A former journalist finds her niche as a research assistant for Bullion Plaza Museum
Lee Ann Powers’ desk is littered with stacks of papers and books. On the wall, there’s a corkboard cluttered with notices and what look like to-do lists, one on top of the other so it’s impossible to know. Sticky notes appear to track personal requests, reminders about upcoming museum events, and a price quote for t-shirts the museum might purchase.
She pulls open desk drawers full of reels of microfilm on loan from the Arizona Silver Belt, which she is digitizing. A computer monitor hooked to the microfilm reader towers above her. As each page of the microfilm comes into view, Lee Ann adjusts the parameters to fit the screen and lightens the page to clean up the muddiness – a result of age. Then, pausing, she scans the page for items of interest before capturing the image and moving on to the next.
Lee Ann works at the Bullion Plaza Museum and Cultural Center as a research assistant, spending most of her time digitizing old copies of local newspapers – the Arizona Silver Belt and Arizona Record.
Her part-time position was initially established through a grant from Freeport-McMoRan, which also paid for the digitizing equipment and library room she uses. After the initial grant ran out, the museum found other grants and funding sources to keep her position.
Some of her work stems from requests. Local residents come to her for help, such as a man interested in local aviation history and a woman writing a book on the Chinese. Lee Ann will keep her eye out for articles on specific topics, and she maintains a folder for each. Then she forwards the clippings to the interested parties.
When the Miami Rotary was preparing to celebrate their 100th anniversary, they asked Lee Ann to look through newspapers dating back to 1921 and pull all the clippings she could find relating to the club.
She filled four three-ring binders with clippings on their behalf.
“I wish I was able to do more for those celebrating a 50th or 100th year anniversary,” she says, but many times she learns about events like these only after seeing them on Facebook.
Lee Ann herself is now celebrating her ten-year anniversary with the museum. Powers has singlehandedly digitized most of the Arizona Record, a leading newspaper whose heyday was in the first part of the nineteenth century. And she’s digitized decades’ worth of the Arizona Silver Belt, which has been in publication since 1879.
In the past, these local newspapers archived their issues on microfilm reels, which were then kept in oft-times dusty boxes in poorly lit storerooms. These reels were loaned out to anyone who asked, many times without even a signature to track who had borrowed them. But after it became apparent that not everyone was diligent at returning them, the practice was dropped. Today, only trusted researchers get access.
She says most of the research requests she receives focus on the 1940s or 1960s. But some of these are the very years that are missing in the archives.
“The years that people want now,” says Powers, “like 1963, 1969, we don’t have at all. And the early part of 1912 is completely missing. That was the year Arizona became a state. Even the Arizona State Library Archives do not have these Silver Belt issues in their files.”
“So it’s important to take what we have, in the condition it’s in, and preserve what we can before it’s lost for good.”
When the museum first purchased the digitizing equipment, it was thought the process would be more automatic than it has proven to be. Powers laughs, “We thought we could just load the microfilm and the equipment would do the rest.”
Instead, she’s found that a good deal of tweaking is needed to get pages lined up properly. Powers also makes enhancements, like lightening a page to make it more readable.
For Lee Ann, spending the extra time has a silver lining.
Powers often ends up reading the headlines or being drawn into a story that connects to another topic she’s researching for the museum or others. Or she finds a snippet of history she feels is worth sharing. She has dozens of folders with clippings, spanning decades, with labels like “Films Made Here,” “Pancho Villa,” or “Jewish Community.” She even keeps separate folders for articles about jail deaths and jail escapes. “It’s like a library of clippings,” she says.
Sometimes, her work leads to bigger projects. While reading about the victory gardens in Miami during the war years of 1917 and 1918, she came across an article about the Miami Women’s Club, which had taken on the task of raising funds for a “War Garden Canning Kitchen.” The effort raised enough funds to also publish a cookbook. When Lee Ann reached out to the community on Facebook to see if anyone still had a copy, a woman came forward who still had her family’s copy. Powers was able to get the copy reprinted, and it’s now available in the museum’s gift shop.
She followed a similar process when she ran across a feature story on the ways Christmas was celebrated by the many immigrant families who called Miami home. “I was amazed to find that we had people here from over 30 countries,” says Powers. Titled “Miami: The Great Melting Pot of the Nation,” it contains short descriptions of Christmas celebrations from Denmark, Canada, Ireland, and many other places around the world and was initially published in the Daily Arizona Silver Belt on December 15, 1920. Lee Ann republished the article as a booklet, with cover art by Patty Sjolin, and it too is available at Bullion Plaza Museum.
Her current project involves gathering the history of buildings lining Miami’s business district—the makings for a book. The significance of these buildings is undeniable when their history is revealed. Most have existed since the heyday of mining in the first part of the nineteenth century, which brought monied interests and architectural talent to Miami’s downtown district. Many of Miami’s buildings on Sullivan Street represent some of the best work of the day from well-known architects like Henry Trost of El Paso and Henry Jaastad of Tucson.
While Powers originally undertook the project at the behest of several Miami merchants, curious to know more about their own buildings, the book project promises to offer an important historical record of value to the community.
Lee Ann’s work as a researcher and digitizer also benefits the website Find A Grave and Globe’s annual Cemetery Tour, which takes place each spring.
What began with her signing up to take pictures of grave markers as a volunteer for findagrave.com—an online database of cemeteries—has evolved into another way to tell the stories of those who are buried there by including biographies, interviews, and obituaries she finds in the newspapers while digitizing them.
“It became very important for me to give those people a voice,” Lee Ann says. She works with volunteer Wanda Rackoczy who transcribe the obituaries that Lee Ann sends to her and incorporates them into the findagrave.com memorials. Over the years, Powers has uncovered a treasure trove of previously unknown and unsung tales of Globe and Miami residents that she has brought to light … and to life.
In the same vein, she has been instrumental in the success of the popular Globe Cemetery Tour, now in its tenth year, which attracts hundreds of visitors each spring. The event, put on by the Copper Cities Community Players each year, involves actors portraying people who lived and died here. Powers provides dozens of stories she has gleaned from obituaries and news accounts for the Players to consider, and only 10 to 12 are then chosen for development into a script what an actor will perform.
“We try to keep the tour fresh by doing new stories each year,” Powers says.
As we were going to press, the naming of the old Silver King stairs was on her mind.
The City has purchased the property in downtown Globe that housed the remnants of a business known as the Silver King (a furniture store) before it was vacated in the 1980s.
The City plans to tear down the remains of the building for much-needed parking in the downtown area and has partnered with I ART GLOBE to repair and re-enliven a set of stairs dating back to the early 1900s at the back of the property.
The hope is to create a set of urban hikes that link a series of historic stairs throughout Globe like this one.
Powers believes that the name Silver King hardly seems fitting and lacks much historical punch for a downtown property and set of stairs that date back well over 100 years. But the question of what to name it remains.
True to form, she has done extensive research on the site, which dates back to Pascoe Stables and later the Barclay and Higdon Livery Stables. As always, Powers is working to bring back history to add context and complement community projects like this one.
And lobbying the community not to forget our rich history.
I ART GLOBE has set up a post on their Facebook page to hear from the community on this issue. You can see Powers’ suggestions, along with others, and submit your ideas. The City and I ART GLOBE plan on a big reveal of the stair project and will announce the name chosen on April 2 during this year’s Poppy Fest, so stay tuned.
Looking around Lee Ann Powers’ office, you get the impression of a woman who’s passionate about her work, busy with a dozen projects, and enjoying every bit of it. She’s one of the unsung heroes who are making Globe-Miami a better place and ensuring its history is preserved and appreciated.
Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.