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.

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.

Pioneer has never had that luxury, and even though it bills itself as a "living history museum," calling it such is a stretch, Preisler says.

"It's really more of an open-air museum with a few living-history characters," Preisler says, adding that none of those characters, or those overseeing them, has ever been a bona fide historian. Then again, he says, Pioneer has never had the money to hire people with those kinds of pedigrees. And that's a problem when it comes to winning grants.

"The granting agency would say, 'Unless you can come up with a professional staff, we're not going to grant you,'" he says. "But we didn't have money to come up with the professional staff, which is what we needed the grants for. It was a circle."

The problem was compounded, Preisler says, by near-constant turnover on the 15-member board, with members leaving after short stints or failing to show up altogether. That made it all but impossible for Pioneer to instill a "professional museum attitude" in its directors and staff, Preisler says.

Another problem is that Pioneer sits on state land, and the rent it pays is tied to the value of that land. When the museum was established, the lease was set at $1 an acre, which likely reflected its worth, given that Phoenix ended well short of Northern Avenue. As late as 1986, the museum was paying the state only $1,400 each year.

In the intervening years, that picture has changed markedly. Phoenix now sprawls to within a mile of the museum, and an RV park has gone in practically at its gates. The land's value received a further substantial boost recently when developer Del Webb snatched up a good portion of nearby New River with plans to convert it into a master-planned community the size of Flagstaff.

In early 1996, the state began making preparations to raise the museum's lease. The state charges Pioneer roughly 10 percent of the land's value, plus a percentage of revenues. In Pioneer's case, state officials estimated the amount at $38,547--a sum which would have put the museum under.

Lafitte, who was still executive director then, went to the Legislature, where he argued that Pioneer was an invaluable educational asset for the state's school kids and deserved a break. Land officials, who had just granted a major break to silicon-wafer manufacturer Sumitomo Sitix, were unswayed, saying that their mandate was to make the most of the land trust. Officials did, however, agree to set the lease at $20,000 and give the museum a couple of years before it ramped up to the full $38,547.

By then, the Pioneer board--to save money--had already voted to shrink the operation from 550 acres to just 86 acres--enough land to contain all of its buildings. Lost, however, were hundreds of acres of trails, along with several mineralogical exhibits. For his part, Lafitte instituted drastic austerity measures. He cut back on waterings, for instance, and many of the plants at the site soon died off.

Despite his ignominious ouster, Lafitte sees his tenure as a success, saying that admissions were up during his last year.

"We had the best year in two decades the last year I was there," he says. "I think the museum, just the way it was--slowly but surely growing--could have survived into the next century because it was on an upswing."

Then why was he sacked?
"All I can tell you is that my ideas and the new board's ideas clashed," he says.

Mad Coyote Joe's real name is Joe Daigneault, though he prefers the handle of Mad Coyote Joe. He's written cookbooks on Southwestern cuisine, and he talks enthusiastically about an upcoming cooking gig on local TV. He describes himself as a "food personality" and a fund raiser par excellence, which, he says, was the main reason he was recruited to join the Pioneer board.

It was the loquacious Daigneault who brought Dennis Loveless to the board's attention and who orchestrated Lafitte's ouster. Loveless, like most of his predecessors, has no formal museum background, but he does have a wealth of organizational experience which, Daigneault says, the museum sorely lacked under Lafitte.

"I can respect what he [Lafitte] was trying to do--and I want to be real careful how I say this--but it was time for him to move on," Daigneault says.

Loveless was the right pick, Daigneault says, because he understands business and "he knows how to make the kinds of connections the museum needs to survive." In addition to serving as Pioneer's director, Loveless still runs his own bed and breakfast in Cave Creek. He has also headed--and helped establish--the Desert Foothills Land Trust, which seeks to preserve riparian areas in the Cave Creek-Carefree-New River area.

One of Loveless' first steps when he took over last year was to enlist Diane Helm, who first visited Pioneer during its heyday in 1975 while accompanying her daughter's grade-school class on a field trip. Twenty-one years later, she returned with Loveless and was appalled at what she saw. Helm closed down her antique business and adopted Pioneer. She also enlisted her husband, Lee, the owner of a successful 50-person precision-machining operation that supplies parts to the aerospace industry.

The Helms immediately kicked in $4,000 to help the struggling museum make its payroll. Other outlays, either in the form of materials, time or money, have steadily followed. Today, the Helms estimate they have sunk close to $60,000 into Pioneer, excluding labor.

Three months ago, Lee Helm joined the Pioneer board. At his first meeting, he made "a suggestion of an offer" he would soon regret--to buy the museum and give it to the board.

