BENSON — Tucked on the corner of San Pedro and Fifth streets, the Benson Historical Museum is filled with a treasure trove of exhibits that introduce visitors to the area’s rich history.
The museum’s collection of stories, photos and artifacts feature cattle ranchers, cowboys, farmers, railroad workers, merchants and professionals that shaped Benson and its surrounding communities.
“Our museum recreates the history of how Benson and the San Pedro Valley came into being,” said Museum Director and Historian Judy Lee.
Since stepping into the role of museum director five years ago, Lee has expanded the displays from one building to four, with 22 separate exhibits.
“This museum has something for everyone,” said Lee, who was raised in Benson, attended school there and is passionate about the town’s history.
“One of the most exciting displays is located near the front of our 100-year-old building,” she said. “We have a 1.72 million-year-old prehistoric mammal exhibit which came from area excavations, just 12 miles from Benson. In 1920 when a team of surveyors for the state of Arizona unearthed mastodon bones at Curtis Ranch, they contacted the University of Arizona Science Department for help in investigating the find. From there, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History was contacted and the remains of a mastodon found near Benson were on display at the Smithsonian from 1922 through the 1970s.”
A Benson Post Office exhibit features U.S. Postmaster Leonard Redfield who is touted as holding the record for the longest postmaster in history, with 44 years service.
Then there’s cowboy stunt rider Sid Wilson, whose exhibit features his saddle, slicker, boots and hat. Hailed as the “last of the 19th century authentic cowboys,” Wilson performed before Queen Victoria in 1901. He drove the last stagecoach from Tombstone to Tucson in the early 1930s, was an extra in silent movies, and performed with Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody. This colorful and beloved cowboy lived to be 103 years old, from 1879 to 1983.
“Sid’s legacy will be forever preserved in our museum,” Lee said.
The museum’s communications exhibit walks visitors through the progression of communication devices from the telegraph to a collection of phones, film projectors, movie equipment and radios.
“Be sure to take a look at our amazing Mercantile Exhibit inside the 100-year-old building, which was once known as the Ivey Building,” said Lee. “The building was shuttered for nearly a half century, and when it was purchased and reopened by the Benson Historical Society in 1983, they discovered a complete mercantile. They kept the display intact, and today it is one of the museum’s most prized exhibits.
Equipment used by The Apache Powder Company from 1920 through the 1980s is on display in the museum courtyard. The exhibit includes a small rail steam engine which was used to deliver supplies across the four-mile Apache property. It also includes an “Angel Buggy” which was used to transport a highly volatile nitroglycerin mixture over a wooden walkway, said Lee, whose father Harry Worden, worked for Apache Powder from the 1940s to the 1960s.
Some of the newer exhibits include a 100 years of period clothing including a century of wedding dresses, a huge hit with young girls and women. Uniforms from World War I through the Vietnam War also are on display in the Annex Building.
Another new exhibit — “Women of Note” — features local area women who have made significant contributions to the San Pedro Valley. Such familiar names as Donaletta Getzwiler, Marguerite Jennings and Lois Fischer are among the notable women featured.
These are just a few examples of the exhibits found on the Benson Museum tour.
Currently, Lee is working on a virtual gift shop to raise money for the museum due to the loss of income from the COVID pandemic.
“We were completely closed for three months, and now we’re open just two days a week for a total of six hours,” Lee said. “We need volunteer docents to help keep the museum open. We would like to be open more hours, but desperately need more volunteers in order to staff more hours,” Lee said.
The virtual gift shop will appear on Facebook and is shared by several organizations.
“Our virtual gift shop will feature artistic items, including two fantastic children’s coloring books. One was produced nationally in 1981 as a fire safety guide for families, and the other is by local artist Ray Sisneroz, with his Southwesteren art,” she added. “We also have wall-art by Gilda Gomez, as well as prints by Ted DeGrazia.”
One of Lee’s long-term goals is to have an additional showcase on Fourth Street, to help entice more visitors.
“Even though we’re only one block south of Benson’s main street, the majority of people do not know we exist,” Lee said. “According to our docents, visitors comment that the Benson Museum is one of the best experiences they’ve ever had. They enjoy the history connected to the artifacts and the walking through 100 years of history.”
For information about the museum, or if interested in volunteering, contact Lee at 212-284-1010.