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Thu, Feb. 20

Priceless stories for posterity<BR>Sharlot Hall Museum chronicler records Arizona's history from personal points of view<BR>

Mona Lange McCroskey has more than 300 lifetimes of stories in her head – but they're not all hers.

McCroskey has been a research historian for Sharlot Hall Museum since the fall of 1990, interviewing literally hundreds of "old-timers" who've lived in Yavapai County before 1940, gleaning the memories of their lives and of times gone by.

"Oral histories are social history," McCroskey said. "It's wonderful. It puts meat on the bones of facts."

"Life and death and love and fear – each one had its moment here. Now those first-come men are gone…" ("Old Governor's House," by Sharlot M. Hall).

Before those men (and women) are gone, McCroskey intends to chronicle as many of their stories as she can.

"I've traveled as far as Tucson to get someone we wanted," McCroskey said.

She has interviewed ranchers, doctors, school teachers, farmers, business men and women, former Harvey Girls, several Native Americans, photographers, postmasters/mistresses, and car dealers.

"You name any of the old families – I've done 'em," McCroskey said, ticking off on her fingers such still-living notables as "Mother Warfield," now 99, who started the first nursing home here; Martha Caldwell, the first uniformed police woman in Prescott; Alma Jo Stevens, the first Prescott High School Homecoming Queen; Richard Allen, who owned an early Prescott market and Dick Allan, who had a greenhouse business in Prescott.

"I could go on and on," McCroskey said, "there are so many."

A great number of her narrators have passed away since she interviewed them: Kate Garber, who packed a picnic for the two of them before they scouted out the old school at Cherry, and Frank Young, who practically grew up in The Palace Bar where his father worked.

"He had a great social history of Prescott from a black person's view," McCroskey said.

And she's interviewed three blind people.

"They have a very special sense of history," she said.

One of her first questions is usually, "Tell me how your family came to Arizona, when and why?"

A lot of people came to the Prescott area for health reasons, literally came on their deathbeds, she said – "men gassed in the war, or people with tuberculosis – and they lived way into their 90s.

"It's such a happy story when you find stories like that," she said.

McCroskey's list of pre-1940'ers is getting short now.

"There's not that many left," she said sadly, noting she will most likely begin interviewing later generations of Yavapai County residents soon.

In April, McCroskey was honored with the 17th Annual Sharlot Hall Award, an award that each year is given to a living Arizona woman who has made a valuable contribution to the understanding and awareness of Arizona and its history.

"[Mona McCroskey is] truly one who has dedicated [her] service to the community to the enrichment of our heritage," the museum award notes. "Mona's interviews have captured what no book or old photograph can – the day-to-day life and intrigue of the famous and the not-so-famous."

McCroskey's long-time friend, Ben Owens, nominated her for the award.

"She gets 10,000 birthday cards a year from people she's interviewed," he said. "When one of them dies, it's like one of Mona's family. She's not just contributing to history, but to the people."

"The bond that is created is so special, they're like family," she said. "I feel so honored that they would share with me the way they do – each one. They are strong, wise, have been through so much and are still laughing. They are absolute role models."

Her eyes mist up when asked if talking to these folks who are the repositories of days gone by have influenced her.

"They've changed my life – and certainly enriched it," she said. "They are a non-renewable resource."

Those more than 300 stories continue to rattle around in her head all the time, McCroskey said. "I'm always thinking about things they've told me.

"I should have paid them to do this, it has been so rewarding," she said.

McCroskey records interviews that run anywhere from 15 minutes to filling seven half-hour audio cassettes.

"They are all worthwhile, even though I can't possibly get the whole story," she said.

"If I've been a success, it's because I'm a good listener. You can learn so much by listening," she said. "My idea of a good interview is a two-line question and a four-page answer."

McCroskey encourages people to write or record their own histories, not to wait for someone like her to help them.

"My dream would be to get children and young people interested in history, to start saving those stories," she said. "I would give some years off my life to talk to my parents…."

Born a fourth generation Prescottonian, McCroskey has her own story, too. Most of her childhood was spent at the Yolo Ranch in Yavapai County and the SV Ranch northwest of Wikieup.

As an adult, she was "a legal secretary forever," earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in Southwest history from Arizona State University and a master's of library science from the University of Arizona. She has worked for various historical organizations, including the Arizona Historical Foundation, the Heard Museum, the Salt River Project, and the Sharlot Hall Museum Archives and Library.

McCroskey has published 17 pieces of her historical writings in a number of publications, including the Journal of Arizona History, the Cornell Hotel Quarterly and the Journal of Western History.

She also edited the 1898 diary of 17-year-old Zella Dysart of Phoenix, "Summer Sojourn to the Grand Canyon," which was published by Holly Bear Press in 1996. The book is available at Sharlot Hall's Museum store, 415 W. Gurley St.

Though McCroskey recently relocated to Cuba, N.M., she returns to her home in Prescott at least once a month and will continue doing interviews.

Anyone interested in giving an oral history or with information on someone who would be a valuable narrator may call the Sharlot Hall Museum Archives, 445-3122.

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