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He goes where Buffalo Park's history roams
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He goes where Buffalo Park's history roams

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Do not get John Parsons started. This is fair warning. Ask one question, you get a dissertation. Entertaining, sure. But exhausting. He has facts and figures, official documents and personal anecdotes, archival photos and vintage postcards — and he’s not shy in sharing.

The latest object of Parsons’ obsession — and there have been many over the years for this amateur, but exceedingly thorough, historian — is Flagstaff’s Buffalo Park, widely seen today as a jewel of the city but with a wild and woolly past featuring rampaging bison, rapacious developers, impassioned conservation activists and, now, elite runners from the world trotting on the same trails where buffalo shipped in from Yellowstone once roamed.

Parsons, 72, and retired after a varied and colorful career as a Grand Canyon River Guide, activist in the natural resources conservation field, weekly newspaper publisher and dirtbag kayaker, has channeled his abiding affection for Buffalo Park into a blog, called simply “Buffalo Park References” (fbpref.blogspot.com).

There, he unearths and shares fascinating historical nuggets about the evolution of Buffalo Park from a weirdly-imagined wildlife amusement park in the mid-1960s, to the tumultuous era in the 1980s when people sought to run a paved highway through the grounds, to what it is today: a beloved open space used by locals walking dogs, running laps, gazing at the stars, posing for engagement or high-school senior photos, or peacefully sitting and staring at the looming mountain range.

His motivation? Well, does there really have to be an urgent one? Isn’t it enough that Buffalo Park exists, thrives and is protected from development and deprivation? So why shouldn’t it be feted by a man who vows eternal fealty to this land? But Buffalo Park's evolution, in Parsons’ estimation, is in need of documentation, if only to clue in newcomers to Flagstaff who may not be aware of its colorful past.

“It was that way when I moved to Flagstaff in late 1980,” Parsons said. “I'd asked people. ‘So, what's the history of Buffalo Park?’ And they would give me this totally blank stare and then turn away without answering. Nobody knew. Nobody cared. And, yes, that's a primary motivation of my Buffalo Park Project.

“You see, this just isn't the blog. That blog is a placeholder for what I find. I want Flagstaffians to be able to rightfully celebrate an outrageous park history."

Parsons, interestingly, hasn’t lived in Flagstaff in decades, having decamped to family property in the Verde Valley, near Rimrock. But he has never forgotten the decade, roughly all of the 1980s, he spent in Flagstaff and, now, in retirement, is recapitulating the wild twists and turns that the huge hunk of land on McMillan mesa has experienced. And, yes, Parsons sees Buffalo Park as a living, breathing entity, the embodiment of Flagstaff.

“Buffalo Park where was I would go to heal my spirit and get over the everyday slings and arrows of ordinary personal punishment,” Parsons said. “Buffalo Park was where I went to release that negative energy and feel alive again. I could walk around Buffalo Park and feel recharged. I cherished that place and I still do."

If it seems Parsons speaks in full paragraphs, it’s probably because he does. But also, because he says he’s now “essentially deaf as a box of rocks,” he wanted to communicate via email.

But even limited to the written word, Parsons’ enthusiasm for his subject matter seeps through. He is whip smart and funny and thorough — oh, he’s nothing if not thorough. And, now retired, he has the time to “go down the rabbit holes,” as he calls his delving into historical data and artifacts.

Perhaps there’s no one better suited to document the larger-than-life history of Buffalo Park than a man who comes off as larger-than-life himself. In the Verde Valley, Parsons is called “Mr. Verde River” for his efforts to spur political leaders to clean up and, essentially, save the area’s iconic body of water after decades of degradation. A 40-acre riverside park is named in his honor.

Now turning his attention back to Flagstaff, Parsons is attempting to cobble together something of an oral history, buttressed by historical data and photos, of the park he so loves. He likes to say that the oft-wacky story of Buffalo Park would make a good TV sit-com but, really, it’s more like a big-screen saga — part Marx Brothers slapstick, part Coen Brothers quirkiness.

He focuses most on two essential periods: the wildlife amusement park experiment (roughly 1964-70) and the political battle royal in 1986 about stopping a plan to build a highway through the park to ease traffic. Both eras are well-known to longtime locals but, as Parsons is quick to note, those old-timers are dwindling and people need reminding.

Arguably, the opening of the wildlife amusement park may be the most bizarre happening in a town one might say where the unusual is commonplace. It was a Big Idea, the brainchild of a business impresario named John M. Potter, known in town as “Buffalo Jim.”

