The Fred Harman Museum opened its doors in 1983, entertaining visitors from around the world with paintings, sketches and tales of the life of Fred Harman, the wild west and the hi-jinks of Red Ryder and Little Beaver.
For 25 years Fred Jr. and Norma Harman ran the museum themselves. After that, a board stepped into place. Now, Norma says, “We’re both getting old... It’s time to turn it over.”
Norma and Fred Harman Jr. have been looking for people to take over the operation of the museum.
“There is no one in the family to tap on the shoulder and say, ‘Here, this is your inheritance,’” Norma said in an interview with The SUN. “And it’s time to phase Fred out.”
The couple said the load of running the museum is getting to be too much.
The Harmans have offered the museum to both Archuleta County and the town of Pagosa Springs as a donation. While both entities were interested in the museum, both ultimately turned down the offer for the same reason - insufficient funds to run the museum.
The museum’s core operating costs are for water, electrical and gas bills.
The land just south of the intersection of U.S. 160 and Piedra Road was purchased by Harman’s mother in 1943 for $17 an acre.
“My dad thought she was nuts,” Fred recalls. At that time, there was nothing around that area and the Harmans already had a nice ranch in the Blanco Basin.
Thinking back on the museum’s beginning, the Harmans remember the first few years were sparse as far as visitors were concerned. When 10 people came in, it was a big day.
Around 1986, the museum began to experience a steady flow of visitors, a flow the Harmans say has not tapered off.
In an attempt to lessen stress on themselves, this was the first year that the museum was closed in the winter, from October through May 1.
“It was quite nice,” Norma said.
Another area of trouble with running the museum, the Harmans say, is finding help. Because they cannot afford to pay employees, they have docents, volunteers. The docents welcome visitors at doors and take them on guided tours of the museum.
Right now, Fred says they need more of this help. They placed an ad in last week’s SUN, with several responses reported.
“They are very important,” Norma says of the docents, “and greatly appreciated.” However, the Harmans realize that people need a paycheck.
Presently, the Harmans are also looking at interested buyers who could take over the museum.
The control of the museum is now with the board, and both Norma and Fred still play a larger part in the running of the museum than they’d prefer. However, until there is a definite offer to buy the museum and take over it’s operation, the state of the museum is in flux.
The museum reflects a grand local history. Fred Harman Sr. is one of the most noted celebrities to come from Pagosa Springs. His father homesteaded here in the 1880s, and Harman was raised here. Along with his brothers Hugh and Walker, Harman was an artist.
In his early 20s, Harman was roommates and a business partner with Walt Disney. Harman worked on the movie “Fantasia” with Disney.
However, it was his syndicated comic-strip Red Ryder that really brought fame to Harman. The comic strip led to movies, books, toys, BB guns. The comic was reproduced worldwide and became popular in England, Germany, Japan, Mexico, even the Middle East.
The inspiration for the comic: the town, the people, the lifestyle of those growing up in Pagosa Springs. The character of the Duchess, for instance, Fred Harman Jr. says, is based on local homesteader and rancher Gertrude Larson.
Over the years, the Harmans remember a very lively and colorful cast of characters walking through the museum doors. There was the time a group of men dressed in full cowboy attire, hats, chaps, spurs, entered and when they spoke, shocked the Harmans by all having thick English accents. There was the other time a large group of Japanese visitors visited. From this group, the Harmans discovered that, while stationed in Japan during the war, Fred Harman must have made quite an impression because there is a museum there displaying his work.
All the good and interesting times, though, cannot turn back the wheels of time and provide the Harmans the energy needed to operate the facility. They feel it is time to take a step back and let someone else take a turn at running the show.
In an effort to raise money for the museum, the Harmans, the board of directors and supporters will host the first annual Western Heritage Days this weekend, June 24, 25 and 26. The event will be held at the Fred Harman Museum’ site, which also includes historic buildings. There will be arts and crafts at the event, food and live music, with a number of vendors already lined up.