Making History
The Silver City Museum at 40

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Making History

The Silver City Museum, celebrating its 40th anniversary next month, has turned the past into the town's top tourist attraction.

By David A. Fryxell


"It always sounds like a conversion experience," Susan Berry says about the moment when history first came alive for her. The director of the Silver City Museum smiles at the phrase and squirms a bit in one of the metal ice-cream-parlor chairs that serve as guest seating in her book-lined office. The chairs' mates get hauled out every Fourth of July for the museum's annual ice-cream social, which this year will double as the Silver City institution's 40th anniversary celebration.

The Silver City Museum today. (Photo courtesy Silver City Museum)

"I'd never been the sort of person who cares for dry facts, the stuff of history," she goes on. "But looking into those photos of old Silver City, trying to picture where they were taken from — they just pulled me in deeper and deeper."

Berry, who'd grown up in Silver City after moving here at age 10 when her father got a teaching position at "Western" (WNMU), was working a part-time job at the fledgling museum in the summer of 1974. An art and English major at WNMU, she recalls, "I thought the museum would be a fun place to work." Harry Benjamin, the now-renowned Silver City painter and potter who was the museum's first curator — and, until Berry's hiring, its sole employee — knew her chemistry-professor father from his own WNMU days.

"Susan came in one day and asked, 'Would you like some help?'" Benjamin recalls. "I said, 'Jeepers! Can you type?' She could, so I went to the city and they gave me enough money to hire her part-time."

Nine years later, in 1983, Susan Berry would succeed Benjamin as the museum's director, a job she's held ever since.

But it's still those photos that have her hooked — about 800 pictures of early Silver City collected by John Harlan, another WNMU professor, which are among the highlights of the museum's roughly 15,000 photos. When asked what's her favorite thing in the museum's collection, Berry doesn't hesitate: "If the Harlan Collection can be considered a 'thing,' that would be my favorite. It's the reason I'm still here."

Today, as the Silver City Museum marks its 40th year and Berry approaches her 25th as director, the museum is the town's number-one stop for visitors, attracting 15,000-18,000 people annually. Roughly three-quarters of those come from out of town. In its 40 years, the museum has seen a total of 469,767 visitors come through the doors of its home in the 1881 Ailman House.

The museum is also one of only 14 in New Mexico accredited by the American Association of Museums (AAM, see box). Aside from Taos, home to the Millicent Rogers Museum, Silver City is the smallest city in the state to have an AAM-accredited museum.

Berry says, "We've had to set big-time goals for the sake of our survival — anything that will give us an edge, that will demonstrate to donors that we're for real, that we're here to say."


Anyone with lingering doubts about the Silver City Museum's drawing or staying power should drop in on its busy Fourth of July celebration next month. "The museum has always celebrated its birthday on the Fourth of July, even though it actually opened its doors on July 1, 1967," Berry says.

The Silver City Museum is one of only 14 museums in New Mexico accredited by the American Association of Museums:

Albuquerque Museum, Albuquerque

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe

Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Millicent Rogers Museum, Taos

Museum of New Mexico, Museum of Fine Art, Santa Fe

Museum of New Mexico, Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Santa Fe

Museum of New Mexico, Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe

Museum of New Mexico, Palace of the Governor, Santa Fe

Museum of New Mexico, New Mexico State Monuments, Santa Fe

New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Albuquerque

New Mexico Museum of Space History, Alamogordo

Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell

Silver City Museum, Silver City

Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe

The 40th birthday bash will feature all the usual favorites, but with a few "special twists," she adds. The ice-cream social will fill the museum's tree-shaded courtyard — a 1989 improvement that's become a local landmark of sorts itself, the scene of countless senior portraits and wedding photos. (No word on whether Sammy the dog, a frequent courtyard visitor and "unofficial museum mascot," will put in an appearance.) Along with ice cream and cold drinks for sale, there will be musical entertainment, games and the traditional cakewalk.

An added attraction this year will be an antique tractor show organized by museum board member Norman Ruebush — "a great fan of old equipment of various kinds," says Berry. Ruebush is also working on an "engine-driven ice cream maker" for the big day, although Berry cautions that this gizmo is still in "beta" and the supply of freshly made ice cream will be limited.

