was positioned perfectly at the most popular junction for turning around a monster truck in town. So you can imagine what happened.

Again, the water wars had not “officially” started. There wasn’t anything official about any of it. No one started it… no one founded it. We could easily lay claim as could some others. What happened was that people caught on to the grade school water wars and the other schools started picking it up also. As we all grew older, people began driving, and as more young people in our sphere had cars, we would target them directly. By the summer of 1987, the high school kids were into it full swing on the last day of school. It was also the year my brother was a senior, and I was a freshman. The water war downtown that year on the courthouse saw my brother and his buddies pounding all the youngsters with shaving cream and all sorts of nasty smelling balloons. It was on. The schools now had a battle to look forward to each year. The high school kids had the advantage. So we just tried to mind our own business… yeah… good luck with that. The battle field was Granite Creek Park all the way to the courthouse. In those day, Albertson’s and the Depot Shopping plaza had yet to be built. There was no “Gail Gardner St.” and no Montezuma cut-thru over Granite Creek Park. Montezuma Street ended at the corner of Sheldon & Montezuma. Behind, laid the train tracks, old buildings used by the recycling plant, a Budweiser plant, and forest. We used to play on the old train bridge that eventually turned into a restaurant. Some kids were at Granite Creek Park, while other schools used the courthouse. It became territorial after a few years. It’s difficult to talk about the early years of the water war without dealing with the mindset of a different era.

Back then, leaving Prescott was the ambition of every single graduate. Prescott was small, and boring. With the exception of Halloween and the 4th of July, there was nothing to do. We had a drive-in theater that was falling apart, and the Marina Theater with 2 screens. Eventually another theater opened on the west end of Gurley St in the Fry’s shopping center. (now DES) Weekends on the square were torture for a kid. The Salvation Army would play religious movies by the Buckey O’Neill statue, there would be square dancing, and that was about it. What we did for fun was hike around and discover stuff. We quickly found out that Prescott was quite the mysterious little city once one left the downtown area. I could easily write a book about our adventures. The house at the hidden lake behind the graveyard with the horse on the porch, or the Indian chanting at night in the hills behind the graveyard at the end of Virgina Street that would literally disappear and reappear somewhere else, the Hell’s Angels camping at the “Tanks”, the strange symbols guiding people up the “creek” south of Prescott, building a raft to navigate the Granite Creek floods that happened each year during monsoons, rafting down the gutters with “floats” like it was the Colorado River, building giant ramps and ice walls on Washington St during winter and sledding down the hill with my brother, building forts and tree houses, jumping off a roof downtown into a trash bin full of plastic bags, flipping the power breaker switches up and down whiskey row at night, and on and on. This became our fun, but for most people, partying at the gravel pits or the old abandoned house was about it. Or 4-wheeling on DQ hill. When Skate Town USA opened, we all went there every weekend. It was THE place to be. The truth is, Prescott was a time-bomb of lots of kids + nothing to do = trouble.

With the invention of the “Walkman”, kids started having the ability to take their music with them. It was the days of trading mix-tapes. Mix-tapes were like gold. We didn’t need to “buy” music any more, we would simply record the radio on our Walkman…something we could never do prior to that time! KISS FM was Kid Kelly and Carol Springer. These guys were gods to us. Getting on the radio was like crack, and we called in often. It was all part of the 80’s craze. In the movie “Almost Famous”, Cameron Crow’s character drew pictures of his favorite band logos on his school folder, and the radio was your therapist. This was me in the 80’s. Same age, same exact thing. I graduated high school in 1990. I spent my entire life during the 80’s in school with my friends. Only people who graduated in 1990 have this privilege afforded to them by chance. In school, they still swatted the bad kids. Fighting was just something you did off school grounds, and many times on. School is a completely different entity now. It’s safer, and for that I’m glad. But most young people have moved their adventure and battles online. World of Warcraft has taken over actual “wars” we fought with water weenies and slingshots. Taking photos of life has supplanted living life. I’m so glad I’m not a kid today. Technology is very cool, but life is way cooler.

