Virgin Valley Heritage Museum offers insight into Mesquite’s past

Proud of its history, the Nevada town of Mesquite invites visitors to get acquainted with the border town’s past, starting with a visit to its diminutive museum at 35 Mesquite Blvd. Housed in a flat-roofed rock building erected to serve as a library during 1939-41, the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum contains remnants of its past dating back to original settlement by Mormon colonists in the early 1880s. The single-storied museum, later turned into a hospital, was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

Visitors park behind the museum and its neighbor, the Mesquite Fine Arts Gallery, as there is no on-street parking on busy Mesquite Boulevard. Once parked, it makes sense for visitors to take in both cultural attractions. In sharp contrast to its elderly neighbor, the modern gallery features a sleek appearance with lots of glass. It showcases the work of local artists and serves as a meeting site for artists’ workshops, classes and other gatherings. Both facilities remain open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Admission is free.

Two historical markers stand on the museum grounds. One marks the importance of the Old Spanish Trail. Overland travelers and traders followed this major transcontinental route under various names from the 1830s until modern highways began to develop in the early 20th Century. First U.S. Highway 91 and later Interstate 15 approximated portions of the old trail. The other marker notes the early settlements in the Virgin Valley, which depended upon water from the capricious Virgin River to sustain their agricultural way of life. Tiny pioneer-era Bunkerville lies just three miles south of Mesquite on Riverside Road, its streets still boasting a handful of charming 19th-century dwellings. Travelers can return to I-15 from Bunkerville by heading south and crossing the river at Riverside.

Mesquite celebrated 25 years as an incorporated town just last year, but it existed as a community for almost a century before its official incorporation in 1984. For decades just a sleepy farming town with a few businesses scattered along U.S. 91, Mesquite had no need of a city government. All that began to change in the 1970s when Interstate 15 supplanted U.S. 91 and Mesquite began to look like a good prospect for development. It started with one modest casino-resort. Soon there were more casinos, more golf courses, more tourists, more businesses, more residents, more subdivisions and more need for local authorities to plan and manage orderly development.

Mesquite’s past almost became a victim of its future. Locals recognized the need to document the past and preserve what they could of it. Longtime residents were generous in sharing family records, photos, artifacts and personal recollections. The eclectic collections morphed into a museum. Mesquite’s past began to come back to life in the cramped rooms of the old-library/hospital.

A rich cultural resource, the museum files contain source materials for research, including first-person recordings of interviews with pioneers and their descendants. Of course, like most such facilities, Mesquite’s museum never has had enough space to display all of its collections to the best advantage. The situation should improve when an adjacent building, an old fire house now undergoing remodeling, opens to the public.

The city employs knowledgeable local residents to greet museum visitors. They point out features of the collections and answer questions about Mesquite’s early years. They indicate important photos on the walls, hand visitors printed guides and encourage them to see some of the old buildings pictured still standing in the downtown area on a walking or driving tour that starts at the museum.

While on this tour, take note of the century-old Abbott house on Mesquite Boulevard at Hafen Lane. This fine old residence surrounded by a yard and shade trees once served as a small hotel. It has been repurposed into The General Store, a new business featuring antiques, hand-made novelties, gifts, collectibles and consignment items. Opening last September, it became the setting for a November art festival on the grounds. An antiques show planned at The General Store in April provides reason enough to revisit Mesquite this spring.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.

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