Melissa Ruffner and her mother, Elisabeth, know Prescott’s history. Get to know them.
Interview by Ray Newton
You can often find Melissa dressed in Victorian costumes, providing walking tours and sharing stories from Prescott’s past. Or, you may find her appearing in a dinner show at the Palace Restaurant and Saloon. She has written Prescott: A Pictorial History, Arizona Territorial Sampler: Food and Lifestyles of a Frontier and Prescott Yesteryears. She is also the author and contributor of a number of monologues. And all of this is just the start! She recently took a break from talking about Prescott’s history to share with us more about her family’s history and impact on our community.
Prescott LIVING: Tell us about the Ruffner family’s roots in Arizona.
Melissa Ruffner: The Ruffner family first arrived in Arizona in 1867 when Marion Andrew “Andy” Ruffner co-discovered copper in what is now the Town of Jerome. After Andy Ruffner came to Arizona, he then talked to his nephew, my Great-Uncle George, about coming out. So, George came out sometime in the 1880s. He cowboyed for a while, and in 1888, he was one of five men who helped start the rodeo here in Prescott. And it is the world’s oldest, which is why the little TM trademark is by the name. Actually there is a (board) game called Trivial Pursuit. One question is, “Where is the home of World’s Oldest Rodeo?” And the answer is Prescott.
George Ruffner is the first man in Arizona to actually bulldog a steer, and it was not even an event in the rodeo at that time. He was supposed to be steer- roping and he missed the toss, which meant no day money, because he didn’t do anything. This was down in Phoenix. He saw the steer going toward the pinewood bleachers, which had no barrier in front of the crowd. He was afraid the audience was going to be mauled by this huge bull, which was already pretty upset that somebody was trying to rope him. So, he threw himself off the back of his horse onto the back of the steer and wrestled it to the ground.
Prescott LIVING: How is George connected to the rest of your family?
Melissa Ruffner: George, as a young man, met a woman from Tempe, and her name was Mary. She went by Molly Birchett, because there was already a Mary Ruffner, who my grandfather had married. (Laughs) So, Molly Birchett was Great-Aunt Molly. It seems like the Ruffner men seemed to attract or be attracted to pretty strong-willed women.
Prescott LIVING: During these days, Prescott was the Territorial Capital, correct?
Melissa Ruffner: Yes. Prescott was where you came to file deeds or mining claims or to interest people in funding you, so you could continue on (prospecting). You also came to buy groceries. And Yavapai County, where my Great-Uncle George became sheriff, ran as far north as Utah and as far east as New Mexico. It was huge. In fact, it is known as the ‘Mother of Arizona Counties’—Coconino, Navajo, Apache and Gila among them.
Prescott LIVING: Speaking of family, your mother Elisabeth is one of the well-known community leaders in the State of Arizona, as are you?
Melissa Ruffner: Yes, she is.
Prescott LIVING: How has your mother inspired you?
Melissa Ruffner: Well, let me tell you how my mom came to be in Prescott, Arizona. She was a pre-med student at the University of Cincinnati and in a sorority. She went out on a blind date along with a sorority sister, who was on a blind date with the man who ended up being my dad. At the time, my mom was on a blind date with another gentleman. Well, Mom and Dad liked each other better than they liked the people they were with on this blind date. And so, they started dating. My father asked my grandmother for my mother’s hand, and my grandmother and mother came out here on a train, got off in Williams and came into Prescott. My grandmother saw my mother properly married and then she went back to Cincinnati. So, they married in August of 1940. I was born a year later. Mom had to go to work while Dad was away at war, so Mom went to work in Dr. Yount’s office and set up a laboratory, so that they could test, among other things, the “working girls,” who were here working during the war. So, the sorority girl, from Cincinnati, Ohio, ends up doing blood work to test the working girls who were here. I can’t imagine what a cultural shock that must have been.
My father – God bless him. He was an Arizona Western man, and he thought a wedding trip – hauling my mother around on their honeymoon to visit all of his Indian friends on the Hopi and Navajo reservations – was just the ticket. Now, she’d never slept on the ground before, or any place except a bed. And she had no idea why anybody would want to. He brought one big sleeping bag and a coffee pot. They made campfires and, you know, they bought food at the trading post and things like that.