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The thinking: Since the Grand Canyon, major tourists draw, was 75 miles away but many visitors chose to stay in Flagstaff, why not give them a taste of the great outdoors closer to home? Plans were drawn up. The mayor and city council got on board. Public-private matching funds piled up. Hollywood types, shooting a Western 30 miles west, were enlisted to design the specs that included recreations of Old West cabins and blacksmithing, a Navajo Hogan, wagon and carriage rides, a man-made lake stocked with all sorts of fowl and, everywhere, roaming bison, elk and other assorted critters not native to the Colorado Plateau — but who really cared?

Among the artifacts Parson has posted include the original inventory of expenses. Did you know the buffalo statue out front cost $800 in 1964, a pricey item back then? Or that the expenditure for the menagerie totaled $10,593 and included five bison, seven elk, 47 deer, four antelope, four pigs, 47 sheep, 30 rabbits and an unknown number of fowl, from geese to chuckars, to populate the lake?

Oh, did you know there once was a man-made lake smack dab in the middle of Buffalo Park? Parsons has photos culled from the NAU history archive and the Daily Sun digital morgue. He also scoured the internet and bought a vintage aerial postcard of the park that shows the lake like a doughnut, surrounded by forts and a chain-link fence and grassy knolls that now have returned to scrub land.

“The lake was arguably one of the more hilarious, far-fetched features of this strange historical footnote,” Parsons said. “The organizers somehow got the city to buy-in on the project to the point where they ran a pretty significant water line there and pumped enough water to keep that ginormous little duck pond filled. It’s crazy.”

Plans for the lake, and other amenities, were drawn up by Bill Campbell, an art director for Warner Brothers who happened to be in town shooting the Western. As Parsons details in the blog, through old stories in the Daily Sun and memos preserved in city records, city leaders, including Mayor Rollin Wheeler, originally were gung-ho about the project. Daily Sun publisher Platt Cline, too, was an early supporter.

But after the amusement park got up and running, attitudes changed. People marveled at the bison — until the beasts started wandering off into neighborhoods and grazing on people’s grass. They found kitschy the stagecoach rides, until a team of horses got spooked by bison and bolted, crashing into to a tree. (Parson posts a funny first-person account from then-8-year-old Randy Cowan, with a photo). They liked that celebrities would occasionally pay visits, like TV’s “Mr. Ed,” the sitcom horse.

But occasional brushes with fame and notoriety didn’t prevent the park from sinking into debt and, after a scant four years, becoming a little ramshackle. That chain link border fence? It couldn’t harness the bison, which kept escaping and roaming the streets. One time, a police officer tried to wrangle the bison with his car, which the bison badly damaged.

Eventually, the city council soured on the amusement park and, due to financial problems, helped hasten its closure. Thus began a long, amusing (in retrospect, not at the time) saga of getting all the animals out of the park. Years later, after public opinion turned, Wheeler and Cline wrote somewhat revisionist histories downplaying the roles the city and chamber of commerce played.

“Both Wheeler and Cline were all-in in the early phase and, well, history happens,” Parson said. “To those who survive, history happens according to them.”

Parsons, on the blog, doesn’t make too many value judgments about political motives for the park; he just presents the archived material and lets others do the talking. He has been stymied, though, in developing the motives of Potter, aka, “Buffalo Jim.”

“I’ve posted on Flagstaff, Phoenix and Arizona history groups, trying to find descendants of Buffalo Jim,” Parsons said. “I didn't feel it's fair to do the story without hearing from (his) family members. Maybe they better know Buffalo Jim’s motivations. There's just got to be some reason why the guy was so into Buffalo.”

Far more straight-forward is the rancorous 1986 voter initiative that conservation groups — including a hearty band of Flagstaff runners — placed on the ballot to preserve the park and stop the development of a parkway meant to mitigate traffic. As noted on the blog, through dueling newspaper op-eds and stories, advertisements and billboards, the issue became heated. Parsons was living in Flagstaff then and supported protecting the park, but he claims no credit for the passage of the initiative.

“Without the runners, Buffalo Park as we know it today simply wouldn’t exist,” he said. “The runners were and remain the guardians of the park.”

And Parsons remains guardian of Buffalo Park’s history. It’s a rabbit hole he’s gone down time and again. And the old amusement park never ceases to be a source of amusement for him.

“Sometimes when I start studying various aspects of the story I have to stop because I am laughing so hard,” he said. “It's almost like a weird TV sitcom or something.”

And, no doubt, Parsons could be one of the characters.

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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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