Archive for June 13th, 2008

June 13, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Fugly

by cowboylands

Historical museums take pride in displaying the good, the bad, and the ugly of Americana (cue spaghetti western soundtrack). They collect and preserve objects that are sometimes significant, but are usually the kinds of things found in the back of someone’s untidy closet. I admit that I was a voyeur at first, drawn to their quirks like a proverbial moth to flame, but I’ve grown earnest about these places that are much more than roadside attractions.

Museums connected to historical societies gather ephemera and cultivate something larger: a sense of history, community, and place. Take Florence, Arizona, a small town (population 17,504) poised to receive Phoenix’s urban sprawl. The state prison in town is a major employer and generous donor, and its gifts made the Pinal County Museum what it is today.

 Pinal County Museum

The Pinal County Museum. Photo copyright 2007

Inside is a vast landscape of battered stagecoaches, manikins dressed to the 1880s nines, rows of barbed wire, colorful Navajo rugs, cactus furniture…but then order asserts itself and what comes into focus is a cornucopia of town memorabilia: items from Mark Twain Clemens (no relation) who began the oldest continually sanctioned junior rodeo in the U.S., right in Florence; personal items of actor Tom Mix (he was killed in a car accident nearby); and items from the Arizona state prison (the door to a gas chamber, a special double chair for brothers who were legally slain by the state of Arizona at the same time, and rows of nooses, each with a photo of the executed nested within its coil).

Double Injection Chairs. Photo copyright 2007

A tourist guide calls these latter items “most popular with visitors”; Christine Reid, the only paid employee of the museum and one of its premier storytellers, winces when she hears this. She prefers to call them “intriguing.” She knows all the sensational stories but she is most animated when describing the book signings and lectures that the museum holds each month, in partnership with the Historic District Advisory Commission. The bullet hole in the window of the Tunnel Saloon quenches the thirst for the Wild West, but the monthly events are the community’s square meals.


Shootout at the Tunnel Saloon. Photo copyright 2007

I can imagine a volunteer docent with the sweet demeanor of a favorite grandmother leading tourists through this roadside museum. Wending her sure way through a clutter of objects, she points to a bullet hole in a door that has been enshrined in a case. She launches into a lurid, bloody tale as the chatty tourists fall silent. She next indicates a noose that had gripped the neck of the only female criminal put to death in the state. “They hadn’t planned on decapitating her,” she cheerfully informs the pale visitors. She then traces the provenance of rare Apache playing cards made of antelope skin and closes by giving the times of the next lecture on prehistoric Ho Ho Kam Indian irrigation systems. When she is done, the small group applauds.

Not far from the truth, buckaroos. And only in America.

Go visit, and tell them Bucko sent you.

  • The Pinal County Historical Museum
  • 715 S. Main Street
  • Florence, AZ 85232
  • (520) 868-4382
  • Admission by Donation
  • Open Tuesday – Saturday, 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM

  • Sunday: 12:00 to 4:00 PM

  • Closed: July 15 – August 31 and Major Holidays.