But that had to be a culture shock. I’ve said to Mom often, “Why you didn’t take me and get on the train and say, ‘Oh, hell no?’” And you don’t even have to print that part. (Laughs)
Anyway, Mom helped start the hospital district. She was a Pink Lady, which is a volunteer. I was a candy striper, because Mom recruited her kids first to do the things that she felt were important. There’s a plaque that was just recently put up at the library. She’s been a volunteer at our public library for 75 years, so they put a little placard for her.
Prescott LIVING: Tell us more about your family.
Melissa Ruffner: Dad influenced us in so many ways. My brother, George, has a company called EcoPlan. They do environmental impact studies. I have worked for 36 years for Road Scholar, which was formerly called Elderhostel, doing outdoor programs. So Dad also influenced us in so many ways. I love the outdoors. When the weather is nice, I have to be back outside and doing something. In fact, I have a fishing license, and I’m going to go fishing when I get the chance. My father taught me an important thing and that was, “If you don’t know how to do something, say yes, you’ll do the job. Then find out how to do it.” And I have learned how to do more things because I’ve said, “Sure, I’ll do that.” And so, you know, that’s where we are today.
Prescott LIVING: That’s wonderful.
Melissa Ruffner: All the members of the family have been involved in all kinds of things. And it’s gone down to our children and grandchildren. They’re all involved in doing all kinds of different things.
Prescott LIVING: Has your family ever been involved in politics?
Melissa Ruffner: (Laughs) Whenever I travel, like back East, when my daughter was stationed back East, people would say, “Oh, you’re from Arizona.” People have asked me why my parents…never ran for office, and they both answered, “Because they could do more by not being a politician.” And so, they were always active in things that mattered to this town, but they never ran for a political office for that reason, because then people might expect them to do things that they didn’t feel they could accomplish or feel right about doing.
Prescott LIVING: The Ruffners are highly acknowledged. Tell some of the accolades you’ve received for your work?
Melissa Ruffner: Mom and I both received the Sharlot Hall Award. Mom is a Culture Keeper, as am I, so Mom and I both have Culture Keeper and Sharlot Hall awards. Mom and Dad and I have all received the Al Merito award from the Arizona Historical Society. I have to tell you that when I first started doing my historical tours downtown and dressing in costume, my children were humiliated. They’d say “Oh yeah, Mom’s downtown walking, you know, running around telling people about the town, and she’s dressed up like one of those old ladies, you know?” And we used to have a tour that ran a couple of summers downtown, so when my youngest daughter was downtown once, when she was supposed to have already been home, I said on the mic on the trolley, “And over here we have a young lady who should have been home 45 minutes ago.” (Laughs) She booked it home.
Prescott LIVING: So, you are here in costume, and you can often be seen out and about in costume. Tell us about that.
Melissa Ruffner: One of the reasons that I dress up in Victorian costume – especially in the summertime – and come down and talk with visitors and so forth, is that my Great-Uncle George’s picture, with his feet up on the desk, is on the wall out here in The Palace. I often point that out to people and tell them a little about it. Just to share a funny story with you. One day a man was sitting at a table pretty close to the front of the saloon part of the restaurant. I always sit toward the back where the display cases are, kind of in that little corner at that table. The Palace had just opened, and I had come in and sat down and had my Diet Pepsi. Then, Steven Waller, who you probably will see out here came in, because he’s one of the re-enactors. He also helps get people seated and so forth, and Bob Anderson, who’s always down here and is another re-enactor, along with Clark, Ray and several of the gentlemen, came up to me and would doff their hat and greet me and ask how I was. I have always believed that if you’re going to wear the costume of the period, you need to respect the manners of the period as well. [Editor’s note: “Re-enactors” are local volunteers who dress in late 19th century Western garb and role-play those parts in events around the community]. So, this man is sitting at this table. After five or six of my friends all in costume have come up, he comes up to me and he says, “You must be the madam because every man is checking in with you.” And I said, “No, I am not the madam (Laughs). I am a town historian in costume,” or something to that effect. All very lady-like of course. But yeah, you know, people say funny things when they come in here. You just never ever know what’s going to come up.
Prescott LIVING: You’re the founder of Victorian Society. What prompted you to do that?
