Buckhorn Mineral Baths and Wildlife Museum - Closed
Spring and spring training mean boom times for many little scrub towns around Phoenix, like Peoria and Surprise. These outposts in the hot desert flat recently have made deals with major league teams to train in newly built facilities, hoping to attract snowbirds and retirees.
But some places have been catering to the spring training set since the Cactus League first started more than 50 years ago. And for 25 of those years, the New York (later San Francisco) Giants roomed at the Buckhorn Mineral Baths, a classic roadside stop in Mesa. Their manager, Leo Durocher, loved the place. A silver tray presented by the 1952 team still rests in the museum. But the Valley Of The Sun's success in drawing new residents is at the same time making life precarious for The Buckhorn.
The Buckhorn Mineral Baths opened in 1939, drawing those with arthritis and kindred ailments to their hot springs, famous for odorless water infused with potassium, silica, magnesium and iron. An old style motel with individual kitchenettes and covered carports followed.
Ted and Alice Sliger ran the place. Ted was a taxidermist and sportsman, and the lodge gradually filled with trophies. Alice Sliger still lived on the grounds and managed things when we visited, but at age 96, decided that she couldn't keep the baths open. The healthful water still runs through motel taps, however.
Since the baths are closed, the main reason to visit is to see the Wildlife Museum, which used to be called the Arizona Wildlife Trophy Room. When we were there, by ourselves, the hostess, a woman younger than Mrs. Sliger, sat quietly on one of the couches as we looked around, but made sure we knew she was leaving right at 5.
The museum occupies two large rooms, one of which used to be "The TV Room." The TV is still there. The furniture is western-inspired, wood and wagon wheels, but covered in leopard skin.
Deer and other antler-bearing heads are on all the walls, and stuffed birds swoop from the ceiling. Snake skins cover the beams. Smaller heads like rabbits and badgers fill gaps between the bigger game. A pair of javelinas, arrows plunged down their fangy mouths, grimace.
Large steel traps rest by the fireplace, which is made from animal horns and all minerals mined in Arizona. On the fireplace mantle is a four-pronged sheep, mounted with his front legs dangling. Nearby, a stuffed coyote howls, leg caught in a smaller trap.
In all, there are than 400 specimens, and we keep finding more to look at. A small two-headed sheep stands behind one of the couches, while fighting cocks with steel spurs prepare to duel on a tabletop. A giant black sea bass is not mounted on his side, like most fish, but deer-trophy style, his basketball-sized head coming out of the wall, mouth agape. The lacquer on the face is starting to crack.
Soon it is 5 pm, and we are shooed to the lobby, where the postcard rack is one of the best. Original cards from the '40s and '50s are still for sale at twenty-five and fifty cents. Our favorite shot is of two couples playing the "nine hole desert golf course, free to guests of the hotel." They are on the green, which is actually 'the brown,' a darker shade of dirt than the surrounding sand. Others include a group shot of the bath's "graduate masseurs, masseuses, nurses and physiotherapists," and "Old Renegade," the large stuffed buffalo, which is still in the museum.
Outside, along the path from the lobby to the old bathhouse, the World's Largest Collection of Indian Grind Stones is displayed. They have been masoned into a wall.
Main Street of Mesa, formerly The Apache Trail (Old US 60), was once a wide street of motels. Now it is a wide street of large mobile home sales offices and larger mobile home parks. Some old-style neon signs still live, including the classic Starlight Motel, but are slowly giving way to the businesses serving the mobile homers. The Buckhorn has even had to rent out part of its main building to a plumbing company. Indeed, on the two street corners across from the Buckhorn Baths, a Jack In The Box and McDonald's sit, impassive and patient, waiting for Mrs. Sliger to give it up.
Then again, she's held them off this long, so maybe there is something in the water.
Update: Alice Sliger died at age 103 in 2010. The Baths are currently closed, but its displays remain safely cocooned inside. Local preservationists hope to reopen the place, someday, with the Sliger collection intact.