Buffalo are still roaming the American West—even in Arizona.
Outside the buffalo wildlife ranges in Raymond, east of Flagstaff, and House Rock, east of the North Kaibab, you can find an Arizona tribute to the “greatest icon that ever lived” in Navajo County.
If Gary Martinson’s characterization of the buffalo sounds like hyperbole, forgive him. Martinson attended North Dakota State University in Fargo, where the college mascot is the mighty buffalo, or bison, as he knows it. (Historically, the beast was known as the buffalo, but technically the burly creature with a large shoulder hump and massive head that lives only in North America is called bison.)
While Martinson earned his master’s degree in economics in 1969, he gathered bison memorabilia to not only support his team, but also out of respect for the animal that once massively populated the American frontier.
“There’s no question it’s a phenomenal icon of North America,” he says. “I don’t know why this country didn’t choose the bison as its symbol instead of the eagle.”
Given Martinson’s penchant for these magnificent creatures, Bison Homes was a fitting name for his homebuilding company. When he moved to Arizona from North Dakota in 1983, his collecting really took off.
In 1999, he purchased the collection of the Buffalo Museum of America in Scottsdale—mounted heads, paintings, sculptures, bison belt buckles, buffalo nickels and about anything else associated with the buffalo and the American West.
Martinson has moved the collection a few times: to Bison Ranch in Heber-Overgaard, to Scottsdale, to the Grand Canyon and finally to his home in Show Low. About a third of his collection has ended up in his newest business, the Porter Mountain Steakhouse & Saloon in Lakeside.
“I’m not shy in saying this is the nicest steakhouse in the White Mountains,” he says.
The decor deserves a lot of credit, Martinson says, as the facility looks more like a Western museum. About 60 percent of the decorations is devoted to the bison—including a beautiful mounted head over the bar—and the rest is Indian artwork.
Martinson says he doesn’t have any plans to open another bison museum, but he would like to sell the items as a collection to “somebody with the passion” to display them.
He especially wants to keep intact another part of the original museum’s displays—the paintings and sculptures of Scottsdale’s “first family” of Western artists, the Flagg family. Dee Flagg was a first-rate Old West woodcarver, while brother Monte was called the “Cowboy Rembrandt.”
These days, the only bison collectible that ends up in Martinson’s hands comes when his alma mater makes history on the football field, as it did in January, when it became the only college team to win four straight NCAA Division FCS Championships.
As Martinson would say, “Go Bison!”
Arizona’s Journalist of the Year, Jana Bommersbach has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She also cowrote and appeared on the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and has written two true crime books, a children’s book and the historical novel Cattle Kate.