Reach out and experience Flagstaff History

Illustration by Kiana Gibson

Flagstaff’s museums and archival institutions are painting a more complete and compelling image of the past by showcasing artifacts and exhibits that are more relevant to a larger demographic of Arizonans. These institutions are working to preserve the prominent stories of the city’s past and to connect locals to Flagstaff history in profound and personal ways.

Many remnants of NAU’s past are housed in the Cline Library Special Collections and Archives department on campus. Cline Archivist Sean Evans said the archives include everything from presidential documents to records from NAU’s old flight school. The collection even features old letterman jackets and various articles of historical school clothing. Despite its abundance of materials, Evans said the school’s archives only collect permanent records and sentimental items that most effectively tell the school’s history.

Evans said the documents and articles found in special collections are unique because they provide first-hand representations of the university’s history. Evans said he acknowledges that a lot of information regarding Flagstaff history can be found online and in libraries, but for him, there’s nothing as exciting or engaging as visiting the Cline collection.

“Libraries are great warehouses of published and readily available information,” Evans said. “If you’re doing research and using Google, you’re going to find a wealth of material. But what we have here can only be found here, so it really is unique.”

Although NAU’s archives are limited to materials that pertain only to northern Arizona history, they are still incredibly vast. Evans said students should get excited about the expansiveness and accessibility of the archives.

“It’s really cool when you can reach out and touch a photograph or letters from the Riordan family, who ran the local lumber mills,” Evans said. “That’s history.”

Another Flagstaff organization responsible for the documentation of the town’s history is the Arizona Historical Society (AHS), which displays many of its artifacts in NAU special collections. The AHS also manages exhibits in the Pioneer Museum and Riordan Mansion State Historic Park.

Bill Peterson, the vice president for education and collections at the AHS, said the ability for people to reach out and touch historical artifacts is vital in determining whether or not they deeply care about the past. Peterson said he feels it is also important to present history in a relatable way. That’s precisely why the AHS has chosen to focus its attention on furthering its inclusion of the stories of minorities.

“Historical exhibits can often represent a very narrow view of the stories of certain ethnicities. To some extent, that has been the case here,” Peterson said. “Now, we’re going back and trying to do a better job of collecting things that represent different people in the community and their unique stories. Laborers, who were typically minorities — their stories were considered unimportant to people of the past, so a lot of that material wasn’t preserved.”

Joe Meehan, a museum curator for the AHS, said having a more holistic representation of history is important for gaining the interest of Flagstaff residents. Meehan said children who come to the Pioneer Museum are interested in learning about people from the past who share their ethnicity and culture. In the end, he said people whose cultural artifacts aren’t typically displayed in museums are still significant contributors to Flagstaff history and should be represented as such.

“I think people of all cultures and nationalities helped shape what Flagstaff is today,” Meehan said. “The three-dimensional artifacts you see in special collections are the tools they used to shape the town.”

The Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff currently exhibits many stories of working-class, Hispanic families, who have been present throughout the city’s history. Peterson said telling stories like these engages a wider audience in historical education.

“We try to appeal to as broad of an audience as we can,” Peterson said. “That requires a good mix of everyone’s stories. Everyone’s story counts, and we try to represent that in the museum. People can come in and see something they can relate to from their own experiences.”

Evans said people hold dear various artifacts that reflect memories of past their experiences. He said although these things might not seem like they’re really a part of history, they might tell stories that future generations might feel connected to. According to Evans, donating items to the archives is an excellent way for future Lumberjacks to see what being a student at NAU might have been like.

Evans encourages alumni to visit special collections and see archived materials that date back to when they were students. He said people might be surprised by the significance certain historical objects hold in their minds.

“[Alumni] get excited because they’re touching their history,” Evans said. “In a way, all of this stuff is meaningless if it doesn’t touch someone.”

Meehan encouraged Flagstaff residents who are new to the community to seek out stories in the artifacts they see at museums and archives around town. He said Flagstaff has a rich history for newcomers to delve into.

“I would think someone moving to a new community, even if they’re not interested in history, would at least want to learn about the background of their community,” Meehan said. “You don’t have to be enthusiastic about history to be curious about why the town and its university are here.”

Sacha Siskonen, the education curator for the AHS, said university students tend to not take advantage of historical sites like the Pioneer Museum and Riordan Mansion, both of which are free for patrons to explore on their own. Siskonen said taking time to learn about Flagstaff history is important for all of its residents.

“History teaches you about your community and who you are as a human,” Siskonen said.

To Siskonen, history is a catalyst for self-reflection — she feels it’s one of the discipline’s most valuable qualities. She said understanding regional history is vital to locals’ understanding of themselves, in relation to their surroundings. Flagstaff historians encourage community members to get curious about the city’s past in order to better understand its present.