In the past few years, Maricopa has made somewhat of a name for itself with events like Merry Copa and Copa Glow, which bring plenty of fun and entertainment to area residents and visitors alike.
Long before those events, however, there was one that preceded them: the highly anticipated Maricopa Stagecoach Days — a fun-filled event that tipped its hat to Maricopa's western heritage.
First developed in 1959, Stagecoach Days started as a fundraiser put on by the Rotary Club, which had put forward the funds to build a large-scale pool for the community. The Olympic-sized pool, which also featured a wading pool for children, was designed to be a place for Maricopa youngsters to gather and enjoy entertainment and fun activities as opposed to the area's canals.
Though the land for the pool had been donated by farmers John Smith and Fred Enke, and other local farmers had subsequently donated cotton bales to raise another $12,000 for the facility, construction had cost the club over $50,000. So, Stagecoach Days was developed as a way for the club to repay the debts it had taken on to build the pool and, in later years, as a way to maintain the facility.
The inaugural event attracted about 2,000 attendees and featured a wealth of activities such as horse racing at the arena, free stagecoach rides, a barbecue, a horse cutting competition and more.
In the following years, Stagecoach Days became Maricopa's premier event — celebrating Maricopa's history as an agricultural community and, at one point, a transportation center for the stagecoach.
The story, said Maricopa Historical Society President Paul Shirk, is one that encapsulates the essence of Maricopa.
"It was community working together," Shirk said. "That's probably the strong point of Maricopa still. This tremendous growth that we've gotten hasn't changed that."
The event even featured a contest for bearded men; participants would often dress up like those who settled Maricopa in the community's early days.
In years to come, activities at the community-organized event would evolve and Stagecoach Days became a much looked forward to occurrence among locals. Even well-known western singers and film actors like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry attended the event at some point, according to the historical society.
Local resident Chasen Powell, or "C.P.," Honeycutt also pitched in by letting the Rotary use his arena to host some of the Stagecoach Days activities.
"Stagecoach Days was a time for everybody to get together," said the historical society's archivist, Dorothy Charles.
The event also paid tribute to Maricopa's history as a transportation corridor, said Shirk.
Whether it was Maricopaville, Maricopa Wells or Maricopa Junction, the community (which had shifted locations a few times over the decades) had always been an important stop for the stagecoach and, later, other modes of transportation.
"Whether it was explorers — in the old times — stagecoach, mail and then eventually the railroad, this was the southern corridor for everything from the East and the Midwest through here and then eventually on to California," Shirk said. "But Maricopa — Wells, Ville, Station or Junction — was the central spot for all of that to come through."
When the community incorporated in 2003, the city started up a similar celebration called Founders' Day, while Stagecoach Days remained under the purview of the Rotary Club.
Founders' Day continued for about five years until the city made a push to replace the event with Stagecoach Days. Brenda Campbell, a member of the Maricopa Historical Society and a coordinator with the city's Parks and Recreation Department, was among those tasked with guiding the change at the time.
Campbell worked together with a community committee, and the event became a three-day affair that was typically put on by the city in October.
"Over the next few years, we had like a two-week celebration, and what we tried to do was to get different organizations to have events during that two-week period," Campbell said.
Participating organizations included the historical soceity, which hosted a golf tournament; Against Abuse, which put on a fun run; and the Rotary Club, which held a street dance as opposed to Stagecoach Days' once-traditional barn dance.
But despite efforts to pull in community involvement from around Maricopa to the event, the popularity of Stagecoach Days was waning.
"It just didn't quite make it off the ground," Campbell said of efforts to expand the event.
In the coming annual renditions, Stagecoach Days was transformed into a three-day carnival hosted by the Maricopa Chamber of Commerce, with the city co-hosting one day out of the three-day event.
But the transformation was short-lived.
The year construction was completed on the new City Hall on White and Parker Road, it started to become clear that the city had outgrown Stagecoach Days, Campbell said. The final nail in Stagecoach Days' coffin was a tree lighting ceremony that was held at the new City Hall that year. The event, she noted, attracted droves of people.
