Mesa, Arizona, offers up a long list of things to do, no matter the time of day.
By Nancy Baren Miller, F176955
You can learn so much more about a town just by driving around its downtown area. In the snowbird town of Mesa, Arizona, all you need to do is observe the street signs, and you begin to learn its history. You’ll spot such names as Crismon, Sirrine, Macdonald, LeSueur, Dobson, and Stapley.
Sure enough, a visit to the Mesa Historical Museum will reveal that these were names of prominent early families. And this is one of several museums that can give snowbirds and transient visitors facts, fun, and plenty of history.
For example, the human counterparts of streets named Crismon and Sirrine were two of the four leaders of the Mesa Company who settled Mesa in 1878. Alexander Macdonald was the town’s first mayor. The Stapley family owned a chain of hardware stores, while the Dobsons created a ranching empire.
Each of the museum’s rooms contains a different theme depicting the lives of such families through artifacts, photographs, and exhibits. Visitors learn who the pioneers were, what provisions they brought with them, and how they created productive farmland. A turn-of-the-(20th)-century urban home is shown with actual furniture from these early families. A replica of the turn-of-the-century general store J.T. LeSueur would have run is also on display.
The museum celebrates more modern Mesa citizens, too, such as former Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Danny White. Look for his helmet and pictures in a case dedicated to him.
Explore the museum’s grounds and you’ll come across antique farm machinery; replicas of Fort Utah, Mesa’s first structure; a settler’s adobe home; and a one-room schoolhouse. Even the museum’s building is historical. It served as Lehi Elementary School between 1914 and 1976.
The Mesa Historical Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and a small admission fee is charged. Call (480) 835-7358 for more information, or visit www.mesaaz.org.
Most folks outside town wouldn’t guess it, but one could say that religious leader Brigham Young helped found Mesa, Arizona. In 1877 and 1878, the Mormon leader sent pioneers south from Utah and Idaho to establish settlements in the Southwest. While not as dominant as it once was, the Mormon religion maintains roots in today’s Mesa. Completed in 1927, the Arizona Temple downtown is a noted landmark. Each year it plays host to what is touted as the world’s largest annual outdoor Easter pageant, and during the Christmas season, hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights and 50 life-size figures in a Nativity scene delight visitors.
The temple has a visitors center that is open daily year-round (except Christmas) and tours are free. The complex also boasts a diorama of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus; a film about Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church; and a 10-foot marble replica of the Christus sculpture in Copenhagen, Denmark. For more information, call the Arizona Temple Visitors’ Center at (480) 964-7164.
Mesa’s history is more than civilian. In 1941 two military airports were built near the town “” one for training American pilots called Williams Field, and another for British pilot training called Falcon Field. At war’s end, Falcon Field became a municipal airport, and Williams Field was turned into an Air Force training base until 1993. Acquired by the city of Mesa in 1994, it has reopened as Williams Gateway Airport.
The Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force has set up shop at Falcon Field with a collection of aircraft and displays that preserve aviation history and wartime memorabilia. Two hangars are dedicated to their efforts. Visitors will see such aircraft as a B-25 Mitchell bomber and MiG-15bis under restoration, as well as a MiG-21, a C-45, and an F4 Phantom. You’ll spot such trainers as a T-6 SNJ. Visiting aircraft also stay at the museum for periods of time, varying the list of available planes to see. Displays include memorabilia from the home front and war front, with everything from ration coupons to survival gear.
The prize possession at this facility is Sentimental Journey, an authentically restored World War II B-17G Flying Fortress. One of eight such bombers currently flying in the United States, it’s on display at the museum from November through May, and then flown around the country to air shows and for barnstorming at private airports. The museum offers rides on this beauty, or on the C-45 transport or T-6 trainer.
The Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force museum is open daily from October through May, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; hours are shorter in summer. Admission is $7 for visitors ages 14 to adult, $3 for children ages 6 to 13, and free for children 5 and under. Call (480) 924-1940 or visit www.arizonawingcaf.com for more information.
