Pioneer Life in the Old West

Figure on Three Hours of Fun

One of our favorite types of museums is the outdoor museum concentrating on life as it was lived in former times. In Bishop, California, there is the Laws Railroad Museum and Historical Village. In Dearborn, Michigan, there is the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, which I saw as a kid with my parents. And it’s not just an American phenomenon: Martine and I loved Enkhuizen in the Netherlands, and in Iceland I enjoyed visiting Reykjavík’s Arbær Open Air Museum. Finally, last month, Martine and I spent an enjoyable afternoon touring the Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village in Aztec, New Mexico.

After visiting the Anasazi ruins at Aztec Ruins National Monument, we drove down the street and checked out the Aztec Museum. The more we looked, the more we were drawn into the vortex of pioneer life in northwestern New Mexico. There were toys, costumes, minerals, three barber chairs, agricultural implements, and, in the back, a whole pioneer village consisting of small-sized schools, stores, doctor’s office, pharmacy, blacksmith—you name it.

One of the strangest exhibits was the Pecos West Cyclorama, a labor of love by Valenty Zaharek which “features over 100 hand carved woodcarvings of people, animals, plants, buildings, vehicles and the high mesas and mountains of the desert Southwest. The cyclorama measures eighteen feet in diameter and slowly rotates as old west cowboy music plays in the background.” I spent over half an hour admiring the attempt to summarize the Old West in a rotating wooden display, with music no less.

Aztec Pioneer Schoolhouse

Martine and I also went into the Pioneer Village outbuiildings, which are built to approximately half scale. Above is a photo of the little one-room schoolhouse, complete with teacher’s and students’ desks, blackboard, and typical textbooks and wall displays. The same attention to detail appears in all the other buildings as well.

Originally we didn’t plan on coming to Aztec. Instead, we were going to go on to Durango, Colorado. When we were in Chama taking the Cumbres & Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad, however, Martine was showing signs of discomfort from the altitude, so we changed our plans and went to Aztec instead. We had no reason to regret our decision.

 

The Anasazi Moment

Doorway in Aztec Ruins

The ruins don’t have anything to do with the Aztecs. It was a common 19th century misconception, like the one about the Egyptians building the Mayan pyramids because, somehow, the Mayans weren’t smart enough to build piles of rubble and put a smooth face on them. No, the ruins at Aztec, New Mexico, are one of the settlements of the Anasazi Indians, as they made their way through the Four Corners region some nine hundred years ago.

Chaco Canyon holds the most spectacular ruins, but there are numerous outliers, such as the ruins at Aztec, Salmon, Chimney Rock, Pueblo Pintado, and elsewhere. It looks as if the area went through a period of protracted drought, sending the Anasazi southeast to the valley of the Rio Grande River, to the Hopi Mesas in Arizona, and to Zuñi. There they became the twenty-odd Pueblo Indian tribes, which still exist today.

They entered history abruptly in 1680, when they forcibly expelled the Spanish from New Mexico under a leader called Popé—the only North American peoples to successfully revolt—though they were reconquered some twelve years later. After that, when the United States marched in, they became more docile and did not require any army forts to keep them in line.

The ruins at Aztec are quite spectacular. A large kiva has been restored and even today looks very church-like in a Protestant sort of way. The Pueblo tribes still visit the ruins as they think of the paths their various peoples took to find a place where they could thrive.

Restored Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument

Some day I would like to return to New Mexico and spend more time at Chaco Canyon, which at one time supported a large population before the waters dried up. In the meantime, it was interesting to see Aztec Ruins National Monument and nearby Salmon Ruins just outside of Bloomfield.