by Kelly Tolbert, Recreation Coordinator, City of Prescott
On a typical day, driving into Prescott from the east, Veterans Memorial Island Park may go largely unnoticed. It consists of the statue, flagpole, trees and other monuments perched between Sheldon and Gurley streets, just before drivers reach downtown.
However, during the winter holiday months the park transforms with ornaments and lights adorning the trees while greeting visitors to Arizona’s official Christmas City. What passersby likely do not know is the park has quite a history, as well as the meaning associated with the annual tradition of decorating the small island park.
This tradition was started by former Yavapai County Supervisor Gheral Brownlow, who is revered for his numerous contributions to the community. It was he who organized the annual Courthouse Plaza Christmas lighting, including being the primary fundraiser, until the Prescott Chamber of Commerce took over. Brownlow was a Christmas enthusiast to say the least. His family and friends would decorate Veterans Memorial Park every year, always on the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Unfortunately Brownlow passed away in March 2008, but his spirit is kept alive, especially through his friends and family who continue to honor his wishes. In a 2013 Daily Courier article, a close friend of his was quoted as stating, “Gheral asked me to do two things: Decorate the park each year and make sure Prescott doesn’t lose its designation as Arizona’s Christmas City.”
Originally erected by the Arizona State Highway Commission and the City of Prescott, the City dedicated Veterans Memorial Island on July 4, 1954, “to the veterans of all United States wars in recognition of their sacrifice in the service of our country” by Mayor Joseph Allen.
Positioned in a triangular-shaped lot between Gurley and Sheldon streets, in 2009 it was determined that prominent features within the park, such as a tall flagstone masonry obelisk designed by William (Bill) Aven, who worked with three governors of Arizona to obtain permission for the monument, would be relocated for the realignment of the Highway 69 and Highway 89 intersection. The small curved street next to the park is now named Aven Drive in his honor.
During the realignment project, construction crews attempted to remove the obelisk, flagpole and original plaque. Unfortunately, the masonry work on the obelisk was compromised and was said to have essentially crumbled apart.
After the intersection project was complete, the City became official owner of the small park and City engineering staff were able to rebuild Veterans Memorial Park in late 2009. Improvements to the park included a speaker’s podium, bench seats designating Veterans Memorial Island on the back, electricity, lighting, and the original plaque, now placed on a pedestal. New sidewalks and gutters resulted in some of the original weeping willow trees, planted by veterans in 1954, having to be removed; however, they were likely toward the end of their naturally short life span.
Also in late 2009, a Veterans Memorial Park rededication ceremony was held honoring veterans. Shortly after, Brownlow was honored by the City with the planting a 14-foot blue spruce inside the park. Local business partners, including Arizona Public Service, Lowe’s, Walmart, Home Depot, True Value, Starbucks and Albertsons, graciously stepped up to enhance the holiday decorations normally seen at the park. With the help of Brownlow’s dedicated friends the park was decorated more elaborately than ever.
Following the park rededication, local veterans’ groups hoped to find funding to add a cavalry soldier sculpture, ultimately replacing the plaque. In 2010, local veterans groups once again formed an alliance to have the obelisk rebuilt. Two gentlemen, Larry Despain and Dave Ridenhour, constructed the current obelisk with longevity in mind. Another ceremony was held honoring Aven’s efforts from long ago, with his daughter Dorothy Aven Mills onsite to celebrate.
In September 2011 a different kind of ceremony took place in Veterans Memorial Island Park, this time honoring 40 veterans with the Warrior’s Medal of Valor. This medal is minted for Native American nations to honor all military personnel. Over the years, it has been presented to veterans and active duty personnel at various events, regardless of the recipient’s cultural background.
The front of the medal features the head of an eagle with an American flag in the background and two eagle feathers at the bottom. Red, yellow, black and white stripes on the medal’s ribbon represent the four directions. The medal is said to carry healing energy.
In November 2013, the friends and family of Brownlow decided to honor the fallen 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots by incorporating purple lights, since purple is the color that honors fallen firefighters. Again, community partners such as APS stepped in to help string lights on the taller trees, such as a 30-foot blue spruce. Target and Walmart donated lights, Starbucks donated hot chocolate and Albertsons supplied doughnuts, all out of gratitude for the community efforts in keeping the entrance to Arizona’s Christmas City a legacy. Smaller trees in the park, including the smaller blue spruce planted in Brownlow’s honor, were decorated with smaller colored lights.
Somewhere along the way, the Prescott Downtown Partnership became involved with the holiday decorating at Veterans Memorial Park, coupling its efforts with the downtown Courthouse lighting.
Once the fountain statue Lady Ermintrude was restored and reinstalled to her home on the plaza in 2018, it created a situation for the light string tree that used to be supported by the statue. A decision was made to relocate it to Veterans Memorial Park, where it welcomes residents and guests to the Christmas City.
Information for this article was obtained from Daily Courier archives, personal accounts and the Prescott Downtown Partnership. For more information on Veterans Memorial Park visit prescott-az.gov.