Years ago, in the late 1990s, I volunteered at the Pioneer Living History Museum, just north of Phoenix, Arizona. I was usually assigned to what was known as The Ranch Complex – a small cabin with a root cellar and spring house and chicken coop. A good-sized barn, moved there from Lockett meadow up near Flagstaff.

I don’t go to visit very often. It’s too heartbreaking to see the original historic buildings deteriorating, the rot on the ends of the logs, the roof shingles gone and not replaced. Or repairs made with modern materials, modern techniques. The juxtaposition is jarring to even a moderate history purist.

One time I found electric Christmas lights strung all over the barn at the Ranch Complex. The next time I went, the barn was gone. Burned down. There are many of us history buffs who are ex-volunteers and have a bitter taste in our mouths over the wide gap between the vision of the original founders and the lack of vision held by the Pioneer Arizona Foundation in later years. But that’s not a story for today.

This is a happy story because last weekend I went to do some research for a new novel and actually found a paid employee running a gold panning exhibit. He was dressed in authentic period attire. He introduced himself as Jack McRae and claimed to be the son of Lonesome Dove’s Gus McRae and Clara Allen, the son nobody ever knew about!

And it gets better. Jack, who in current times is Tony Hussey, first volunteered at Pioneer Village when he was 18 years old. His first year at the museum was my last year, but he remembers me from way back then. We have some fun reminiscing about the “old times” and the people who populated the town: the mysterious and handsome Lafitte, who became the director, at least for a year. Sheriff Wayne and his wife Jean. – Wayne actually kept order in the town, assigning volunteers to different buildings, looking after us. Jean always in the Victorian House, welcoming and friendly. Archie in the woodworking shop, using antique tools to fix our antique furniture. Nice people. Good people who cared about history and about Pioneer Village.

The mining operation at Pioneer Living History Museum. For a fee you can pan for gold.

The mining operation at Pioneer Living History Museum. For a fee you can pan for gold.

And now here is Tony, the only “costumed docent” on the payroll at Pioneer Living History Museum, cheerfully teaching the occasional tourist who wanders by how to pan for gold, talking about what the area was like in the 1800s, where the biggest gold strikes were in the Bradshaws. The mining set-up isn’t exactly authentic, a strange mix-up of placer, rocker, and extraction. “We have to balance history with entertainment,” Tony says, talking with me during the long lapses between customers.

Tony has another story he likes to tell, when he’s in character. “I was born in Miles City, Montana. I haven’t picked a definite year – I try to stay vague about the year so I can float between the Civil War period, cowboy times, up to 1912.” The museum advertises itself as representing Territorial Arizona, which would be from 1863 to statehood.

“I took a train to Texas to get a job as a working cowboy, driving cattle north. Then I found Pioneer, met a girl, fell in love. Stayed. She got smallpox and died. But I just stayed in Pioneer. Now I’ve got another girl.” Tony laughs. His girlfriend, known as Miss Jesse, was volunteering that day in the Northern House.

Montana Jack McRae (Tony Hussey) and his daughter Elizabeth (Samantha Hussey)

Montana Jack McRae (Tony Hussey) and his daughter Elizabeth (Samantha Hussey)

I ask him if he interprets in first person and stays in character as Jack McRae. “As much as I can. I try to be as authentic and period correct as I can. I only basically got back into it so my costume isn’t a hundred percent.” Tony had come by the museum six months ago to see about volunteering again after a long hiatus. Instead they offered him a job.

Tony credits his mother with fostering his interest in the old west. He refers to her as a “western cowboy nut. She always decorated the house western. We never had horses, we lived in the city, but my mom was fascinated with it. I guess I got it from her.”

He’s passed this fascination with the old west down to his own daughter. Samantha, who is known as Elizabeth when she’s at the museum, dressed in period attire, also loves Arizona history. Samantha is in the sixth grade and says they are studying ancient Greece.

Tony and his girlfriend Jessica at Pioneer Arizona Living History Museum

Tony and his girlfriend Jessica at Pioneer Arizona Living History Museum

“We’re not up to the old west,” Samantha says. “But I read the books that my dad and Jessica have at home. I’m not as crazy about history as my dad, but I like history. My dad and Jessica and me, we can talk about history for hours. About our western heroes.”

Tony wants to teach people the difference between Hollywood and history, show them what it was really like. “The hardships and the rewards of living back then,” he says. “For me to be able to rattle off some facts about real history, about prospecting and mining and printing, whether they remember it or not, it just makes me feel good.” He dreams of having more volunteers, making Pioneer Village into a real town, a place people would want to visit.

“I’m all about it,” he says. “I camped out last weekend . . . just had my bedroll out on the ground and a little campfire, cowboy style. That’s how they lived! I try to do it just like they did.”

One has to wonder what he might have been thinking about staring up at the stars.

I thought about a long-ago black night, when I sat in an old wagon bed behind the Ranch Complex with some friends, waiting for the outside cook fire to die down. A glow appeared on the eastern horizon, a glow that grew brighter and seemed to spread across the whole sky. And then the rounded luminescence of the moon emerged from behind the hills. I had never seen such a moonrise. I remembered that night and realized I didn’t need to ask Tony what he was thinking about under the stars.


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