Historical Society Branches Out

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The Northern Gila County Historical Society, which operates the Rim Country Museum, is branching out.

"Historical societies are usually these low-profile organizations whose primary function is to preserve a community's heritage," Sharesse Von Strauss, historical society director, said. "Through a combination of planning and opportunity, we've been taking a much more pro-active role in making sure we don't lose the things that make us special."

Two years ago, the society acquired Risser Ranch Ruins, an archeological site in north Payson, and this year it acquired the Arizona Cowboy Hall of Fame, Art in the Park, and, just last week, the Rim Country Western Heritage Festival. With the Rim Country Museum, which the society has operated since 1986, the organization now has five distinct entities under its umbrella.

Von Strauss, who became the society's director in 1996, thinks the community is entering an exciting phase that will result in a revitalized Main Street and an entirely new emphasis on Payson and the Rim country as a tourist destination. She wants the historical society to play a key role in the transformation.

"It's time for everybody to get on the same page," she said. "We're in danger of losing our culture, and the past is something people need to hold onto. The reason that history repeats itself is that people don't look back in order to go forward."

The historical society's foray into cultural and historical acquisitions began in October 1999, when the society's board found out that the 3/4-acre Risser Ranch Ruin site, in the middle of an upscale subdivision, would likely be bulldozed to build a home. In a matter of a month, the society raised $94,000 to buy the property, home of part of a prehistoric village that was partially excavated between 1986 and 1990.

Under the direction of local archeologist Penny Minturn, the society plans to undertake a highly structured clean-up, excavation and stabilization plan in cooperation with the Arizona Archeological Society. Until the site is fenced and adequate security is put in place, however, the society is keeping the site's location secret.

Then late last year, Payson Public Library Director Terry Morris approached the society about taking on the Cowboy Hall of Fame project. Morris had come up with the idea in 1991 and filed articles of incorporation in 1992, but the project had been dormant for seven years.

While some Arizona communities have museums that highlight their local cowboy heritage, the Arizona Cowboy Hall of Fame and Museum the official and legal name of the new venture will be the only one that features the cowboy heritage of the entire state.

A Hall of Fame Committee has been formed and both business and fund-raising plans are being developed. Current plans are to locate the hall of fame on Main Street separate from the Rim Country Museum, either in a new facility or an existing one.

Members of the committee and society board have toured the Oxbow Saloon as one possible site. Negotiations to purchase the historic building are getting "fairly serious," Von Strauss said.

Then in January 2001, artist Diane Moore offered Art in the Park to the society. Moore was closing her Main Street art gallery, The Local Gallery, and wanted to divest herself of the Labor Day Weekend event held in Green Valley Park near the museum.

"She said she knew it would be in good hands with us," Von Strauss said. "We ended up redefining our mission statement so it reads, 'To provide educational opportunities for the public regarding the history and pre-history of Arizona through the acquisition, presentation and interpretation of real and intellectual properties.'

"We are developing an artistic heritage in the Rim country," she said. "Some of the finest artists in the U.S. are working here.

"I'd be willing to bet that 20 years from now Art in the Park is going to be an integral part of the Payson cultural scene, in the same sense that the Old Time Fiddlers' Contest has become a part of both our past and our present."

The society plans to expand Art in the Park by adding a children's section.

"That's where the Rim Country Western Heritage Festival comes in," she said. A new event inaugurated last year and held in conjunction with Art in the Park, the festival includes concerts by noted cowboy poets and musicians, an authentic Western melodrama, Western re-enactments, a book signing featuring Western authors, and a special Western heritage exhibit at the museum.

"The two events are held together in and around the museum, so it just makes sense to bring it all together in a way that helps people better understand and experience our Western heritage and culture," Von Strauss said.

The ultimate goal of the society is "to realize the health and vitality of all of those entities under our umbrella," she said. "Each one has its own unique personality."

One way that will happen is through the society's upcoming publication of an arts and cultural guide. Free to the public, it will include a complete calendar of local events and festivals, and feature detailed information on those activities and events sponsored by the society.

As the historical society continues to evolve, it is operating under the philosophy that history is active rather than passive.

"What happened a few minutes ago is history," Von Strauss said.

She thinks there are two kinds of approaches people take to history. "One is represented by the person who puts grandmother's silver away and only uses it at Christmas, and then only if Uncle Edward is coming.

"I belong to the other school," she said. "I use grandmother's silver every day and thoroughly enjoy it. Why can't we use history and integrate it into our daily life?"

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