Downtown Exhibitionism

History returns to the heart of Tucson.

In 1882, at age 14, Fred Ronstadt (namesake of the current City Councilmember) left Mexico for Tucson. After holding several jobs, in 1898 he opened a wagon-building shop on Congress Street, just west of Stone Avenue.

Later that year, Ronstadt decided his business needed more space and he looked a few blocks east to a site at the corner of Scott Avenue and Broadway Boulevard. A fellow merchant, Royal A. Johnson, however, warned Ronstadt not to relocate.

"Fred, I hope you aren't going to move way out in the country," Johnson told him. "You have established a nice little business right here where you are, all your friends are bringing their work to you, but now that you are going way up to Scott and Broadway, no one will ever be able to find you." Ronstadt made the move anyway, and his business prospered.

That story from downtown Tucson's past hints at its long, troubled evolution. From the site of the isolated Presidio to the arrival of the railroad in 1880, from the development of a commercial core at "The Wedge" along Congress Street to a later expansion that included a large retail area, from a district dominated by small shops to one containing several major department stores, and from being the center of the community to a derelict wasteland in the 1960s and '70s, downtown has seen a lot of history.

That history will be the subject of a new museum opening next week. Using photographs and artifacts, the Arizona Historical Society Downtown Museum in the Wells Fargo building will document the events that have made the area important.

According to program director David Faust, the museum will focus on the theme "History in the Heart of Tucson." It will do this, he says, because "If [we] don't do the West, we could be in Des Moines, Iowa."

Faust says the 3,200-square-foot museum will be developed in three phases. The first, which is opening next week, will look at downtown shopping, businesses and warehouses. Exhibits containing artifacts Faust calls "the real stuff" will focus on grocery stores, the impact of the railroad's arrival, hotels, banking, restaurants and other commercial activity.

One long-gone downtown store was the Drachman cigar shop, which was located at Congress Street and Stone Avenue. Many years ago, Herbert Drachman recalled how on warm summer nights before the era of the automobile, his customers would come to the shop, pick up a folding chair and congregate right in the middle of Stone, talking baseball.

Also to be included at the museum will be displays on drug stores, the Romero barber shop at 164 W. Broadway Blvd., and the residences of downtown. A key artifact to be shown is the tin eagle that topped the Eagle Flour Mill, a very large building that stood until 1965 on Toole near the Sixth Avenue underpass.

Among the personalities to be featured in the first phase will be businessman Estevan Ochoa. Along with his partner, P.R. Tully, in the 1870s Ochoa operated one of the leading freight-moving companies in the Southwest, with wagon teams working from Kansas City to Mexico.

On March 20, 1880, it was Ochoa who presented a silver spike to Southern Pacific Railroad executive Charles Crocker to mark the arrival of the tracks to Tucson. That was a noble gesture on Ochoa's part, because competition from the railroad would soon ruin his business.

THE SECOND PHASE of the museum, opening sometime next year, will look at government and maintaining order. It will contain exhibits on elections and police and fire protection, including the 1934 capture of the Dillinger gang after a fire in the Hotel Congress, and a review of the area's military history.

By the end of next year, Faust also expects the third phase of the museum to be completed. It will contain exhibits on drinking, celebrating and recreation downtown, along with early aviation and finds from various archeological digs done in the area.

Space for the museum, along with a $125,000 grant used to purchase equipment and to implement the museum's exhibits, was provided by the Wells Fargo Bank. Because of this generosity, visitors will be able to trace the people, places and events that make up the history of downtown Tucson.

In 1930, one-time downtown merchant Charles Wheeler remembered how a long-absent friend of his commented on the changes that had occurred in the area. "He stopped off to make me a visit after 46 years," Wheeler recalled, "and was greatly surprised when he arrived to find all those buildings facing the R.R. Track having been replaced with others." Of all the downtown buildings this man remembered, Wheeler said, "not one of them remained."

That trend of construction, demolition, urban renewal and new development continued for decades in downtown Tucson. But now, thanks to this new museum, the vestiges of those long-lost buildings, and the people who lived and worked in them, will be permanently on display.