This article first appeared in the Arizona Historical Society’s monthly members-only newsletter, which features in-depth and inspiring news and stories about Arizona history. Join AHS today and receive access to member benefits, including exclusive digital content about Arizona history.
The floorboards creak under my feet as I wait to check in, pointedly not looking at the “ghost book,” ostensibly a play on “guest book,” propped on the front desk. It is hot in Bisbee, with just enough humidity to make you aware of every stitch of clothing on your body.
“Adams, checking in?” I say. “Oh, maybe it’s under ‘Arizona Historical Society?’”
I like to stay at historic hotels when I travel: it sets the mood, helps me understand the community a little better. Plus, Mim Walsh, whose diary we transcribed and annotated for the Winter 2022 Journal of Arizona History, writes about being entertained by Kate La More of Hotel La More (Bisbee Inn) fame. I am in Bisbee to share Mim’s story at the Copper Queen Public Library, so it feels right to trace her footsteps. I flop on my hotel bed, enjoying the AC before it is time to walk to the library.
I am the History Engagement Coordinator for the Arizona Historical Society. I joke that I’m like Bill Nye but with a bolo tie. Part of my role is to be a history communicator, to help foster a love of our collective history across the state by sharing what historians do. As a lover of local history, I know two things: 1) all communities have a rich history worth exploring, and 2) everyone’s an expert in their own lived experience. While I see my mission as encouraging my audience to consider new ideas or perspectives, I know that I am also a guest and have much to learn.
The Copper Queen Public Library feels grand compared to the library-and-police-substation of my childhood in east Tucson. It is a storied building, and there is a deep sense of community in its walls reaching back almost 150 years. Just for the occasion, I share with the group some of the titles Mim had borrowed from the library when she lived in Bisbee/Warren. Everyone in the room takes a second to scan the shelves to see if they are still in circulation.
For a little more than an hour, we are in community with each other as we explore the past, and we are in community with those who came before us. The central argument to my work as a historian is that we study the past to learn how to be more empathetic people–who could possibly be more different from us than someone who lived more than 100 years ago? Mim has allowed us to read her most private thoughts; how can we use those to understand the choices she makes? If we can understand our predecessors, maybe we can understand others in our own time.
So far, as History Engagement Coordinator, I have given presentations in Tucson, Green Valley, Bisbee, and all across the Phoenix area. We’ve discussed the life and times of Mim Walsh, Japanese incarceration, women of the Arizona Territory, the Buffalo Soldiers, the Apache Wars, and many other topics. These are all complicated topics, with many individual actors doing what they think is best. It is necessarily messy, and I invite people to get tangled in the mess. As a historian, I am intrigued by the silences and gaps in our understanding, so there are endless stories to uncover and share.
As night falls in Bisbee and I watch the turkey vultures come in to roost, I reflect on storytelling and history. I had some theater training as a child and a series of very inspirational history teachers, so I think that put me on the path I’m on today. Although I sometimes question the objectivity of truth, there are, admittedly, a couple universal truths about being human, and one is we all love stories. Stories are how we entertain, educate, express emotion, and remember. We are connected by the stories we tell.
PS – Clearly, Bisbee is full of ghosts. Ghosts are interesting to public historians, and there is a huge diversity of opinion on the matter of ghosts–are they real? Does it matter? What can their stories tell us about the barrier (or lack thereof) between past and present? I will keep my opinions to myself for now. Anyway, if you’ve stayed at the La More, you know about the ghosts, especially the ghost cat. Local legend states that the calico used to sneak into the hotel, probably in pursuit of pets and a warm place to curl up. Sadly, the cat became trapped in the storage room of the saloon next door and died. She spends her afterlife in the hotel, still looking for pets. I was in room 12, where there is apparently a lot of paranormal activity. The ghost cat did visit me when I was sleeping, but I have a cat so it took me a while to notice it was a spectral, not corporeal, feline.
History Engagement Coordinator
Email Jaynie | 520-617-1154