The museum will also unveil two new exhibits on its birthday. Since the museum shares 2008 as a round-numbered anniversary year with the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument — which marks its 100th birthday in November — the two institutions will sponsor a joint exhibition, "Discovering the Cliff Dwellings," on view at the museum through Dec. 2. "We'll also collaborate with the National Park Service and the Gila National Forest — the Cliff Dwellings are in the forest and are managed by the park service — on several themed aspects of the ice-cream social," Berry adds. "The fish-pond prizes, for example, will include Smokey Bear items, and we're hoping for an appearance by Smokey himself." The 2008 museum calendar will also focus on the Cliff Dwellings, she says.

In the second new exhibit, the museum will recall its own history, in a way, with a retrospective of works by Harry Benjamin. Says Benjamin, whose What's a Pot Shop gallery celebrates its own 25th anniversary this year, "I held my senior show at the college while I was curator of the museum, using the museum's kitchen as my studio and workspace. I've got some paintings from college that I'll exhibit, along with other works."

The Benjamin retrospective will inaugurate the museum's newly refurbished main gallery. By the Fourth of July, the gallery should boast a new ceiling and a new lighting system that Berry says will allow for greater flexibility in exhibit design.


Efforts to create a museum for Silver City date back to the 1930s and 1940s, according to Berry. Indeed, when the Eisley Collection of Mimbres pottery was first acquired, the original intention was to feature the pottery in a city museum; instead, the collection ultimately wound up forming the core of a new WNMU Museum. City museum plans, says Berry, "never really got off the ground."

Nonetheless, she adds, would-be museum backers were tapping into a long local tradition of interest in "curiosities" — not only cultural artifacts such as Mimbres pottery, but also two-headed calves, petrified wood specimens and similar oddities. The Silver City Enterprise newspaper, in fact, had a whole cabinet of such "gee-whiz" curiosities, ranging from mineral specimens to an ax once used in a local murder. Berry adds, "I often wonder whatever became of the Enterprise cabinet.'"

Not until the mid-1960s, though, did this interest in artifacts finally crystallize into a plan for an actual museum. Initially, says Berry, the idea was to build a museum in Gough Park, with the lone surviving turret from the historic Santa Rita fort as its centerpiece. In 1964, a local contractor floated the notion of a $125,000 bond issue for a museum on the park site. But the old adobe blocks of the fort, despite careful storage, crumbled and the Gough Park plan apparently did likewise. The few surviving adobe blocks from the fort did eventually make it into the collection of today's museum, however.

The Times They Were A-Changin'

Besides seeing the "Summer of Love" and the opening of the Silver City Museum, 1967 was a busy year for the region. According to museum director Susan Berry, big local events in 1967 included:

  • Phelps Dodge Corp. announced it would reopen the dormant Tyrone mine after more than 50 years. "Old" Tyrone was dismantled and a new town was rapidly constructed to accommodate a huge influx of mining families. (The local telephone directory added 500 new names in 1967 alone.)
  • Baby Boomers swelled the ranks of Silver City's high school by 15 percent, requiring classes to be held in two shifts to accommodate students until the new, larger Silver High opened in the fall of 1967. It was immediately filled to capacity.
  • Silver City incorporated two new subdivisions, Linda Vista and Cherry Hills.
  • A prolonged strike at Kennecott Copper Corp. strained families' budgets and local social services.
  • The year ended with the biggest snowstorm in the region's recorded history, a 30-inch blanket of white that shut down Silver City before schools' Christmas break and closed WNMU — the only time the university has ever closed because of weather.

In 1966, the town council passed a resolution creating a board that was charged with creating a museum. But where to put it? Harry Benjamin recalls, "A group of us at the university used to draw and paint downtown, and we found out that they were thinking of tearing down the old fire station. We got together and went to the city, asking them to let us have the building for a museum." He mentions Cecil Howard, John Harlan and Leo Bauer among that original core group.