Yet another historical era “” this time, all the way back to the very ancient “” can be enjoyed at the city’s signature 80,000-square-foot Mesa Southwest Museum. Located downtown, the building once served as Mesa’s jail and city hall. Its superb exhibits delight all ages.
You can see replicas of a Spanish mission and a copper mine, learn about Arizona filmmaking, spend time at the section on minerals and Arizona caverns, view meteorites in Astronomy Hall, check out territorial jail cells, and admire 45 enlarged photos in the Arizona Highways (magazine) Photo Gallery. The Discovery Resource Center offers hands-on exhibits for children.
In the Art of the Ancient Americas exhibit, you’ll view pre-Columbian pottery, while in the Native Peoples gallery you’ll spot replicas of two Hohokam Indian dwellings. The Hohokam, who lived in this area from A.D. 300 to 1400, developed canals that European settlers later used to irrigate their crops.
The museum contains the largest collection of dinosaur fossils in Arizona, and serves as the state’s repository for fossil bone remains. The awesome three-story Dinosaur Mountain has “flash floods” every 25 minutes and three animatronic dinosaurs. And in the museum’s courtyard, gold panning is very popular. Take time to also admire the beautiful murals depicting Arizona’s five Cs: climate, cattle, copper, cotton, and citrus.
Admission to the Mesa Southwest museum is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors 65 and older, and $4 for children ages 3 to 12. Students 13 and older with a school ID pay $6, and children under age 3 are admitted free. For more information, call (480) 644-2230 or visit www.cityofmesa.org/swmuseum/.
A visit to Mesa wouldn’t be complete without heading just east of town. Gaze in that direction and you’ll see the Superstition Mountains, which have enticed gold prospectors for years. One of them was Jacob Waltz. Ever since he died in 1891, people have looked for his Lost Dutchman Mine.
Today Goldfield Ghost Town, a re-created town on the original site of a mining settlement, is a popular spot that offers several restaurants, shops, and fun attractions, such as a narrow-gauge railroad. Admission to the town is free, but you pay for each attraction separately. If you only wish to go there for the shopping and dining, you can do so without having to pay to get in.
But you’ll probably be tempted to try at least one attraction. The site has three museums, one dedicated to Southwestern reptiles, from rattlesnakes to scorpions. The other two look at area history. Among the items at the small Goldfield Museum are early miner’s tools, artifacts that have been excavated from under some of the current buildings, and information about the Peralta family, who developed rich gold mines in the Superstition Mountains. Many think Jacob Waltz discovered one of them but died before revealing its location. Another fascinating exhibit is the Lost Dutchman Hunter Hall of Fame, about men who spent their lives looking for the famous mine.
Goldfield also has a 25-minute mine tour, a gold-panning area where you’re guaranteed to find gold, and the railroad tour. It’s best to visit Goldfield in fall, winter, and spring. Some attractions close down or have shorter hours in the heat of summer. Goldfield is in Apache Junction and is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Call (480) 983-0333 or visit www.goldfieldghosttown.com for more information.
After your stay at Goldfield, head toward the Superstition Mountain/Lost Dutchman Museum, a small place that combines local natural and cultural history. If you have four or more people in your group, ask for a tour, which provides an excellent overview of the densely packed exhibits.
A mineral display with ore samples from every area mine, information about the geology of the Superstition Mountains, and specimens of area wildlife fill one area. As for human experience here, exhibits tell about Jacob Waltz, the U.S. Cavalry, and the construction of Roosevelt Dam. In the wall of small shops you can see actual boxes from Apache Junction’s first post office and learn how to perform gold assays. Outside on the museum grounds is an authentic 20-stamp mill once used to crush gold ore “” it’s one of two remaining in the United States.
