Arizona much different than years of legends - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Arizona much different than years of legends

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at

Posted: Friday, February 10, 2012 6:02 pm | Updated: 6:08 pm, Fri Feb 10, 2012.

As official state historian, Marshall Trimble frequently gets questions about Arizona. The most frequent, he said, are about how much the real Arizona resembles how it is portrayed in Western movies.

It doesn't.

"People ask, ‘Why do robbers chase stagecoaches on horseback at full speed?' They didn't. The bad guys waited for them to come to a steep hill so the stage would go slow. But movies need action. Horses in movies run all day, but actually, your horse would tire pretty quickly."

So as Arizona celebrates its centennial Tuesday, Trimble offered to clear a few things up about inaccuracies that still are very much alive, and may well contribute to why when we pass a crazy law, it gets national attention that other states' crazy laws often don't.

Blame it on late 19th and early 20th century journalistic sensationalism and an increasingly urban, crowded and industrialized East's fascination with the vast expanse of the noble and romantic West.

"My son went to West Point in 1997 as a plebe. The upperclassmen were besieging him about wild gunfighters and stagecoaches," Trimble said. "They made him go down on his hands and knees with his arms raised up like a scorpion and crawl around like that while they picked on him."

In 1912, Arizona was dealing with a "terrible national image," Trimble said. (Which is something that certainly is not like today in any way.)

Part of that reputation was deserved and part of it wasn't, he said. But that didn't stop East coast journalists from picking up bits and pieces of our late 19th century history and embellishing it to beat the band. It helped make this into a territory of outlaws and shoot-‘em-ups that didn't exist, if it ever did, he said.

In fact, by the 1880s, Arizona was fairly well civilized, Trimble said.

"Tombstone wasn't even as violent as they say. Lots of places were more violent than that. Mining towns, Phoenix, Tucson, all were pretty well settled," he said.

But that wasn't the Arizona people back East wanted to read about in newspapers and dime novels, filled with, "lurid tales of wild and woolly Arizona, and Arizona was a favorite place to pick because of its wild country. That really slowed us down."

So what made Arizona an attractive place to actually move to, rather than just read about and shake one's head? Trimble has it reduced to three words: Water. Air conditioning.

Trimble said that only the hardiest of souls could actually live in what is now this ever-expanding metropolis until Theodore Roosevelt Dam in 1911 and subsequent dams along the Salt River that could hold enough water were built to quench residents' thirst year-round and sustain agriculture.

And he said that it wasn't until the technology that came out of World War II made air conditioning available and affordable enough that people stopped leaving the Salt River Valley for four to five months a year.

"After the (Roosevelt) dam and the dams that followed, the droughts and heat in the summer didn't drive people away," Trimble said. And Easterners from technology firms liked our mild climate and a higher-educated middle class joined the farmers who were already here, he said.

The truth about us lies more in Arizona's "independent, progressive spirit," Trimble said. "It sort of grows on you. We might still have a bit of a chip on our shoulder about telling Easterners not to tell us what to do, which is all right as long as you don't take it to the extreme."

Trimble told of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor talking about growing up on an Arizona ranch. He spoke of the responsibilities she was given at an early age that taught her lifelong lessons.

"Others around you counted on you. If you left a gate open and cows got out, a lot of people had to do extra work and you'd catch hell for it," Trimble recalled O'Connor saying.

"This was instilled in her as a young girl, to take responsibility. And if something needs to be done, you do it, don't wait for someone else to do it. That's that Arizona spirit that's found throughout the West. It saddens me to think that today, too many kids just hang out at the mall. There's no gate to close. It's not the kids' fault, but the yard work is done by landscapers. Someone comes in to clean the house."

Trimble will be quite busy Tuesday making appearances throughout the state. But he gave advice to Arizonans on how to best celebrate the centennial.

"Go out on the Apache Trail early in the morning and find some solitude and look at the beauty around you. Or go up north to Cave Creek," he said. "The best things about Arizona are our open spaces. Those are our sanctuaries, and they're a short drive away."

Get away, he said, from the freeways, the noise, the people who are annoyed because they're around too many other people.

"Be alone or with someone you want to be with, without radios or anything plugged in your ear, and enjoy what's around us: The Sonoran Desert."

• Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp's opinions here on Sundays. Watch his video commentaries at Reach him at

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