FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - It all started with a trash can.
One of Arizona's iconic yearly celebrations has grown from meager beginnings into a 15,000-attendee show with a VIP black tie affair.
"The hotel opened for business New Year’s Day 1900. Fast forward 100 years later in 1999, we wanted to commemorate the original opening of the hotel 100 years prior," said Weatherford Hotel owner Henry Taylor, "and in a manager’s meeting in October of that year, we were kicking around the idea of doing something to celebrate the day and somebody mentioned the fact that “Well, we ought to drop a pinecone off the roof.”
Thus it was born: The Weatherford's Times Square routine, but with more charm -- a slice of NYC on NYE.
"Of course, we all laughed and didn’t think much about it until about a week later we started thinking, 'Well, why not?' And so Sam, my wife, went to work fabricating a pinecone out of materials we had in the basement. And we rigged up some pulleys and ropes off the roof and lit it with Christmas tree lights. And New Year’s Eve -- I don’t like to use the word 'drop' -- we lowered it off the roof."
Taylor thought it was a great way to celebrate the centennial of John Weatherford's hotel and the Year 2000. Little did he know what it would become.
"It was such a huge success we laughed and thought 'Well, thank God that’s the last time we’ll do that,'" Taylor said. "And lo and behold, there was such a demand to do it again that we said 'All right, we’ll do it one more time,' and we did it the next year and the next year and we’re still doing it."
Eight years after it was created by Taylor's wife Sam Green, who's worked for the hotel since the early 1980s, with a garbage receptacle, some Christmas lights and a handful of pinecones, the original pinecone was retired in favor of an enhanced version.
The new pinecone looks a bit more like a traditional pinecone, except giant. It's dressed up with LED lights tucked under its scales.
It's shiny and pretty and puts on a hell of a show, but when the pinecone's performed its descent, it's just another piece of equipment in Green's and Taylor's shed structure on their ranch.
There it sits, a few miles west of Flagstaff off I-40, down a dirt road, next to a landlocked boat and a John Deere tractor.
Somehow that suits the no-frills aesthetic a visitor notices throughout much of the Flagstaff community, and it's the way Taylor and Green handle things, despite owning a historic hotel.
It's no wonder they've been able to restore the hotel over Taylor's 40-plus years owning the building. They're patient people who roll up their sleeves when there's work to be done.
"The value in the building is its history because there’s only one Weatherford Hotel," Taylor said. "To try to modernize it would destroy it."
And their hard work has paid off for visitors.
"People walk in the lobby most times, I mean several times a day, and they just stand there and do a 360 and then they’ll do it again," said hotel events coordinator Klaudia Ness, "and then they’ll always walk toward that picture of John Weatherford. It just intrigues everybody. The history and the ambiance. We’re the heart of downtown."
The commitment of the owners and the staff is never more apparent than in December, when there's plenty of prep for Christmas and New Year's parties, from decoration to food preparation to pure logistics of fitting everyone into the building. Not to mention the manual lowering of the pinecone, which took three times to get the timing right.
The thousands of people who show up for the event seem to appreciate the effort it takes, especially in the freezing cold
"The worst I think the weather was that I can remember was when it was 30 below zero on the roof that night. It was brutal. Four years ago," Taylor said. "And then a major snowstorm. We’ve had pretty big snowstorms that come in and hit the eve, New Year’s Eve and we wonder 'Well, should we do it?' and it seems the worse the weather, the more people want to come out. The more snow it is, the better it is."
That outsize response to what began as a halfway hare-brained idea makes Taylor swell with pride, knowing the Flagstaff history his hotel and event honor.
The whole idea was to celebrate the Weatherford Hotel and the achievement of John Weatherford, who built the building way back with it was still a territory here," Taylor said. "And to think that we have people from all over the world that come and see this, and the town fills up with people and there’s a certain excitement about it, it’s a great thing. I’m very proud."'