1993 was THE year the largest water battle Prescott had ever witnessed took place. I remember being positioned with 20 people at Sharlot Hall. This was before they had a fence up. The house on the corner was both blessed and cursed to have us stationed there. We loved Prescott, and would never tolerate anyone hurting a building or another person. It was all good fun. Go downtown and get soaked. It was that simple. My own parents loved it and used to say, “If you don’t want to get wet, stay off the street!” Anyway, that year we had buckets, thousands of water balloons, water canons, and all the latest equipment including balloon slingshots. The girls wore bathing suits under their clothing, and the guys didn’t care. The street was lined up with cars, bumper to bumper all the way from Penn St to Grove. The turn around zones widened to the little gas station on the corner of Gurley and Grove and What-a-burger on the other end. It was so bad at What-a-burger, they had to hire security to ensure the safety of its customers. (Meaning getting hit with balloons) Go one block north or south and it simply died out. Sheldon was outside, and so was Goodwin St, with the exception of the “Square”. The four corners of the courthouse were open territory, including whiskey row. Most people stayed away from Whiskey Row, because that is where the Hell’s Angels hung out, and you didn’t hit one of their motorcycles and get away with it.

One of my best memories from the night was watching a van pull up to the stop light on McCormick and Gurley (Sharlot Hall) and slide open the door – 6 guys with water canons laid into us. We got annihilated. They came around a second time an hour later. As they slid the door open, we were ready. We had 5 gallon buckets full of water. About 15 of them to be exact. A few friends took the initial assault and ran to hold open the van doors. As they did we used canons, hoses hooked up to the building, and the buckets to fill up their car with water. It all happened in about 6 seconds. 5 of us threw buckets of water into the van as the boys slid the door shut, we then commenced to pour another 5 into the open windows of the passenger and driver side.  As they drove off, they opened to door to a waterfall of water coming off the floor of the van. They were laughing, we were cheering. No one got hurt, no one took it personally. It was just water. Yes the guys in the big trucks with tarps full of water would come by They all knew us. They weren’t about to chance having their nice leather seats ruined. We would throw courtesy balloons at the girls dressed in bikinis in the back. They would splash us. Occasionally we would get a nube throwing buckets of water at us. We had several hoses hooked up with sprayers on the end. It was never a competition because we had unlimited water for one night.

It was that year I remember seeing Prescott like I’d never seen it before. It literally glowed golden green. There were so many cars in both lanes, headlights on, tail lights glowing red; it produced an orange-like glow that lit up downtown. The streets were running with water, all the buildings, cars, streets, sidewalks, and people were wet, and the incandescent lights of the stores and vehicles turned the whole town into something never witnessed before or since. High overhead, objects were falling out of the sky like downed satellites entering back into Earth’s orbit. We were too far away to get hit, but we knew our old friend was back. Later that night, I saw the stranger with the huge slingshot parked at Washington School. A few years had passed, so I went up to say hi! We hung out for a while and I watched him launch a few balloons at screaming teenagers in trucks. It was getting late, and another fourth of July was coming to a close. It was a good year. So was the next, but it was different. Police started issuing tickets to anyone carrying a water gun downtown. They even ticketed people for rolling down their windows. (3 sources I knew personally) The crackdown was on.

I was out of high school by a few years, and things started to change. It was then we heard about Phoenix people coming up and putting rocks in balloons. Don’t know if it was true, but we were told who they were, and what to watch for. It wasn’t long after that complaints from stores were being filed about broken windows, and bystanders getting blasted. We always participated in the basic water fight, but I think in the end it was the bored trouble makers that continued to show up each year. The younger crowd had grown up, and the kids weren’t allowed to participate because it had become out of control. By the time the water wars were put to a halt, 12 years had passed. Only about 6 of them were full blown, official water wars. It wasn’t innocent anymore. It became about upping the ante each year. Bigger guns, bigger buckets, more water, and more dangerous people getting involved. Naturally, parents did not want their kids involved.

I don’t really blame the city for shutting it down. It was disappointing because it was so much fun. A few people even tried to move it to Prescott Valley the next year. Didn’t work because it wasn’t organic. The organic nature of the initial wars was founded by the school kids. Newspapers like to talk to the people who were at the hype of it all. But they were late-comers. Had they stayed away, it would probably still be going on today. I don’t blame anyone, it was all good fun. It was a unique time in Prescott for all of us. I’m glad I was an important piece to the legend. I wasn’t the legend… in my mind, we all were. I see the faces of my friends who bravely ran up to car windows and tossed huge balloons inside while laughing hysterically. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. They’re the heroes and legends of the Prescott water wars. My brother who instigated a war on the middle-schoolers that summer, he’s a piece of the legend. My sister who filled up her VW beetle with crazy people, or her friend Sandy in her huge SUV, or The Critter, or Monica, or John, Chris, Don, Mindy, Ricardo, Rene, Eric, Derek, Mimi, Dave, Glenn, Christie, etc… etc… etc… I could go on and on. They were all part of the legend. They were all part of Prescott history.