Built in 1881 as a private residence, the Ailman House plus its garage additions had been occupied by the town fire department for 35 years. It was originally constructed by prospector Harry Ailman; with his partner, H.M. Meredith, Ailman had struck it rich in the booming silver-mining camp of Georgetown. The two men cashed in their claims and moved their families into nearby Silver City, building identical brick houses in the Italianate-Mansard style. Meredith's home, moved in 1905 and drastically remodeled in 1941, now houses the Terra Alta Apartments. Following an 1887 bank failure, Ailman's house was eventually sold to pay debts; in 1891, the Ailman family left town to start over in California. Hotel owners D.C. and Theodora Hobart acquired the house and lived there for 16 years, adding a large wing in 1900. The lingering bank settlement, however, caused the Hobarts to lose the house in 1908 judgment. It was auctioned off to Mrs. J.R. Johnson, who operated the home as a boarding house until 1926.

The town of Silver City then bought the erstwhile Ailman House for use as City Hall. After the present City Hall — a former bank building — was acquired in the 1930s, the Ailman House was taken over by the fire department, which added three garages for fire trucks. By 1967, however, with a new public-safety building on the drawing boards, the city would soon have no use for the historic structure.

"It was a historic building in search of a purpose," Berry says.

So Benjamin and his cohorts went hat in hand to the mayor, who gave the museum group the building and a startup fund of $1,000. "That was my salary and the entire operating budget," Benjamin recalls with a chuckle. "We went to everybody in town for help. It all had to be redone. Frank and Helen Griswold at Foxworth-Galbraith gave us paint and nails. The Borenstein Department Store closed and gave us their display cases. The first thing somebody gave us for the collection was a Saratoga trunk filled with clothing and stuff."

Three months after the mayor's OK, in July 1967, the Silver City Museum opened its doors. Benjamin and Howard, an art professor at WNMU, created the first displays. "We opened with an Apache artifact show," Benjamin says, "and a Victorian period show."

Benjamin, who was still a college student, moved into the upstairs of the Ailman House. "I'd close the doors at 1 to go to class," he remembers. "I was there every day except Monday. It was a full-time job. I was my own secretary — I'd dictate letters to myself."

He continued to share the building with the fire department, which kept fire trucks in the garages until the new public-safety building was completed in 1970. The former garages now house museum offices, including Berry's, and the main gallery at the rear of the public part of the complex.

Soon after becoming the museum's first curator, however, Benjamin was drafted. While he served in Germany from 1968 to 1973, a variety of short-term replacements filled in. A woman named Nod‚ Farmer put in the longest curatorial stint, according to Berry, and even got married in the museum, in 1971.


In 1973, Benjamin returned and resumed his duties as curator — a title eventually changed to "director" — and Susan Berry joined him a year later. As the US bicentennial approached, she and staff at the Silver City Public Library tackled another donation from John Harlan: a microfilm reader and a collection of historic local newspapers on microfilm. Painstakingly, Berry indexed the newspapers on handwritten note cards — a mammoth task she says "has paid off a thousand times over." Today, three decades later, museum volunteer Joe Bagg is entering that index into a computer database and cleaning up more than 27,000 records.

From indexing the town's old newspapers, Berry moved on to a five-year project cataloguing Grant County's old buildings. The recently established state historic preservation office had subcontracted with local institutions to inventory historic structures across the state. Berry catalogued thousands of pre-1945 buildings throughout the county, laying the groundwork for state and national historic preservation districts: four large districts in Silver City plus smaller ones on the campuses of WNMU and St. Mary's Academy, as well as historic districts in Pinos Altos, the Mimbres Valley and Mogollon. Her work also led to the writing, with co-author Sharman Apt Russell, of the seminal book on Silver City's history in architecture, Built to Last, first published in 1986 and reissued in an updated second edition in 1995.

"This was a mining town, and mining towns usually weren't built to last — just until the ore ran out and then everybody picked up and left," Berry says. "But Silver City was different, and that spirit really shines through."

Historic preservation was still a novel notion when she began this work, however, and the importance of saving old structures was not fully appreciated in time to save Silver City's beloved AT&SF railroad depot. But Berry credits the loss of that historic depot to the wrecking ball in 1975 with galvanizing local preservation efforts. "The letters that spelled out 'Silver City' on the side of the depot are now in our collection," she adds with a faint smile at this small victory.

