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Cowboy strikes a historical note: Storyteller and novelist, he keeps Old West alive
By Anne Ryman   - 02/10/2008

The Arizona Republic

Arizona's official historian, Marshall Trimble, cradles a six-string guitar and faces his audience.

The fourth-graders sit clustered around tables in the school library.

For many people, the thought of entertaining elementary-school children ranks up there with going to the dentist and paying taxes. Not for Trimble: He may have written 23 books, but his favorite place is behind a microphone.

At 69, Trimble finds himself the busiest he has ever been and making a better living than he did at 50. In that sense, he's like Arizona, which turns 96 Thursday and is still evolving.

Trimble is an industry unto himself: teacher, cowboy singer, storyteller, humorist, author - all of which combine to make him the state's most colorful and prominent historian.

This year, he has three new Western-themed books coming out. He writes a popular column, "Ask the Marshall," for True West magazine in which he answers questions about everything from Western movies to whether Old West towns had public outhouses. (They did, and they were far from pretty.)

He directs the Southwest Studies program at Scottsdale Community College, and as state historian, he takes hundreds of calls and e-mails about Arizona each year, some of them from overseas. Amid all this, he performs as many as four shows a week at elementary schools and on the banquet-convention circuit. He expects the next few years to be among his busiest ever as the state gets closer to its 2012 centennial celebration.

Born in Mesa and reared in tiny Ash Fork, Trimble took a meandering path to becoming an expert on Arizona history. His journey speaks to the value of finding what you love and sticking to it.

The turning point

In the late 1960s, Trimble was, in his own words, "totally lost." He had a failed marriage, his musical folk group had disbanded, and he had tried two or three business ventures that went south.

Desperate for a change, the 29-year-old followed his younger brother, Dan, to work on a Montana cattle ranch.

On their way back from driving cattle into Miles City that fall, snow forced them to turn south. They stumbled into a town called Hardin, checked into a motel and looked for a bar. Instead, they found a museum devoted to the legendary George Armstrong Custer. A little old lady inside turned out to be a living history on the U.S. Army commander's life.

The brothers found her enthusiasm infectious. When she suggested they stop by the nearby site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, they decided to follow her advice.

The next morning, clouds blanketed the sky. Rain and sleet kept other tourists away.

The brothers wandered off in different directions. Marshall found himself alone at the site of Custer's Last Stand. In 1876, Custer and the Seventh Calvary died while trying to mount a surprise attack against the Lakota Chief Sitting Bull. Hundreds of white crosses marked the spots where the dead fell. The eerie, silent scene fascinated Marshall.

He left the battlefield with a new purpose. He wanted to learn more about Western history and teach the subject.

The next August, in 1969, he walked into Scottsdale's Coronado High School wearing a cowboy hat, jeans and boots and got hired to teach American history.

He loved teaching and tried to make class fun. To keep his students' interest, he wove stories about Arizona miners and lost treasures into the required curriculum of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

Within two years, school officials decided to offer an optional class in Southwest history, provided at least 35 students enrolled. Three hundred and fifty signed up.

His job at Coronado led to teaching the same subject at Scottsdale Community College, and for several years he taught high school during the day and college classes at night.
Growing reputation
While teaching at the college in the mid-1970s, one of his students suggested he write a book. The class textbook "isn't as much fun as listening to you," she told him.

Trimble saw one little problem: He had no experience writing.

Undaunted, he pulled out his old Royal typewriter and wrote late into the night. To help the words flow, he pictured his college class in front of him.

The technique lent a conversational tone to his first book, Arizona: A Panoramic History of a Frontier State. After the University of Arizona Press rejected the book, saying it wasn't scholarly enough, the owner of a Scottsdale bookstore gave a copy to a representative of the publisher Doubleday & Co. Six weeks later, Trimble got a call. Doubleday wanted to publish it.

"My life started when that book came out," Trimble said. "I finally succeeded at something I never dreamed would happen."

As his reputation grew, he wrote more books and got speaking requests.

He wanted to do more than talk, so he brought his guitar. He told a story, then sang an Old West song and soon developed shows with Arizona trivia thrown in. He hired a manager and started to make more money with his outside pursuits than he did as a teacher.

Yet the storytelling he honed as a teacher led to his success with crowds.

"Marshall really has a strange effect on audiences," said Dolan Ellis, Arizona's official state balladeer, who sometimes performs on the same bill. "I think it's his authenticity. Marshall just is who he is. He has a great sense of humor, and that humor comes out of his soul."

Trimble knows more than 500 stories by heart. He approaches each show as a new one, and no two have the same format.

Shows for veterans emphasize patriotism. Shows for tourists highlight Arizona trivia and oddities. For example, the famous Gunfight at O.K. Corral never took place there. The gunbattle broke out in a vacant lot with the name of Lot 2, Block 17, a few feet behind the Tombstone corral. Trimble includes these surprises in every show.

His favorite moment happens when he sees two people look at each other, often a husband and a wife, and one of them mouths, "I didn't know that."

Fourth-grader Wyatt Ortega, who saw Trimble perform in December, summed up his show this way: "I bet he's done this before because he's very good with crowds."

His popularity led to more writing opportunities. True West magazine Executive Editor Bob Boze Bell brought in Trimble to revitalize the Arizona-based publication in 2000. He remains the magazine's most popular columnist.

"He can answer the stupidest question, the most off-the-wall question and impart some history and makes you laugh," Bell said. "I don't know how he does it, but he does it in a paragraph."
What's next
At Scottsdale Community College, Trimble directs a series of courses from archeology to literature to history as part of the Southwest Studies program.

His demeanor contrasts with typical college professors. He speaks in a folksy drawl and favors jeans, polished cowboy boots and turtleneck shirts.

Western paintings, awards and photos of him with various Arizona governors line his office walls. His bookshelf features a treasure trove of popular Western characters. File cabinets filled with newspaper clippings cover one entire wall.

"If I die on the job, somebody is going to come in here and they're going to just cuss me out, whoever has to go through this stuff," he says.

The collection has proved useful this past year, as he wrote his first book in eight years, plus two more. The first covers a history of Ash Fork, the town he grew up in north of Chino Valley. He also completed a book for Golden West Publishers about famous gunfighters called Day of the Gun. True West magazine plans to publish a collection of his "Ask the Marshall" columns in a book. Trimble plans to continue to write, entertain and answer history questions as long as he can.

"They are going to drag me kicking and screaming into senility," he said.




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