The Gift of the Past with Marshall Trimble
In the early 1850s, a young man named John Mackey was chasing a dream. He’d left his hardscrabble roots as an Irish immigrant in New York, where his father died early on and his mother struggled to survive. He dropped out of school at an early age, apprenticed as a shipwright and sailed off to California. As with many of his contemporaries, it was tales of gold that lured Mackey. He had an insatiable wanderlust in his early days, and a yearning for excitement and riches that drove him to toil away long hours in mines for a pittance.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Mackay was thrifty with his earnings. He was also smart and honest. His hard work and sound judgment earned him respect and positions of authority. By 1866, at the age of 35, he took on a partner and bought his own “rat hole” mine. It wasn’t fancy, and it was a big gamble, but the two managed to pull out over $3 million in ore in three years. He invested in more mining rights, and a few years later, in 1873, he and three partners hit the “Big Bonanza” – the mother lode of silver – making him one of the richest men on earth.
Mackay never forgot his humble beginnings in spite of his tremendous wealth and fame. He was generous with charity, and he dressed as a common miner to visit his employees every day. He boxed with the miners, and he became known for rolling up his sleeves, always ready for work.
Today, Arizona’s Official State Historian Marshall Trimble is a whole lot like Mackey, one of his favorite characters in Western American history. In his office at Scottsdale Community College, Trimble is surrounded by books and mementos from decades of teaching, sharing, and instilling a sense of tradition in fellow Southwesterners.
Like Mackey, he still wears the look of someone whose brand of wholesome was born when the word “entitled” had everything to do with what a book was called and nothing to do with human beings. From beneath a black Stetson, he smiles almost shyly, even though this is the territory in which he’s staked his claim for almost 40 years.
Marshall Trimble has been writing his own history for nearly as long as he can remember. He’s been called the “Will Rogers of Arizona,” in the lecture circuit, spinning yarns of days gone by, often toting along his guitar to incorporate the sounds of folk artistry into the tales he tells.
For years, people tuned in to “Trimble’s Tales” on the radio to listen to these stories and learn the history behind places they frequented. He nearly single-handedly helped Arizonans develop self-awareness about who we are as a people, and an appreciation for where we live.
From True West magazine to any of the 20+ books he’s authored, Trimble has brought history into our classrooms, libraries and living rooms since 1977. It’s no wonder former Governor Fife Symington named him Official State Historian in 1997 and he was dubbed a “Local Legacy” by the Library of Congress in 2000.
He earned a smattering of other titles and honors, too, including the Copper Star Award, the Scottsdale Jaycees’ Distinguished Service Award, Charter Membership to the Arizona Culturekeepers, the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Medal of Honor, and induction into both the Scottsdale Hall of Fame and the Arizona Veterans’ Hall of Fame, to name a few. He also earned a regional Emmy for hosting the television show “Arizona Backroads.”
With all of his success, one might think Trimble would have a bit more swagger. But instead, he remains true to his humble beginnings.
Born in Mesa in 1939, Trimble’s dad was a cattleman for a few years, leasing places here and there and living with relatives on the occasion. He’d met Trimble’s mother while on horseback and swept her, quite literally, off her feet, even though Trimble says she could have chosen a simpler life. “You know women,” he laughs. “They always seem to go for the ones that are harder to tame.”
When Trimble was eight years old, his father sold the cattle and moved to tiny Ash Fork where he took on a job with the railroad. It took eight days for the family to get to the town; the car kept breaking down.
His father managed to plunk down the sum of his earnings on a second-hand trailer, where little Marshall grew up monitoring the comings and goings along Route 66. “That road went to exotic places, like Holbrook,” Trimble says with a smile in his eyes. “It was the only culture we had.”
In his early teens, he began working at a local gas station, pumping gas for people heading to California in search of work. Folks were suffering, and young Marshall saw some of the worst of it. “People were just trying to make it from one gas station to the next,” he recalls. “I gave away gas on more than one occasion because I knew what it was like to worry like that, and heck, it was only about $3 for a full tank.”
Trimble’s mother struggled to keep it all together. With three living sons (a fourth died in infancy), she was on her own more often than not. She took a job as a waitress, but as busy as she was, she instilled a strong set of Southern Baptist values in her boys.
Trimble’s world changed drastically when, at 16, the family was uprooted and moved again to Phoenix. The railroad now bypassed Ash Fork, and so did I-40, eventually. Like his early memories, the town of Ash Fork slowly faded.
Phoenix was a shock of culture for Trimble and his brothers. Coming from a school with a total population of 30, his new school, West Phoenix High School, had 3,000 students. “It took me years to get past the shock,” he now says. “Among other things, I was scared to death talking to girls. I used to write things down on my hand … conversation pieces I thought they might like. I never thought I’d be working from behind a microphone one day!”
He went to Phoenix College and ASU, and then did a stint in the United States Marine Corps, a time he now calls one of the most meaningful in his life. He came home and traveled with a folk group in 1963, the same year Kennedy was assassinated and Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary shared airwaves with the British Invasion.
“I was starving to death teaching school, and we kind of did it on the side,” he says of his early musical roots. “We did gigs in the Sierra Nevadas and Springerville, and as I started to learn about things that had happened in those places, I wondered why they weren’t teaching us those things in history class. American history is fascinating.”
He learned more Western history through immersion in places like Miles City, Montana and in cowboy bars up and down cattle trails, and his fascination grew. One day, he walked into Coronado High School and said, “I want to teach history.” That was good enough for administration, and the rest, as they say, really is history.
With guitar in hand, Trimble became one of the most popular teachers in school, sharing history in a folksy musical language Vietnam-era students could understand. Scottsdale Community College recruited him with similar success, and his life has been full of teaching – and learning – ever since.
Never once has he forgotten his roots. And never once has he taken for granted the opportunities he has been given. “I never planned any of it,” he says. “One thing fell into place after another, and I am just grateful it worked out.”
In 2007, the Arizona Office of Tourism honored Trimble with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his dedication to Arizona history. In 2008 he was the recipient of the first Spirit of the West award, and in 2010 he received the Wild West History Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He was inducted into the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame in February 2011. He is still receiving awards for his work and commitment to sharing our colorful past.
Like his hero Mackey, the awards don’t really matter to Trimble. His wife Vanessa, his son, a West Point graduate, and two grandchildren are the pride of his life, and following his passion, not for the rewards but for the joy in it, has been his goal all along.
“History is fascinating. The ranchers, lawmen, even sports figures of the past paved the way for what we have today. We should never forget the past,” he says.
Trimble will be the featured speaker at Cartwright’s Sonoran Ranch House, 6710 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, August 28, September 11, and October 9, sharing stories and music at Arizona History Dinners events. Cocktails begin at 5 p.m.; dinner is served at 6 p.m. sharp. The presentation begins at 7 p.m. Cost is $55 per person for presentation, live music and three-course dinner, plus sales tax and 18 percent gratuity. Reservations are required.