History Lessens

Trouble's a-brewin' at the museum north of town. Old-timers don't cotton to newcomers who want to turn the desert historical center into a Western theme park.

High noon on a spring day in 1994. The stranger steps through the gates of the Pioneer Arizona Living History Museum, takes one look around and shakes his head.

Everywhere, he sees things that don't belong, from buckskinners clutching cans of Pepsi and eating foodstuffs wrapped in Ziploc baggies to womenfolk leafing through magazines with titles like Elle and Self.

The stranger is a new hand--the latest in a long string of executive directors at Pioneer. He may not be able to lay claim to some fancy Ph.D. in history, but he knows a thing or two about the West. He knows, for instance, that aluminum cans weren't a common sight during the 1800s. Neither were glossy magazines, Chee-tos or aluminum foil.

He's the new sheriff in town. His name's Lafitte. That's it. Just Lafitte.
Lafitte, who sports a waxed mustache, lists his occupation as "19th-century gambler and storyteller." He's performed his routine, which includes card tricks and magic tricks, for years at events throughout the West.

Three years ago, a little magic was just what the town needed--and it may be what it needs again. The Pioneer Arizona Living History Museum is at the center of a modern-day showdown that will claim either longtime board members or newcomers intent on turning the museum into a Western theme park.

Lafitte inherited Pioneer at its nadir. Shortly after he showed up, the long-struggling museum even had to shut down briefly until an emergency infusion of cash saved the day.

Once the gates reopened, Lafitte's first step, as he saw it, was to banish all signs of 20th-century life from the grounds. That meant saran-wrapped lunches had to be eaten out of sight, and reading materials had to be appropriate to the era the museum's founders intended to re-create.

"I am a historical purist," Lafitte says unapologetically, using the decidedly '90s-sounding term "anal-retentive" to describe his approach to history.

Lafitte's next task was to organize the groups of volunteer historical reenactors who flock to the place on weekends. At one point, he even convinced enough to come out and reroof the bank with donated building materials.

But folks were gunning for Lafitte. Pioneer was losing money, and about to become a ghost town. Some of the town's benefactors felt Lafitte wasn't up to taking the gambles they considered necessary to save it.

In October 1996, two and a half years after Lafitte's arrival, the Pioneer board of directors summoned Lafitte to its monthly meeting in downtown Phoenix. That was the day the man they call Mad Coyote Joe introduced Lafitte's replacement.

The new hire was a rangy-looking fellow with a silver handlebar mustache--a bed-and-breakfast man of some repute from the town of Cave Creek who went by the name of Loveless. Dennis Loveless.

It was all over in about 10 minutes, moments that have been seared into Lafitte's brain as if by a red-hot branding iron. The board, he says, talked about the things it wanted to do--things that were not historically accurate, like bringing a rock band out to play in the town square during a chili-cookoff fund raiser.

The board voted Loveless in and told Lafitte to saddle up. He can still remember the last words he heard before he was shown the door. Even today, his voice becomes hoarse at the recollection.

"They said they wanted to turn Pioneer into another Knott's Berry Farm."
Lafitte has not returned to Pioneer since, but he's heard stories. He's heard that the grounds have been "improved"--a term as open to interpretation as the label on a bottle of snake oil, as he sees it.

If you don't know that two-by-fours and wood screws didn't exist in the 1800s, fine. If you have no idea that oleanders and bougainvillea plants weren't yet growing in Arizona during its territorial days, then consider yourself blessedly ignorant.

But if you do know better, and you care, stay away from Pioneer, where such things are pitting board member against board member, volunteer against volunteer. And it's led some to wonder whether Pioneer, where history has always come before commercialism, is even worth saving.

Barry Goldwater. Carl Hayden. John Rhodes. Each has become synonymous with the state's bygone era of bola-tie-bedecked political patriarchs. Their clout helped launch many of the massive projects--Glen Canyon Dam, the Central Arizona Project--crucial to the state's development.

In 1956, though, these same men, along with some of the Valley's most prominent business and civic leaders, helped establish the nonprofit Pioneer Arizona Foundation. It was a time when people with their kind of power could literally move mountains. Or, in the case of Pioneer, buildings.

From the beginning, Pioneer's founders envisioned a repository for structures and artifacts representing a span of history that stretched from Arizona's territorial days to statehood in 1912. Pioneer's mission was to become "the premier living history museum in the Southwest." It was a lofty mandate, to be sure, but, at the time, the museum's founders were thinking very big.

For several years, volunteers and board members visited other museums and conducted "treasure hunts" around the state. Then, in the early 1960s, Pioneer began slowly taking shape at the base of a scrim of low volcanic bluffs about 12 miles north of Bell Road, just west of Interstate 17. An easy drive from all parts of the Valley, Pioneer was, at that time, still far enough from the bustle of 20th-century life to allow visitors to suspend their disbelief.

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