Melissa Ruffner: I was the first president because no one else wanted to do it. I said, “If we’re going do this, we have to have officers.” So, I was the president. I wasn’t really the founder. I suppose you might even call me the co-founder, possibly, because Pat Stotts, who’s a dear friend of mine for years, had been in Virginia and had gone to some event that included the Victorian Society in whatever town she was in. She came back and had a number of us ladies get together. Pat Stotts sews, so costumes were no problem for her. In fact, one of the ladies made this dress for me and sewed it. I don’t sew. I design costumes. I make a lot of my own hats, but I don’t sew. And so, we met at the Prescott Public Library and decided who would do what, and we were very active for probably 10 years or so. Then, because of health concerns and such, a number of the members were not able to continue and we disbanded. So, I now help out as a Guild docent at the Elks Opera House, and I go in costume and help seat people, do Will Call, whatever is needed for the different events that happen up at the Elks Theatre. All three floors now have been totally restored and it’s a gorgeous building. My grandmother performed on that stage. Mary Ruffner was the first public school music teacher in Prescott, because music was taught at home or at church. It was thought to be redundant for her to be paid to teach music. She was a graduate of the Chicago Conservatory of Music. My family were all involved in the Elks, and my grandmother put the Vaudeville shows on every year there and did other things. I performed there for 14 years as the official storyteller at the Arizona Jamboree. So, the argument in the family is – because Mom and Parker Anderson wrote the history of the Elks Theatre – did grandmother or did I perform more often on that stage? And we don’t know. She’s not around to defend herself, so we don’t know. Another thing she did was she started the Community Sings in this town during the Great Depression. And just like we have events in our downtown plaza now, people then would sit on the steps of the courthouse. One of the little gals who she auditioned and then introduced the following Tuesday evening, was from Weatherford, Texas. It was supposed to be everybody who was from Prescott who would sing and dance and entertain, but her aunt lived here. She was visiting her aunt from Weatherford, Texas, and her aunt was a friend of my grandmother’s. And so, she sent her. She was very talented. She was a little nervous, because she’d never performed in public before. She danced and she sang that night. People who were present that evening were so enthralled with her that they paid her the only way they could – they gave her a standing ovation. So, what else could Mary Martin do but become one of the brightest stars on Broadway?
Prescott LIVING: The Mary Martin?
Melissa Ruffner: The Mary Martin. And her first performance was on our Courthouse Plaza.
I’m going to tell another story, because I don’t care what age you are, it always gets a laugh. One day, Winnie Mayer-Thorpe and her girlfriend, accompanied by two young men, were going to have a picnic out on Big Bug Creek. (Editor’s Note: Winnie is the daughter of frontier settler Joseph Mayer. He later became mayor of Mayer, Arizona) The girlfriend mentioned, silently, you know, whispering to Winnie, that her mother had just used some flour sacking – and flour sacking had all kinds of decorations and logos and such on it – and her mother had made her a pair of ‘unmentionables’. Yes, she had made them out of flour sacking. And these flour sacking beautiful, beautiful unmentionables were covered with all kinds of lace and blue ribbon, and she was very proud of them. Well, the young lady leaned over to take something out of the picnic basket. The wind, which happens around here in the spring, threw her skirt up over her head and revealed her unmentionables. Her mother had not completely eradicated the logo. Across the lady’s derriere, it said “Pride of the West.”
Prescott LIVING: (Laughs) What a good story! Pride of the West – I love that.
Melissa Ruffner: Yes, Pride of the West. So, that always gets a nice laugh. So, I tell this to lead into what happened to me on one of the tours. First a bit about the tours. I started them in 1981. The reason was I had lost a job as a receptionist at a company here in town that was moving to Phoenix. I had little kids, and I didn’t want to move to Phoenix. I was working on Prescott: A Pictorial History at the time, and I have to tell you (Laughs), I locked myself in a room at the Hotel St. Michael every weekend for a month to write this book, because I had four little kids at home and I had to concentrate. There are over 250 pictures in here, and each one of them had to have a caption, and it had to be correct. It also had to be spelled correctly, and there was no spell-check back then. I had to use index cards to actually index every single caption (Laughs) in this book. So, I locked myself in there. In 1981, that the book first came out, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. I decided that since I didn’t have a regular job anymore, I would start a walking tour. If I knew all of this history, why not share it with people who came to town?