"I talked to my lawyers," he says. "They said, 'It's real hard to do, but it's possible to actually buy the museum at fair market value [around $1 million for its buildings], give the money to the board, and the board can then turn around and donate the money back to the museum for ongoing improvements, and still keep it a nonprofit.'"

Turmoil ensued. The next day, Loveless says, he received a phone call from longtime board member Louise DeWald, a retired Arizona Republic scribe and cookbook author.

"She told my wife that I was a thief, and that I was trying to steal the museum," Loveless says. Loveless says DeWald, who would not return phone calls for an interview, later apologized.

Rumors began to swirl among the costumed volunteers. Phil Carlins is a member of a Western gunfight reenactment organization called the Arizona Territorial Shootists. He says many reenactors fear Helm is only trying to seize the museum so he can sell it to Del Webb, or to seize it and turn it into his own private playground.

Helm is aware of the rumors.
"We only got half that story out and, boy, big battle," he says with a chuckle. "You can't even bring up a suggestion without somebody going wacko on you out there."

Helm, who is trying to get the votes to become board president, says he only wants to see Pioneer survive, not seize it for his own personal use or gain. He will stay on, he says, only if he can make the board see things his way, adding that he will make his decision about leaving within the next month.

"I'm not a control freak, but they need to run it more like what I would call a business," he says. "I don't think a lot of these people really understand the logistics. They think it's like a city park, and it's gonna be there forever. Well, it's not."

Helm has said he would only be willing to invest in Pioneer if he could guarantee his money wouldn't be doled out piecemeal, with little to show in the end, as he believes happened with the $120,000 donation the museum just finished spending.

Both Helm and Loveless have also discussed trimming the board from its current 15 seats to a more manageable five or seven. As things stand now, Pioneer board meetings remind Helm of Japan's Diet, the legislative body where fistfights over bruised honor have been known to break out. That opinion is shared by board member--and occasional New Times contributor--Bob Boze Bell.

"It's like we're arguing about the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic," Bell says. "You go home thinking, 'What the hell did we just accomplish?'"

Preisler, the former board member, says any plans to pare down the board should be given careful thought.

"You need to have a board of that size, or else people just start getting overwhelmed," Preisler says, noting that when he first joined Pioneer, there were only seven seats which, he says, were not nearly enough. The bylaws for the Phoenix Museum of History make allowances for up to 20 board members, Preisler notes.

The Helms are drawing up a more detailed proposal, which they will present to the board at its December meeting. The proposal includes the offer that Diane Helm serve as director on a volunteer basis, saving the museum about $30,000 annually. Loveless, whose ouster is being called for by DeWald and Mildred May and Don Tolbert--two longtime board members--says he wouldn't mind stepping down if it meant saving Pioneer.

Even without Loveless, though, the Helms may have a tough sell. After word of the bailout offer had spread, Lee Helm went out to lunch with May, one of the original civic leaders who helped create the nonprofit Pioneer Foundation back in 1956, when she was vice president of Valley National Bank. Now well into her 80s, May is the only original member left on the board, and still exerts tremendous influence over the museum. Just about everyone associated with the Pioneer, past and present, speaks of her with reverence.

"She's an extremely powerful woman, and an extremely shrewd woman," says Patti O'Toole, an executive with Valley advertising firm Cramer-Krasselt and the board's current president. "She knows just about everybody in this town, and I think just about everyone in this town owes her a favor, too."

May is the matriarch of Pioneer, where stories of her generosity have become legendary. One story in particular, repeated by several people, shows just how far she will go to ensure the museum's survival.

Five years ago, two men were granted the concession to run the restaurant at Pioneer, but were kicked out by the board after just a few months. The men sued, alleging Pioneer failed to observe its contract with them. Pioneer countersued, claiming the men had failed to follow the letter of the lease.

The case was thrown into arbitration. A short time later, the men showed up at a board meeting, accompanied by their attorney.

"Mildred asked them, 'How much would it cost to get you two to leave?'" one board member says. "They said, '$50,000.' So she took out her checkbook, wrote them a check, handed it to them and said, 'There's your money. Now get.'"

Helm describes his first meeting with May as cordial, but says he does not think she would support his proposals if they came up for a vote. May would not comment.

In addition to the eruption over the bailout offer, the Helms, along with Loveless, have also drawn fire from the historically faithful for being more concerned with the bottom line than with history.

LeAnn Argenbright publishes the Arizonian, a small historical review out of Cave Creek. After serving on the board for just seven months, she resigned in a huff because of the liberties she felt the Helms were taking with history.