"The director of our department at that time and the events manager at that time decided that Stagecoach Days really had kinda dissolved," said Campbell. "It was a lot of effort (and) we spent the same amount of money or more for maybe getting 2,000 to 3,000 citizens to come out versus 10,000 to 12,000 at the Great American Fourth or Salsa Festival."
From there, the decision was made to transition from Stagecoach Days to the holiday-themed Merry Copa, held every December.
Merry Copa, which creates a fun-filled winter wonderland for area families to explore, had such a draw among area community members that in 2022, the city decided to expand the celebration from a one-day event to two.
"As Copper Sky became available we added other events such as Copa Glow. The cultural event was new last year and just kind of expanded to try to get different markets (and) different niches," Campbell said.
Reflecting back, Parks and Recreation Director Nathan Ullyot said that what likely spurred on the change was Maricopa's growth. For a community of about 1,200 people, he noted, a total event attendance of about 600 for Stagecoach Days would have been significant.
"We might have had similar numbers but when you have a town of 30, 40,000, 600 is not the same bang for the buck," Ullyot said.
According to Shirk, Stagecoach Days' smaller attendance may have also had to do with what the growth had meant in later years as the amount of events and activities available in the city increased.
"At that time, (Stagecoach Days) was the event," he said. "And now you've got the growth of the city and Copper Sky (Recreational Complex) being built, and a tremendous amount of other things happening in the city that it (Stagecoach Days) wasn't the one, single event. Now you have a multiplicity of things — which is good, but the driving force of 'this is the one thing we have here, Stagecoach Days,' was kind of replaced by a lot of community events.'"
From the city's standpoint, as Maricopa's population swelled to tens of thousands in later years, there was a greater need to develop events that appealed to a broader audience.
The city also faced another challenge when it came to Stagecoach Days; as the community continued to grow, the event's sentimental and historical connection didn't register as much with newer residents.
Despite efforts made in 2016 to host a two-week celebration designed to pay tribute to Maricopa's history in pecan farming, the concept didn't seem to gather as much interest within the community, Campbell noted.
By 2017, Stagecoach Days was all but eliminated, with the city only sponsoring the Maricopa Shutter Shot photo contest — a Stagecoach Days event— in October of that year.
In the years since the event's elimination and the subsequent success of other events like Copa Glow and Merry Copa, the one thing that has become fairly evident to the parks and recreation program is that new events tend to excite Maricopa residents.
"We have kind of a balance. The Salsa Festival is coming up on 20 years, and it's morphed and changed but ... that's still probably our most traditional event," Ullyot said. "But people like to see new things and see the old stuff become new as well."
Finding ways to keep the city's events fresh is something that the department focuses on every year. One example is the upcoming Night Market. While the Night Market has been paired with past events, like Copa Glow, this year the event will feature a new lure — a multicultural festival.
"That's kind of our mindset when we look at events is 'how do we show something new and get the community excited?'" said Ullyot. "There's a little bit of a formula, but we always try to tinker with the entertainment function of it. Rather than just food and shopping, there's an entertainment hook, whether it's balloons, a band, a dance group, interactive art, an interactive competition — things like that."
But much like the original premise behind Stagecoach Days, today's events still play an important role that goes beyond keeping area residents entertained. They help drive economic opportunities, create an environment for local businesses and services to get their information out and even serve as a space for residents to connect.
In addition, coming out of the pandemic, events and programs like those run by parks and rec have become an important way for new residents to connect with other community members, noted Ullyot.
And while Stagecoach Days may not be on the city's upcoming list of events, the event could potentially make a comeback in the future.
"We've talked with the city and they've always had a warm spot in the heart — and I know our current mayor (Nancy Smith) does too — for those kinds of events," said Shirk. "And so the question is, how do we fit all of that in? And is there enough community interest and involvement that we may try to do that again?"
But even if Stagecoach Days were to be brought back, Shirk recognized that it would have to be done in a way that not only spotlighted the community's historical ties to agriculture and the stagecoach, but also tie in much more of Maricopa's growing "diversity of interests."
The idea is certainly something that some Maricopa residents, especially those that have been livinging in the community for a long time, such as Grace Gomez, are open to.
"I sure would like to have some of that back," Gomez said about Stagecoach Days. "I'm sure that there is an area in Maricopa's boundaries that we would be able to do a little country-western thing that we have always (had)."