Prescott LIVING: This was your first book?
Melissa Ruffner: Yes, that was my first book. So, during my first tour, I would hang around Sharlot Hall Museum and I would wait for a motor coach to pull up, because they would let people go in to Sharlot Hall Museum and look around while they were gassing the motor coach. So, when I saw the motor coach roll up, it was Great Western Tours out of Pasadena, California. I ran home. I put on a black skirt and a white blouse and a big black hat – I still have the photograph of me in it – and went back down. And as they’re coming out of Sharlot Hall Museum, I’m handing each of them a business card. I didn’t have a real one of back then, but something that said, “Welcome to Prescott,” or something like that. Then, I got on the motor coach. I’d never used a microphone before. I said, “Thank you for coming,” and, “Here’s what’s going on other times of the year, so please come back,” and all that kind of thing. Great Western Tours was the first motor coach company to hire me, and I did many tours for them. I still do tours as a step-on guide on motor coaches. And I like to meet people on Mt. Vernon Street, in costume of course, in front of the house on Mt. Vernon Street where I was born. My parents didn’t own the house, but it had been turned into Mrs. Lenox’s lying-in hospital, because that’s where the babies were born after the hospital that the Sisters of Mercy had on Grove Street burned down.
Prescott LIVING: What is your fee for a tour?
Melissa Ruffner: It depends on motor coach capacity. I also do all kinds of talks and performances.
Prescott LIVING: At Sharlot Hall and Phippen?
Melissa Ruffner: I’ve done a dinner show at Phippen.
Prescott LIVING: How many a year, ballpark?
Melissa Ruffner: (Laughs) Well, let’s just say I’ve been doing it since 1981, so technically, I’ve been walking the streets longer than most people have been in business in this town.
Prescott LIVING: So, you’re a street walker. (Laughs) I could see that headline.
Melissa Ruffner: Yeah. (Laughs) Let’s not do that headline. My mother will call me. In fact, my kids call me sometimes if I’m on Facebook. If I’ve had a photograph taken with a tourist or something, and my kids will call me up and say, “OK, Mom. Where are you, and who are these people?” (Laughs)
Prescott LIVING: How do we encourage younger people to remain involved in the history and the preservation of the history and the culture of this area?
Melissa Ruffner: Well, I would think that the start would be to go to events, different events. Sharlot Hall Museum has a folk arts fair, where they have pioneers and teach all kinds of crafts of the pioneers. That would be the place to start. Where I started was that my father was a wonderful storyteller. He always had a story. In fact, I helped start the Elderhostel at Yavapai College with two other gentlemen, and myself. They were in business for–gosh, this is my 36th year, and they’re 40 years old as a company. Also, Dennis Gallagher and I are some of the early members of the Prescott Western Heritage Foundation, which he founded. We hope to have a Western Heritage Center here in the future, some place in the downtown area.
Prescott LIVING: What do you do for fun?
Melissa Ruffner: Well, let’s see here. (Sighs)
Prescott LIVING: Fly fishing? (Laughs)
Melissa Ruffner: My sister, Becky, is the fly fisher. It’s hard to know. I connect with my kids by phone. I connect with friends by phone. I check and see how Mom is doing, if Mom needs to go on errands or anything like that. I enjoy my Mom’s company. She always tells me some story, or corrects me about something (Laughs) that I thought I knew. But when I have time to actually do something, maybe even away from Prescott… I have been to Alaska five times. I’ve hiked on a glacier. I’ve ridden in a dog sled. I’ve been to over 60 national parks and monuments, historic sites and battlefields in probably 20 or 25 years. I was married in the chapel in Yosemite, because my late husband was from that area. But, I’d never been to Yellowstone, so late last August, I was able to go to Yellowstone. I car-camped in an apple orchard outside of a hostel for five days. So, I was near a toilet and everything. Then, for five days, I went on my very first Road Scholar trip as a participant.
Prescott LIVING: As a participant?
Melissa Ruffner: I didn’t want the people who were running the program to think I was like a spy or something, so I didn’t tell anybody that I was with Road Scholar. And a lady, who had been on one of my programs when I worked with Yavapai College, outted me the first night and said, “There can only be one Melissa Ruffner from Arizona.” (Laughs) I loved my time in Yellowstone. I was in the north end. I would drive into the park and just pull up off on a side road, where there wasn’t a bunch of trailers. Oh, I took better pictures than some of the postcards they had. The animals would just come by.