"I got so mad I busted a vein in my eyeball," she says.
What drove her to such a frenzy, Argenbright says, was what she saw as the Helms' attempt to turn Pioneer into another Rawhide, north Scottsdale's highly commercialized cowboy complex. She points to some of the plans the Helms have proposed in order to raise money, including turning the town's carpentry shop into a salon where tourists can have their pictures snapped while wearing Western duds. The dress shop, another staple at Pioneer, is also slated for conversion. Instead of period outfits, it will soon contain a concessions stand.

"Pioneer is being systematically destroyed by these well-wishers who have a lot of money," says Argenbright, who has since petitioned the board to allow her back on, without success.

Argenbright and Phil Carlins, the gunfighter, say scores of volunteer reenactors have stomped off as a result of such changes. Carlins says Loveless has told many volunteers they are no longer welcome, which Loveless disputes.

Loveless says he was forced to lay down some rules because many volunteers had grown accustomed to using the Pioneer grounds as "a weekend clubhouse." Today, reenactors must call ahead to book time there.

And they are no longer allowed to stoke fires in many of the buildings. "That was one of the big things people liked to do--to come out and cook in the traditional ways," Carlins says.

Loveless points out that he only banned fires because most of the buildings' roofs are so dried out, and most of the stovepipes are so rusted, that disaster is certain. Last year, in fact, one of the museum's uninsured buildings burned down after a volunteer stoked up a fire on a cold morning.

One chilly mid-November afternoon, Loveless made the rounds at Pioneer. First stop: the carpenter's shop, soon to be a photographic studio. Through the open door, he points to the woodworking equipment, which sits idle.

"This stuff is all great, but what is it doing for the museum right now?" he asks.

In Loveless' mind, "doing" means making money. He talks about how, though not historically accurate, the photo setup would at least be self-supporting.

"Who knows?" he says. "If it does well enough, we might be able to use some of that money to build another carpenter's shop--one that actually has carpenters working in it."

Loveless' next stop is the print shop. A small, shedlike building, the print shop has become the locus of a heated debate over what, exactly, constitutes history. Before it burned down, the shop was built from 12-inch wooden planks, a common lumber dimension during the 1800s. The new version uses four-foot-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood, which did not exist during territorial days, as Loveless is well aware.

"Basically, each one of those 12-inch planks, which we would have had to have custom-milled, would have cost the same as a sheet of plywood," he says.

Loveless heads across the grounds to the schoolhouse, an original structure imported from the Payson area, authentic in every detail. Except for the shiny new wooden deck built out of two-by-fours that runs around it.

Like the print shop, the deck has been singled out for criticism by Argenbright and others because it has been stained to a reddish hue that clashes with the weathered wood of the schoolhouse. Loveless concedes that a more neutral stain could have been used. But, he adds, just about anything new added to the schoolhouse would have clashed anyway. He points to the old, graying lumber.

"When this thing was still being used 100 years ago, do you think it actually looked like this?" he asks.

Argenbright has also complained that the deck is held together with shiny, galvanized wood screws, which did not exist when the schoolhouse was originally constructed. Then again, neither did two-by-fours. Loveless says the screws were used because, unlike nails, they don't work their way out of the wood and pose a hazard.

Argenbright and the other purists have identified dozens of other gripes all over the grounds, like newly planted oleanders and bougainvillea--plant types which did not exist in Arizona during the 1800s. Loveless is aware of all of the complaints, but says Pioneer is in no position to be overly picky right now.

"I'd like to have everything period, too, but we have to concentrate on making this place viable, or there won't be any museum," he says. "We can always come back and change things later."

Besides, Loveless notes, even during its heyday, Pioneer was hardly a time capsule. He points to the drinking fountain beside the schoolhouse, one of several around the site that were installed when the museum opened.

"That's not period," Loveless says. "They didn't have water fountains in the 1800s, but no one complains about that."

Loveless makes his way across the site, passing the now-denuded piece of land where the orchard and vegetable garden used to stand. He stops at the Northern Home to pay his respects to Harold the hog--probably the only soul at Pioneer who has yet to voice an opinion one way or the other about the changes that have occurred.

Finally, Loveless comes to the nearby aviary, where Diane Helm scoops seed into a bird trough. For more than a year, she has spent hours each day working around the museum site. This morning, she wears jeans, sturdy black work boots and a red vest to ward off the chill.

With little prompting, Diane Helm recites a litany of frustrations, her voice quavering. She talks about hostile costumed volunteers who would rather see Pioneer go under than go commercial, about board members who are too busy to show up for the meetings. Board members who are all talk and no action. Board members who, she says, refuse to take the steps necessary to ensure the museum's survival into the next century.

She pauses to wipe her eyes.
"Maybe we're wrong, maybe we don't do everything exactly right, but at least we're doing something," she says. "I don't see them out here.

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