Leaving the Pioneer Living History Museum, you’ll see a sign that reads Thanks for Coming Pardner, with what appears to be a frontier version of Lionel Richie.
It’s the last of several reminders that the Museum is as much a relic of the period in which it was brought to life — it opened in 1969 — as it is the 1800s. The village’s highlights are its original and reconstructed buildings, but the space between feels at times half-finished, as though the dream never quite came to fruition.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The American West is often romanticized, and so too its towns, but the truth is that for every Jerome or Bisbee still standing today, there are plenty of towns that never made it. Every booming mining town left scores abandoned in its wake. Every small town that attracted a railroad sent countless others into obscurity.
In True West Magazine, Dorothy Rustebakke recounts how the town of Greenfield, Nevada tried its best to grow in the late 19th century.
“In 1894, community leaders wanted to attract a spur of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad and changed the name of the town again, this time to honor Henry Marvin Yerington, the railroad’s superintendent. Alas, the V&T chose an alternate route through nearby Wabuska.”
The Pioneer Living History Museum has an excellent collection of old buildings and period-accurate memorabilia, but for all its charm, it still feels like the town left behind.
And that’s exactly the village’s appeal.
If you want a polished, movie-set version of the west, go to Rawhide. If you want the slow, weary pace of life in a frontier town never fully realized, the Museum has your number, and in that sense it offers a more realistic western experience than many tourist attractions in the metro area.
The Museum’s History
The idea for the Museum came about in the 1950s with the support of local politicians like Carl Hayden, Barry Goldwater and Paul Fannin, who became governor two years after the Pioneer Arizona Foundation was incorporated. The Museum opened on state-leased land in 1969 – the same year True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were released – and began Phase 1 of its operations.
Sadly, that’s where things still stand today.
“Their dream took the first step toward reality on Feb. 15, 1969 when Phase 1 of the Living History Village opened to the public,” write Dick and Linda Buscher, retired schoolteachers.
“What we visit today is still Phase 1 of that dream; the remainder of the plans await completion some 60 years later — if and when sufficient public interest and funds become available.”
Over the years, the Museum has had financial and property issues, but today still hosts thousands of visitors and students every year. It may not be the glorified Old West of the movies, but the Pioneer Living History Museum has a kitschy allure that’s worth the trip.
The Museum’s buildings, dating from 1863 to 1912, are scattered to resemble a small town, and the pathways between make for a pleasant stroll through the desert. There’s enough here to make a day trip of it, especially if you have a longer trek up to north Phoenix.
The 90-acre village is a mix of original and reconstructed buildings, and each offers information on its origin or inspiration. One of the most notable originals is the Ashurst Cabin, childhood home of Arizona’s first senator, Henry Fountain Ashurst. The cabin was originally built in 1878 a mile east of Ashurst Lake near Flagstaff, then brought to the Museum “piece by piece” in the late 1960s.
Other original buildings include the Northern Home, a Flagstaff-area cabin built around 1885, the 1876 Opera House from Prescott, and the Gordon School, a log schoolhouse built in the 1880s on the Mogollon Rim east of Payson.
The reconstructed buildings are also impressive, and though they might not be in their original forms, the Museum often makes them indistinguishable from their original counterparts.
“Many of the buildings were too damaged once they came to Pioneer, but they’ve since made replicas,” writes Julie Carlson for North Valley Magazine.
The most recent addition to the Museum is the Meritt House, an early 1900s farmhouse originally built in Glendale near the Arizona Canal. Beryl Meritt lived in the home from 1915 to 2008, when she donated the house and a few smaller buildings to the foundation.
Who It’s Best For
History buffs will enjoy the original and reproduced buildings, but some structures will leave you wanting more information than what’s provided. In fact, you’ll find more background on the Museum’s website than you will at each building. Still, there’s plenty to take in, especially for those interested in Arizona’s 19th century history.
The Pioneer Living History Museum is also great for kids – field trips come in Wednesday through Friday, and kids under five are free. There’s plenty of open space for kids to roam, though signs across the property warn of snakes and other desert creatures.
When To Go
Like most outdoor attractions in Phoenix, the Museum is best enjoyed in the fall and winter. They’re closed Mondays and Tuesdays, keep summer hours from June to September (7am – 11am) and the rest of the year, they’re open from 9am to 4pm.
To catch the “living” part of the Museum, you’ll want to visit Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, when volunteers can be found in different buildings throughout the village. You’ll have to contend with field trips (depending on the time of year), but you’ll also get information and stories that you won’t find on signs or the website.
Crowds may be lighter on the weekends because of fewer students, but you’ll also miss the volunteers. Still, a self-guided tour through the grounds with an occasional look at the website on your phone will give you plenty of food for thought.