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Gary Martinson -Bison Homes
By Sid Hagel
Last week I had the privilege of interviewing Gary Martinson, owner of Bison Homes. The Bison Museum is a phenomenal tribute to Gary and his family. They have dedicated a huge amount of time, energy, and personal dedication to preserve the memory of the great American West Icon the American Bison. Grand memories captured by the likes of Fredrick Remington, Dee Flagg, and many others are available for the western enthusiasts to view at the Bison Museum. I enjoy the Buffalo Bill collection along with the collection of spoons, bottle caps and other Buffalo collectables in the museum. Each time I go into the museum I find a new corner to explore. Please allow me to thank Gary, his family, and employees for remembering the Old West, bringing it into the New West, and giving us access to the wonderful memories making this a part of Our West.
Interview with Gary Martison
WWG: I understand you grew up in North Dakota?
I grew up in West Oak on the Canadian Border (north of Minot) where I spent 18 years, through my childhood and high school years. I then spent 18 years in the Fargo area. I graduated from North Dakota State, which was the home of the Bison. So, I was there until about the early 80s, when I discovered Arizona. I said this was a great place to live.
WWG: Tell us about you and your family?
I got both my bachelors and masters degrees in economics in North Dakota and North Dakota State "the home of the Bison". Then I taught at a community college in North Dakota for some years in the late 60s and early 70s, until I discovered the fact that what I really wanted to do was build and develop real estate.
My father was an old Norwegian carpenter who taught us kids how to become carpenters so the transition was easy. I spent the early ‘70’s into the early ’80s being a builder developer in North Dakota. I started building here in the summer of 1980 and relocated to Arizona to continue the same thing, actually moving here in the summer of ’83. I have a son in his 30’s who runs my construction operation. He has the same passion for the building development business that my Dad had, and certainly, I have. My younger son who just graduated from high school is starting to get involved also.
My wife is very involved she is a phenomenal interior decorator who has decorated all of our models. We have another daughter involved with us in sales. It’s kind of a family affair here and my wife is a kind of a western personality.
WWG: Is your wife from Arizona?
She’s actually from New Mexico. But she relocated about the same time I relocated.
WWG: What turned you toward the old west?
I’ve always been a guy who watched all the old western movies over and over and over. So I’ve always collected western art work and western type stuff. When you represent the greatest icon in the world the American Bison you become part of the old west because they were certainly the biggest single factor in the old west. It’s also kind of cool because it brought the Native Americans into play because they worship the animal certainly more than we do.
WWG: How did that become part of the museum here?
Well I had always collected western and bison stuff since college years back in the ‘60’s and so a lot of people kept thinking of me as ‘Mister Bison’. So if they ever had anything they ever wanted to ever give or sell they would come to me and this collection just continued to grow. It wasn’t meant to be a museum. When we purchased this major piece of property in the White Mountains my wife said we had to name it Bison Ranch because that’s all you ever have around you is bison.
So that’s kind of how this collection was established. Then I decided I wanted to show all this stuff, all these artifacts, to the public and so we opened up this small museum in Bison Ranch about 8 years ago. But we kept accumulating things I thought people really wanted to see so we decided to move it to Scottsdale, to where there is a greater population. We expanded it from a couple thousand square feet to ten to twelve thousand square feet. So really I was never a collector and I was never an art enthusiast. I don’t know enough about it. A lot of people know a lot more about it. They can find a lot more appreciation in a lot of the things that we have at the museum than I can, because they understand it. It’s been a fun pursuit through the years.
WWG: What is your most favorite era? I probably like the mid 1800s or probably the 1860s the 1870s. But character wise the guy I always loved to follow was Buffalo Bill Cody. And I followed all the Wild West figures and I know he wasn’t Wyatt Earp or Jesse James but he was such a western showman and he was Buffalo Bill and he was such a cool guy with what he was able to accomplish as an individual. All his trips overseas to Australia. He was a cowboy, he was a Buffalo hunter, and he worked for the Army and he just had so much diversity in his life more so than any other character.
WWG: The Bison brand that you use is that because you were a "Bison" (North Dakota’s nickname) in college or was the idea before that? It was because I was a Bison in college. And being around it mostly, it wasn’t until many years later that I find out that this American icon is worshiped all over the world. It’s like I feel grateful I was able even use the name because of how respected this particular animal is. You know every country practically puts them on a stamp on a coin or on something to represent that image. You should see around here with all the things that people put on from plates, to cigars, beer bottles, coins, to stamps. Some 30,000 of those items (Bison memorabilia) are up in the museum.
WWG: What is the relationship between the Bison Museum and the Flagg Family? It’s kind of coincidental about a year and a half ago when I was in the process of setting up the museum I got a call from a lady who wanted me to speak with her ex-husband about this Flagg family art collection that he had acquired. Many people are familiar with where he bought it for very little and yet he spent years trying to defend himself from lawsuits and such So anyway she said get a hold of this gentleman his name is Neal King. Talk to him about what to do with this collection, and I did. I had known Neal and once I saw what the collection was, it just said bison to me, because again, it was all western and it was all Native American. As a cowboy I think you can’t take pride in the bison like the Indians can. When I saw all the Indian arts of seven, mom dad and the five kids, (realizing) they must have respected the Native Americans and Indians. I said we’ve got to figure out a way for the Bison Museum to bring this in house. So we ended up purchasing the family collection and I thought it was a great addition to the whole museum for sure.
I have a gentleman who viewed the museum here about four or five months ago his name is Lou Grubb and I obviously know him. Lou Grubb came by on his own, to see this western museum. I, fortunately, was here and I was able to tour him through the museum. Lou came back days later and presented the museum with a phenomenal piece of art that was actually painted by James Flagg and wood carved frame by Dee Flagg that’s just priceless. That was like six months ago. About two three months ago he called and made some very substantial contributions to the museum, some mega art wood carvings by Dee Flagg that were 50 years old. Mr. Grubb was a friend of Dee Flagg back in the 50s and 60s, so he bought a lot of his work. But Lou has been a very gracious man with what he has contributed without anybody wanting to say thanks.
WWG: How did Dances with Wolves become part of the museum? The movie,‘Dances with Wolves’ was filmed in South Dakota and the gentleman who owned the Buffalo Museum of America, lives here in Scottsdale. He had the Museum as part of his insurance office. We acquired his entire lifelong collection. He knew some of the folks from South Dakota and went back there and purchased one of the original Bison props from Dances with Wolves so that’s really how that came about. Jimmy and Flach Baker are from South Dakota. They had a big time passion for the American Bison and Buffalo as well.
WWG: Do you have any relationship at all with the Buffalo Bill Museum in Colorado? Nope. We have not. I visited once. There may be some value someday to that. I know that there have been a lot of discussions from folks in Scottsdale about what they tried to put together in a joint venture or something with Buffalo Bill Museum.
WWG: What is your projection of the Bison Museum and the whole Bison organization? What’s your plan for the future?
They’re kind of going in different directions. Bison Homes continues with the opportunity to develop a western theme destination which a museum like this could expand into. It really needs to have a different a larger presence a part of hospitality, a part of a destination facility. I think I will continue to work with the folks in the community and that’s the one great thing about being in Scottsdale. When you talk the west, Scottsdale people will listen so we’re going to work hard on being part of a western destination world with the Bison Museum.
© 2008 Wild West Gazette
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