For me, the most interesting exhibit was the scale model of Apacheland. At the real Apacheland, located about 10 miles from this museum, TV producers filmed “Death Valley Days,” “The Rifleman,” and “Gunsmoke.” The Elvis movie Charro also used the setting. Unfortunately, the site burned down in 2003, and all that was left was the Elvis Chapel and Apacheland Barn, which were moved to this museum. The plan is to turn the chapel into a multipurpose structure for weddings and the Apacheland Movie Museum, and to use the barn, seen in “The Rifleman,” to hold other exhibits.
The Superstition Mountain/Lost Dutchman Museum is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors age 55 and up, and $2 for children ages 6 to 17. Call (480) 983-4888 or visit www.superstitionmountainmuseum.org for more information.
Dinner And A Show
When you’re ready to enjoy great entertainment and delicious food, you’re in the right place in Mesa. Dinner theaters are booming here. The city has three “” each with a different style of high-quality entertainment.
The Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, seating 500, combines a full-scale buffet that changes with every show. Its standard theatrical fare is the Broadway musical, and shows are complete with a live orchestra. The Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre is in its fifth season, and reservations are a must, since 170,000 people come through each year. I have been to three shows there and have been delighted with the service, cuisine, and showmanship of the casts each time. And the food is gourmet quality, with four different entrees, pasta, a salad bar, an ice cream table, and a dessert buffet guaranteed to keep you content. The theater also offers lunch matinees. Call (480) 325-6700 or visit www.broadwaypalmwest.com for more information.
For a laid-back, country-western atmosphere, your choice is the Rockin’ R Ranch owned by Big Jim Robson, a fifth-generation descendant of the Robson family who settled Mesa, and his wife, Sweet Mary. This is the place that combines a chuck-wagon dinner with a 90-minute Western stage show. But that’s not all. You’ll enjoy an 1800s medicine show, gold panning, and horse-drawn wagon rides before dinner, plus a gunfight after the show. All of this is included for a very, very reasonable price. You also can wet your whistle at the Saddle and Spur Saloon, have your photo taken in an old-time photo studio, or purchase homemade ice cream at Sweet Mary’s Sweet Shop.
The buffet dinner features all-you-can-eat barbecued beef or chicken and fixin’s, served on tin plates. The show consists of the Rockin’ R Wranglers, composed of the Robson family and a two-time national Old-Time Fiddle champion. And just wait until you see Mary play the saw. Rockin’ R Ranch is open Thursday through Saturday. For times and reservations, contact Mary at (480) 832-1539, or visit the Web site: www.rockinr.net.
The third dinner theater delight in Mesa is the Barleens Arizona Opry Dinner Show in Apache Junction. Barleens combines a sit-down roast beef dinner with a two-hour show covering a variety of musical genres. Despite seating 500, the show almost always sells out, so reservations are a must.
The facility is operated by the Barleen family, which includes twins Barbara and Brenda, who got their start with their brother Jeff on the stages of Branson, Missouri. These three top-notch vocalists and musicians have another talented brother, Ben, who serves as chef. Barbara’s husband, George Staerkel, the show’s producer, was the lead voice of The Tokens for five years (The Tokens are famous for recording the hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in the 1960s) and has performed with such greats as Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman. He plays more than 40 instruments. Other musicians in the show also are superb.
The Arizona Opry show season runs from November through April, and five different shows are presented each season. November is a fall show, while Christmas shows run all through December. For the price, with dinner, show, tax, and gratuities all included, I’ve found it to be an unbeatable deal. Contact the Barleens Arizona Opry Dinner Theater at (480) 982-7991 or at www.azopry.com for information and reservations.
Mesa has plenty going for it by day and by night. Be sure to check out a museum and a good dinner theater the next time you’re in town “” whether to stay the winter, or just a week or so.
Mesa has many RV parks “” too many to list here. Please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
For more information about what to see and do in Mesa, as well as some accommodations info, contact:
Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau
120 N. Center
Mesa, AZ 85201