TOMBSTONE, Ariz. (AP) – When Ben Traywick decided to visit Tombstone for the first time in 1968, he didn’t know he was about to embark on a life-changing venture.
It’s a venture that has brought Ben worldwide recognition as Tombstone’s preeminent historian, someone whose expertise is sought by the likes of National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, filmmakers, historians, editors and writers.
Sitting behind a desk piled with documents and files in his bookstore on Fifth Street, Ben shuffles through a stack of papers in search of old photographs. Red Marie’s, named for his first wife who died in 1997, is a treasure trove of memorabilia and collectibles. Its walls are covered with autographed photos of Ben with noted celebrities, old-time posters and western-themed paintings, its shelves packed with thousands of books.
Wanting to be interviewed without interruption, Ben goes to the front door, flips a sign from open to closed, and settles back behind his desk to talk about his favorite subject: Tombstone.
“I was passing through the area on my back to California from a project I was working on, and decided to spend an afternoon in Tombstone,” Ben said of that first visit more than 40 years ago. “I was so impressed with the town and the people I ended up staying three days.” Ben, who is passionate about history, was immediately drawn to the town’s intriguing story, from its heyday as a bustling 1880s silver camp to that notorious 30-second gunfight at OK Corral.
He returned to California and immediately told Marie that he wanted to move to Tombstone. “We sold our 19-acre ranch with a custom built hacienda home, half-acre lake and six Appaloosa horses, packed up the kids and moved here,” Ben recalled with a smile. “We moved here on Thanksgiving day in 1968. I never regretted leaving California and have thoroughly enjoyed my life in Tombstone.”
With a degree in chemistry, Ben came to the area with a 15-year background in explosives, which included working on the Polaris missile project during the Cold War. Not long after moving to Tombstone, he found employment as a safety engineer with Apache Powder Co., an explosives manufacturing plant near Benson. When he retired from Apache in 1983, he had worked his way up to general manager. He was 55 at the time of his retirement.
From the moment he arrived in Tombstone, Ben started researching the town, the Earp clan and the area’s history. He visited historic sites throughout Cochise County, spent countless hours reading old newspaper articles and studied archived documents. A prolific writer, he has authored 36 books along with 2,400 newspaper and magazine articles. Five hundred of those articles have been published in The Tombstone Epitaph, a newspaper with an office located directly across from Red Marie’s.
“Not long after moving here, I discovered the town’s true story wasn’t being told,” Ben said. “I focused my research on learning more about the events that led up to the gunfight at OK Corral and have researched the Earp family.” One of his books, Angel of Death, is about the Earps in Tombstone and represents a 40-year research project for Ben.
Along with his passion for Tombstone’s history, Ben wanted to do something to improve the town’s tourism. He soon became friends with Harold Love, someone who was committed to refurbishing several old buildings and historic sites around town, of which one was the OK Corral. “We were two very different people, but were close friends and shared a common vision for Tombstone,” Ben said.
“We both saw the town’s potential as a tourist destination and wanted to find ways to draw more people here.”
As part of that vision, in 1972 Ben started the Wild Bunch, a re-enactment group with an emphasis on historically correct productions. Marie formed the ladies’ version of the group, the Hell’s Belles, and the two recruited actors for the cast, with Ben writing skits and performing the role of Wyatt Earp for 20 years. “When I got too old and fat to play Wyatt Earp, my son, Bill took it over for 21 years,” Ben said. Today, Bill’s Wyatt Earp portrayal can be seen on billboards along Interstate 10 and other areas of the county.
“The Wild Bunch gave Tombstone’s tourism a tremendous boost,” Ben said. “We’re known internationally and have been featured on Good Morning America five times and have appeared in more than 200 films.”
Money raised by the group benefits a number of Tombstone’s charities, to include the Tombstone Small Animal Shelter, a senior citizens food program, and scholarships.
The annual Rendezvous of Gunfighters on Labor Day weekend draws spectators from all over the country, even other parts of the world, Ben said. One member of the Wild Bunch cast has traveled from Ireland for the past 10 years to participate in the show.
While he’s pleased with the Wild Bunch and its success, Ben believes there’s a lot more that Tombstone could be doing to attract tourism. “We’re sitting on a gold mine here, but we need to exploit it,” he said. “If we could all work together and do that, there’s so much more we could be doing for this town.”
Two years ago Ben announced his retirement as Tombstone Historian, a designation he received in 1991 by the Tombstone City Council. And, while he claims to be retired, Ben can be found most days working at his bookstore, where he maintains an open door policy, always willing to answer questions about the historic town that has become his passion.
On this day, despite the “closed” sign on the front of his store, the interview is interrupted by a sharp knock. Ben opens the door and steps outside to chat with a tourist from New York who introduces himself as Jim Politi. He has questions about a train that once passed near Tombstone, an 1881 jailbreak and houses built by Virgil and Wyatt Earp. He’s been directed to Red Marie’s for answers to his questions.
Apparently, locals haven’t quite adjusted to Ben’s retirement. “That’s OK,” he says. “I was the town historian for 39 years, so I expected this.”
Along with running the bookstore, Ben, who celebrated his 85th birthday Aug. 3, is busy writing three more historic books, with a goal of hitting 40 before retiring as a writer.
Many in the community believe that Ben has become as important to Tombstone lore as the legendary characters that are permanently etched in the town’s tumultuous history.
“I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for Ben Traywick,” said Tombstone City Councilman Steve Troncale. “He’s like the elder statesmen of Tombstone history. During his years as Tombstone Historian, he fielded thousands of questions about the town. At 85, he has had some amazing experiences in his lifetime, and is just as interesting and exciting as the people he writes about.”
Information from: Sierra Vista Herald, http://www.svherald.com
Copyright 2012. Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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