With a series of bold moves over the past two years, the Northern Gila County Historical Society has turned the typical role of such organizations on end.
"Historical societies are usually these low-profile organizations whose primary function is to preserve a community's heritage," director Sharesse Von Strauss 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."
The flurry of activity that began two years ago when the society acquired Risser Ranch Ruins intensified during 2001 with the acquisition of the Arizona Cowboy Hall of Fame, Art in the Park, and the Rim Country Western Heritage Festival.
Most recently, the society announced it had reached an agreement with the Payson Womans Club to house a Museum of Rim Country Archaeology in the portion of its Main Street facility formerly occupied by the Payson Public Library.
With the Rim Country Museum, which the society has operated since 1986, the organization now has six distinct and separate entities under its umbrella.
Von Strauss, who became the society's director in 1996, believes the community is entering a very 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 recent 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 most likely be bulldozed to build a home. In a matter of a month, the society raised $94,000 to purchase the property, home of part of a prehistoric village that was partially excavated in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Under the direction of local archaeologist Penny Minturn, the society has undertaken a "highly structured cleanup, excavation and stabilization plan" in cooperation with the Arizona Archaeological Society.
Then in late 2000, 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.
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 are developing an artistic heritage in the Rim country. 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 an entire children's section and other educational components.
"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 new archaeological museum, scheduled to open March 30, will house artifacts from the area's prehistoric culture, a people who were contemporaries of the more commonly known cultures, including the Sinagua, Anasazi, Mogollon, Salado and Hohokam. But it will be far more than a stodgy museum full of tools and pots, Von Strauss said.
"We want to make it as close as we can to a virtual experience," she said. "Visitors will be able to walk in and become archaeologists to experience the excavation process. Through the experience we want people to define for themselves how that civilization lived. When they walk out, we want them to feel that they really understand the culture."
The ultimate goal of the historical 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."
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.