History Happens -- And Pioneers Face New Challenges Every Generation


It's kind of funny, when you stop to think about it, how much we love to think about our pioneer ancestors.

Why the big deal?

Bunch of hard cases -- having hard luck.

They drifted in from somewhere else mostly -- dreamers, gamblers, risk-takers.

Even the Apaches -- here for generations before the first white settlers showed up, wandered in from somewhere else, according to the evidence of their linguistic roots.

They each somehow rooted here. The Apache wove their stories and moral philosophy into the landscape, so that when they fought for the land, they fought for cultural survival. And the settlers invested blood and dreams of their own, putting it all on the line for a piece of ground and a view to the horizon.

The Native Americans already here -- and the incoming settlers -- found themselves locked in a tragic struggle, which still fascinates us all this while later.

The historians have dissected that conflict and the needs that drove people to make such arduous journeys for such a hardscrabble life. Not many of them struck it rich. Mostly they earned a lonely grave layered in broken stones to fend off the coyotes. Writers like Zane Grey mined that deep vein of struggle, triumph and loss, which in turn fascinated the whole world.

Why is that?

We'll indulge the fascination again this weekend -- with the Payson Heritage Festival sponsored by the Rim Country Historical Society in Green Valley Park. The event will revel in the now familiar blend of history and kitsch -- with bands, gunfights, hay rides, buggies, Indian dancers, a western melodrama, goody bags, games and theme-park like set ups resembling a Native American village, a ranch and "pioneer town." They'll be branding cattle, riding around barrels delivering the mail Pony Express style, weaving baskets, showing off quilts, touring Zane Grey's cabin, taking instantly antique photos -- and just generally whooping and hollering and carrying on.

But here's the thing.

Sometimes such events invite us to believe that history has happened -- and we have to dress up to join in.

But those Apache headmen agonizing over whether to fight or submit, didn't know they would become "historical figures." Those weary immigrants, coming to these meadows in the shadow of the Rim didn't know that they would start a town and be celebrated in years to come on dress-up day. The first batch of rowdy cowboys who staged a horse race down Main Street, didn't set out to start the west's longest running rodeo.

History happens, as they say. And we look back now, not because they wore cool clothes but because we admire their grit and their daring -- and honor what it cost them.

Now is history, too.

And we are pioneers.

What will they say of us in 100 years?

Will they tell tales of the people who built the pipeline and secured a permanent water supply? Will they talk about the generation that finally cured the bone-deep wounds to make the descendants of those Apache warriors and the descendants of those settlers members of the same community?

Will they talk about the struggle and sacrifice we made to protect the dangerously overgrown forest, to save the East Verde, to leave a legacy of park land and to build all those things that give the community heart and sinew?

You need look no further than the front page of any edition, to see the challenge laid down.

Consider today's paper -- read the article about the wonderful, but endangered animal sciences program at the high school. It connects us directly to that pioneer tradition -- a valuable program headed by an inspirational teacher that affects the trajectory of kids' lives. Now it's faltering, for lack of a million-dollar building with lab space to teach kids about animals and perhaps train a new generation of vets and ranchers.

There's your challenge -- along with the YMCA and an animal shelter and a convention hotel.

So definitely on Saturday do go and enjoy the delightful celebration of the Heritage Festival. Gunfights are fun -- at least when you watch them re-enacted with a cup of lemonade in your hand. Honor those pioneers who paid their dues in passing this way.

But don't forget -- we have dues of our own to pay.

Don't linger too long or get too comfortable.

There's still work to do.

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