"The loss of the depot was wrenching for so many people. It was the wakeup call that we needed," Berry continues. "The 1970s, remember, were the time of ugly orange shag carpets. The notion of wanting to live in an old house was considered freakish."

Nor were there the resources that preservationists and renovators enjoy today — few reproductions and even then only expensive ones, and few ways to learn about historic preservation or old houses. Berry remembers discovering Old House Journal and reading there about how an inn in Cape May, NJ, got a Victorian gazebo erected in the town's park. That inspired her and Benjamin to launch the effort that eventually led to the Victorian-style bandstand in Silver City's Gough Park, a bicentennial project that replaced an enormous and unwieldy tent owned by Kennecott Copper Corp.

"There were a lot of other young folks like us, with no money but who could see what might happen here," Berry says. "It was a good time to gain those skills."

She and husband David also put their historic-renovation skills to work on their own house, an 1882 home on Bullard Street that they bought in 1981. She muses, "It seems like my own life and the museum's life have gone through a lot of cycles together."


Looking back on the accomplishments since she took over as director in 1983, Berry first ticks off the 1988 addition of the museum's collection-care wing. "That gave us a place to properly care for and store and treat the pieces in the collection," she explains. "In the early years, everything we had was on exhibit. It surprised some people when we switched to a more interpretive approach, not having everything on permanent exhibit. Small-town museums often fall into that permanent-exhibit approach, but it comes back to bite them. It really decreases the life of objects, especially textiles.

"The best use of the collection is to help people understand something, some story, trend or facet of history."

That approach was boosted by the acquisition, a few years ago, of a wide-format color printer, which made possible the sort of large interpretive posters used in the recent "Good for What Ails You" exhibit. That exhibit on the area's brief prominence as a site for tuberculosis sanatoriums, with graphics by local designer Ann Lowe, epitomizes what Berry hopes all future exhibits at the museum will look like.

While keeping the actual collection safe, Berry also hopes to be able to virtually share thousands of pieces of Silver City's past. "Our goal is to eventually have all our objects online with digital photos. We've barely started the photography, but it's our hope to make as many of our resources available to as many people as possible."

Space for the museum's physical collection, meanwhile, is running out. The museum's 8,000-square-foot building is filled almost to capacity, plus an education/administrative annex has become a priority, Berry says.


Another milestone, Berry says, was the 1986 creation of the Silver City Museum Society, a support organization that now contributes some $60,000 annually to the museum's budget through sales at the museum gift shop and other fundraising. In its 21 years of existence, the nonprofit society has generated more than $1.7 million toward the museum's operating budget plus nearly $400,000 in long-term endowment funds. "We wouldn't be where we are today without it," Berry says. "Its whole purpose is to help the museum achieve its goals. The board also has always had great strategy people, very can-do folks."

Today, the society boasts 370 paid members — a figure Berry hopes will hit 400 by the Fourth of July 40th anniversary. She adds, "We're shooting for 500 ultimately." Members hail from across the country and as far as Alaska.

Before the Silver City Museum Society, the museum already had a Silver City Museum Board, appointed by the town council to serve as a governing and oversight body. A few years ago, at a joint planning retreat, this "city board" and the "society board" realized that their efforts often coincided, and so members of the two boards took the unusual step of deciding to hold most of their meetings together. That breakthrough got the museum boards written up in a book by two leading museum-management consultants, Harold and Susan Skramstad. Currently, Sandra Hicks heads the city board, while Jim Leidich leads the society board.

The boards are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to museum volunteers, however. Berry says the museum taps an active volunteer pool numbering about 60.

She also credits the leadership of the boards and the Skramstads with inspiring the museum to begin seeking AAM accreditation. That national recognition would be a "huge" achievement, Berry says, describing accreditation as "a Don Quixote dream that took 15 years." AAM accreditation meant running a gauntlet of requirements and standards for everything from exhibitions to administrative savvy. "It involves getting all the aspects of your act together at the same time," as Berry puts it.


