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.

By 1963--the year Pioneer opened--some 29 buildings stood on the desert landscape. Ten were original structures painstakingly disassembled and rebuilt at the site by volunteers. The rest were faithful re-creations. One year after the museum opened, an article in Arizona Highways described what lay in store for visitors:

"A rock wall (no mortar!) surrounds a vegetable garden and fruit orchard. A springhouse (forerunner of the refrigerator!) has a sod roof which today's 'pioneers' must keep watered down." The article went on to boast that "all animals, trees, plants and flowers are only those known to the early pioneer."

In the late '60s, after the museum received a grant from Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society program, workers descended on the place, installing public areas and the beginnings of a Spanish presidio. The funds quickly dried up, though, and the workers walked off the job. For years to come, the adobe formwork lay where it had been abandoned.

At that point, Pioneer stopped growing. Today, the acres of bare dirt which separate the museum's far-flung buildings form a clear footprint of its founders' intentions.

Dennis Preisler was treasurer of the Pioneer board from 1979 to 1983. Now pursuing his Ph.D. in history at Arizona State University, Preisler, who serves on the board of the Phoenix Museum of History, remembers stumbling across one of the studies commissioned at Pioneer's inception. That plan, he says, called for a massive complex, complete with hotels and a main street thick with buildings.

"They even wanted to have a planetarium," he says.
Despite its limited scale, Pioneer quickly became the field trip of choice for area schools, which it remains today. In the mid-1970s, when it was dubbed by Smithsonian magazine "the finest living history museum west of the Mississippi," the country was gripped by a mania for things historical. Each week, millions of American schoolgirls tuned in to follow the travails of frontier heroine Laura Ingalls Wilder. The bicentennial, too, had whetted Americans' appetites for history.

Pioneer was a showpiece. The buildings were in top shape, and many of them were inhabited by costumed reenactors, who also led the kids on guided tours. There was a carpenter's shop staffed by real carpenters, a blacksmith's shop with a real blacksmith. At another exhibit, kids got to see how saltwater taffy was made. And the vegetable garden and orchard were in full bloom.

Yet just a few years later, by the time Preisler had joined the board, trouble loomed. Many of the original founders had either passed away, lost interest or simply gotten too old. With the bicentennial's passing, the country's historical craving had begun to dissipate. Pioneer had started to dry up.

People who have made the effort to get involved at Pioneer quickly fall in love with the place and its promise. "The buildings are great, the concept is wonderful. But it always seems to fall short of people's expectations," says Preisler, who was burned out by the time he left in 1983.

"You ended up working and working, and you felt like you were in quicksand because you never got anywhere," he remembers.

Even though Preisler's stint on the board ended more than a decade ago, the problems he lists are almost identical to those voiced by current board members and staffers. In a very real sense, history has a way of repeating itself at Pioneer.

The museum's greatest problem has always been a lack of cash. Pioneer has annual expenses of about $250,000, according to records it must file with the IRS to maintain its nonprofit status, and has almost always managed on a subsistence level, surviving off what it makes from gate receipts ($5.75 for adults, $4 for kids age 6 through 12), as well as from its gift shop, memberships, and from weddings.

The past several years, the museum has operated at a deficit of about $30,000, according to Loveless, the current director. He says it would have been forced to close had it not been for a $120,000 donation bequeathed to it three years ago. The money, paid out in three annual installments of $40,000, ran out this year. Without that money, Loveless says, the museum would have ended the year in a deficit.

Next year is even less certain. Unlike most museums, Pioneer has never had a permanent endowment and has never been successful attracting grants. The Pioneer Foundation's tax filings for the past five years show a succession of zeros in the spaces where grant dollars normally appear. Much of the reason for that, Preisler says, has to do with the peculiarities of Pioneer.

When historians discuss living history, they commonly evoke the name of Williamsburg, the 18th-century colonial village in Virginia which attracts millions of visitors each year. At Williamsburg, reenactors troop around in period dress, inhabit authentic period homes, practice period arts and crafts, farm period crops and eat period food, unmolested by period diseases and period Indian attacks.

Williamsburg has an annual budget of $34 million and receives a generous endowment each year from the Rockefeller Foundation. In addition to the cash it takes in from visitors, the Williamsburg Foundation also runs a lucrative string of hotels and restaurants. At Williamsburg, history is big business, and Williamsburg owes much of its success to the fact that it is a historic site.

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