Sam McManis

Discoveries: Wickenburg, Ariz. -- home of the bola tie

WICKENBURG, Ariz. – Cowboy lore saturates this spiffed-up Old West town, found in every leather-scented saddlery and turquoise-laden gift shop, but especially among the chaps-to-spur-lined walls of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum.

Great stuff. Fascinating. Makes you want to spit out your tobacco plug and hoot 'n' holler.

But what will really compel you to make the hour drive northwest from Phoenix is the knowledge that Wickenburg is the by-gawd Bethlehem of the bola tie. Yes, we have Wickenburg to thank for the neckwear often mistakenly called "bolo" or more prosaically dubbed a "string tie."

It may rate only a single glittery display case in the museum, but the bola is so inextricably knotted with Arizona history that it was anointed as the state's official tie in 1971. (Quick digression: They apparently take accessorizing seriously in this state, as evidenced by rogue Sheriff Joe Arpaio's mandate that Maricopa County prisoners wear pink underwear.)

Actually, if anything, Wickenburg grossly undersells its bola heritage.

People here are so polite that they won't correct you if you mistakenly call it a "bolo" tie; only if you ask will they say, "Bolo is a knife; bola a tie."

(Bola, apparently, comes from the Argentine lariat called a boleadora, which bears resemblance to the neckwear.)

And where, for instance, is the monument in town to silversmith Vic Cedarstaff, the genius who parlayed a gust of wind and an ill-fitting cowboy hat into a menswear trend?

"The story goes," said Cathy Loupy, a docent at the Caballeros museum, "Vic was out on the ranch and it was a windy day and his hat blew off. So he gathered things up and put the hatband over his head. It was laced around his neck like that and people said, 'Hey, Vic, nice tie.'

"That's how they say it started. He followed through and did the patent, did the special (buckle) design and the (aglets) on the end of the leather strings. It caught on."

But did it, really? To many, bola ties seem about as modern as cravats.

The kind people of Wickenburg and environs politely disagree. They get a little hot under the collar when it's suggested that wearing a leather string with a sliding buckle around your neck and calling it a tie is hopelessly quaint.

Hey, buddy, you're told, bola ties have graced the wardrobes of such diverse celebrities as Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen. A character on "Glee" wore a bola to the prom, and "Twilight" actor Jackson Rathbone has been captured by paparazzi sporting the look.

And while even the most ardent bola fans won't go so far as to say the neckwear is chic, they insist it endures as a quintessentially Arizona thing.

"It's a tie I still see hundreds of people wear," said Don Prusakowski, president of the Bola Tie Society of Arizona. "If we were to have a meeting of all the people in Arizona who wear bola ties, you'd have to rent the convention center."

Uh, Don, aren't there a lot of senior citizens in your state?

"We see some younger (people)," he said. "We have members bring their grandsons and their kids, and they were wearing bola ties."

But Prusakowski, 78, is a realist. He knows the bola tie-wearing demographic skews old, way old. His organization feels the noose of attrition tightening around its neck.

"I don't know how much longer this is going to go on, for this reason: We had about 400-plus members, but as the years go by, people die, they move away, lose interest," he said. "We're down to about 65."

The bola-tie community suffered a big loss in January when longtime bola-wearing Phoenix newscaster Bill Close died at 91. His 240 bola ties, live, though, in the Caballeros museum's display.

Close, a co-founder of the Bola Society in 1966, wore all sorts of crazy sliding-buckle designs – one with a scorpion encased in leucite shaped like the state; another with a giant CBS eye logo close to his throat.

Perhaps the bola tie's greatest moment came when Close was on the air one night doing a live remote and a crazed gunman stuck a pistol in his belly – right about where the tie's aglets rested – and ordered him to read a statement on air.

The incident, as well as the neckwear, made it to the national news.

Close wasn't the only bola aficionado who customized his ties. Prusakowski remembers one society member who "created a bola tie with the batteries from his pacemaker."

He paused and added, chuckling, "As Bill used to say, 'All you need is a couple of scorpions and a cow turd and you can make a bola tie out of it.' "

Many of the ties are considered, locally, true art works. Prusakowski says some of the fancy bolas he bought in the 1960s have "doubled or tripled in value." And Bruce Meier at Ben's Saddlery in Wickenburg laid out a few hand-crafted, turquoise and metal bolas that sell for more than $500.

"But then again," Meier added, "you have these here 20-buck kind. You'll see people wear stuff like that at a (dude) ranch where they tell you to dress for dinner. That's the kind of mystique the ties have for people back East who come out, put on the bola tie and enjoy the cowboy lifestyle. They buy them out here and don't wear them back home."

Indeed, Springsteen and the "Glee" cast notwithstanding, bolas remain an Arizona (plus a few other Western states) phenomenon.

Standing in front of the bola tie display case at the Caballeros museum, tourist Jack Meck of Chicago, mused: "They are sort of interesting. But we don't wear this is Chicago. Nothing Western is too popular, you know."


21 North Frontier St., Wickenburg, Ariz.

(928) 684-2272

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $9 adults; $7 seniors; children free

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.