The Silver City Museum Society also is playing a key role in the museum's latest and most ambitious expansion: Last year, with the support of a private donor, the society took the first steps toward opening a satellite facility, with the acquisition of the historic Mattocks property along the Mimbres River. Located about three miles above San Lorenzo along a main route to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, the site contains a famous ruin from the ancient Mimbres culture — once pictured on a US postage stamp — as well as two Territorial-period adobe ranch houses.

Now the museum is partnering with the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway (see the March 2007 Desert Exposure), the Grant County Archaeological Society, the state game and fish department and other agencies to plan and seek funds for a visitor and interpretive center at the Mattocks site. US Sen. Jeff Bingaman is working to secure federal funds to help restore the larger of the two ranch houses as a visitor center for what will be known as the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site. To give area residents a peek at its future satellite facility, the museum hosted a Mother's Day open house last month.

"It's located on a direct route to the Cliff Dwellings, so we hope to tap into that stream of visitors," Berry says. "The site represents both the earliest population of the area and the early ranch history. We want to plan its development very carefully, in conjunction with the site's neighbors, and there's lots of partnerships involved."


The Mattocks satellite site is only the latest example of a lesson Berry says she's learned from each improvement the museum has made: "It's definitely true — if you build it, they will come. With each expansion, the museum's programming has blossomed, programs have just popped and attendance has increased.

"With so many of these things, there have been so many naysayers saying it's ridiculous," she goes on. "But this has always been a group that has found a way to solve those challenges, to make the most of what resources we do have."

That can-do spirit has paid off for Silver City, Berry points out. Since its inception, the museum has generated $464,985 in grant funds. With the help of the society, the museum has also raised more than $1.1 million for capital improvement projects and property acquisition over the years. Added together and adjusted for inflation, she figures these funds total more than $2.1 million in today's money.

That doesn't even count the economic impact of the museum's hundreds of thousands of visitors in its 40 years. Applying a conservative estimate of 70 percent of visitors coming from out of town, that's almost 329,000 tourists. If each of those spent only $10 in Grant County, Berry figures — "obviously, some of them have to eat lunch and get gas, maybe stay in a hotel" — their expenditures represent roughly $3.29 million of "foreign capital" that's entered the area economy.

Such numbers should come as no surprise. Stuart Ashman, secretary of the state Department of Cultural Affairs, cites a recent report that concluded New Mexico's "culture industry" generated more than $2.8 billion in direct economic impact to the state in 2005. "This study makes the case that by all the important measures — employment, payroll, tax revenues or attendance figures — cultural activities are critical to the economic health of New Mexico," Ashman says.

One cultural marketing expert says that 80 percent of every dollar spent in a museum stays in town, Berry adds. By contrast, 80 percent of every dollar spent in a "big-box" retail store leaves the community.

"But we're still making the case for the museum's economic impact," Berry concedes with a small sigh. "You can see the visitors and understand the economic role, but it's hard to connect the dots directly."

She brightens and adds, "The atmosphere has changed somewhat, though, because of the sort of people who are moving to the town. They recognize the quality of life features and they recognize quality. They understand what museums and other cultural attractions can mean to the vitality of a town."

Berry sits back a bit in her ice-cream parlor chair, thinking perhaps of all she's seen and done here since she first caught the history bug and lost herself in those old photos. "It's ironic," she says at last. "As a young person, I didn't give a lot of thought to the future. It was very painful to have to think about. I became very interested in the past, instead.

"But in institutions like this, you have to think in both places — the future and the past. A lot of what we've accomplished here was previously believed to be impossible. I've learned that in the present, you have to start imagining the future."


The Silver City Museum's 40th anniversary celebration at its annual ice-cream social will be from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, July 4. Admission is free, with tickets sold for refreshments and games.

The museum, located at 312 W. Broadway in downtown Silver City, is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and is closed Mondays. It is open on Memorial Day, Labor Day and Independence Day. Admission is free, although a $3 donation is suggested, especially for out-of-town visitors. Group tours are available by arrangement. The main floor is fully handicapped-accessible. For more information or to learn about joining the Silver City Museum Society, call 538-5921, email info@silvercitymuseum.org or see www.silvercitymuseum.org.


David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure


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