The recent grand opening of the Bison Museum in Scottsdale actually marks the return of the museum to its city of origin. Several years ago the museum basically started out as little more than a simple assortment of trinkets and keepsakes gathered on a wall shelf behind an office desk.
It was the late 1970’s, and Gemmie Baker had recently moved his family to Scottsdale from South Dakota. An insurance salesman by trade, Baker soon opened an office at the southeast corner of Scottsdale and Shea Roads.
Shortly thereafter a small collection of memorabilia, primarily bison and Western oriented items, took shape on a wall shelf in Gemmie’s office. The grouping served as a nice conversation starter with clients, and helped ease occasional homesickness.
But the items also served as a crude foundation for what would become a full-fledged museum. Over the years the shelf display grew to occupy an entire wall, then a room, then most of his offices. Eventually a separate building sufficient to house the burgeoning collection was needed.
In 1992, it finally became official when Gemmie Baker opened the Buffalo Museum of America at that same corner of Scottsdale and Shea where it all began about 15 years earlier. Scottsdale artist, Dee Flagg, was a guest of honor at the grand opening. During the 1980’s, Baker had purchased Flagg’s life-sized wood carved figures of Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, Jessie James and others, along with several of Flagg’s wood relief carvings, all of which had become a focal point of the museum. Coincidentally, the Flagg family collection would figure prominently in the museum’s return to Scottsdale years later.
The museum flourished throughout the decade, but by the late 1990’s Gemmie Baker was ready for other challenges. He had heard of a new Western themed development called Bison Ranch about to open in the Heber/Overgaard area. The Ranch was owned by a fellow Midwestern transplant named Gary Martinson, a North Dakota native who had been building homes in Arizona since the early 1980’s. Gemmie felt the Ranch was the perfect setting for his unique collection, so he contacted Martinson.
They worked on a deal, and in 2000 Martinson purchased the Buffalo Museum of America from Gemmie Baker. Gary then moved the museum to Bison Ranch and added his own bison and western collection to the mix. There the museum stayed for the next seven years, anchoring the Ranch’s Bisontown, a replica 1880’s western town front.
As Martinson recollects, everything just seemed to fall into place. “The timing couldn’t have been better” Gary says. “We were about to open Bison Ranch when I first met Gemmie. “Coming from North Dakota I had always been intrigued by the bison,” states Martinson. “With the Ranch being our first Bison project, I thought what better way to tell someone who we are than to surround ourselves with all things bison. What better way than the museum.
“Plus, Gemmie really wanted the collection to remain intact,” Gary recalls. “He had such a passion for the bison. What I really admired about Gemmie is that he got such a thrill out of having an opportunity in his life to collect and preserve so many things bison.”
And so important did the bison image become to Martinson that he soon changed the name of his company from Mirage Homes to Bison Homes.
When Martinson relocated his company’s corporate offices from Fountain Hills to Scottsdale this past June, he decided the time was right to bring the Buffalo Museum of America back to its original home, and rename it the Bison Museum. A major factor in that decision was the fact that Gary had recently purchased the Flagg family’s personal collection that until 2003 had been under wraps in a storage facility for many years. The Flaggs, considered by many to be Scottsdale’s “First Family” of Western artists, had been an integral part of Scottsdale and its art scene beginning in the early 1950’s.
Martinson added hundreds of Flagg family items to those Dee Flagg carvings collected years earlier by Gemmie Baker. As for the overall inventory of the museum, it now consists of thousands of pieces, and is touted as Arizona’s premier bison and Western collection, as well as one of the finest such gatherings in the country.
Gemmie Baker passed away in 2006. But his legacy is carried on by his son, Kim Baker. Kim has worked for Bison Homes as a consultant for the past few years and was an integral part of the relocation of the museum to its new Scottsdale home. In addition, he contributes his skills to the animatronics exhibits and several other displays at the museum.
“What started out as my father’s private collection has grown to something that even he could not have imagined,” says Kim. “I only wish he was here today to see the end results of everyone’s efforts in bringing the Bison Museum to its present state. The Bison Museum is a work of love and devotion that started with my father and has continued to be nurtured and grown by Gary and others at Bison Homes. The end result is truly a collection that will continue to grow and live on for many years to come.”
© 2008 Wild West Gazette
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