Prescott LIVING: I have a question to ask you– very important. When they make a movie about your life, who is going to play you?
Melissa Ruffner: (Laughs) Well, it’s a toss-up between Reese Witherspoon in that movie she made about hiking after she lost her mother, or it’s going to be Sally Field, because she’s feisty.
Prescott LIVING: Not Meryl Streep?
Melissa Ruffner: No, and I’ll tell you why. Sally Field would’ve done what I did last Veteran’s Day. I came downtown, and I was dressed in red, white and blue, but Victorian. I was standing out on the sidewalk, watching the different troops and kids from schools going by with cards they had made for the veterans, which thanked them for their service and all of that. This guy walks up behind me, who obviously doesn’t live here, which I could tell from his haircut and clothing. He says, “I see the hookers have arrived.” I turned around and chased him down on Whiskey Row. And I said, “My name is Melissa Ruffner, and I’m very well-known in this town, and we don’t talk that way.” Well, the man who he’d been walking with is watching all of this. I’m sure he gave him a big ‘raspberry’ later on. I normally wouldn’t have reacted that way, but that was just extremely rude. Nobody else was dressed in costume, and we’re a military family. And so, I chased the man down. And Sally Field would do that.
Prescott LIVING: Oh, yeah. Now, speaking of certain types of people, what types of qualities do you admire in colleagues and associates?
Melissa Ruffner: People who are genuine, people who are friendly and who are trustworthy and people who keep their word. And that’s, on the opposite side, the thing that I dislike the most. If someone says that they will do something…I expect that to be done.
Prescott LIVING: Melissa, you know this community well. In your opinion, what are key issues facing the community?
Melissa Ruffner: Oh, water – water, water, water, water and water. Just because you have to have water and, I know that it is a concern. I don’t have a great deal of information about how it’s being handled. We have aquifers in Chino Valley. We pull out of the Verde River, but so do other people. And that’s a huge concern. The other huge concern is fires. This season is going to be really bad.
Prescott LIVING: Yes, it will.
Melissa Ruffner: There are 19 young men who perished on a hillside in Yarnell, fighting a fire that was probably set by a person. Fires are either set by lighting, or they are set by a person, and that one wasn’t set by lightning.
Prescott LIVING: Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots?
Melissa Ruffner: Yes. I knew two of the grandparents of those young men and went to school with one of the grandparents of those young men.
Prescott LIVING: How many books have you written?
Melissa Ruffner: I’ve written history books and historical cookbooks, and then I’ve done a couple of monographs.
Prescott LIVING: How come one of your books is worth $2,300 on the Web on Amazon?
Melissa Ruffner: (Laughs) That’s a typo. That’s got to be a typo. I don’t know…I’m a widow, maybe I come along with it? No, no – forget that. That’s only $2,000. I want a whole lot more than that.
Prescott LIVING: So, with books, popular walking tours, speaking engagements and a little time for fun and travel, what else do you have planned for the future?
Melissa Ruffner: First and foremost, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. With that in mind, I love all our family gatherings – kids and grandkids coming home when they can. I love to travel and have family members who live everywhere from Northern California to the Florida Keys. I always find some interesting event or locale wherever I visit. I hope to continue teaching with the Northern Arizona University ‘over-the-road’ Road Scholar programs – it is my 36th year. Also, I plan to continue sharing my family history and the magnificent places in Arizona and New Mexico. I serve on boards, including Prescott Western Heritage Foundation and the Arizona Pioneers Home Foundation, and I always vote “yes” on every issue, because I plan to live there someday. I belong to the Civil War re-enactment groups and am a docent at the Elks Opera House–dressed in full Victorian costumes. In addition to my historical walking tours downtown, I am also a step-on guide on motor coaches. And, I entertain all kinds of groups, from conventions to reunions, as well as a sold-out dinner show every second Monday in November at the Palace Saloon and Restaurant. Whew. As my Dad, Budge Ruffner, when asked if he had lived in Prescott his whole life, would reply, “so far.” Me, too…so far.