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Elizabeth S. Oldaker (1884-1975)
Induced in 1989
Used by permission from the Arizona Historical Society
Elizabeth Seargeant was born in Marshall, Missouri on October 7, 1884 and moved to Phoenix as a small child with her mother, Mrs. M. E. Seargeant, and two brothers in 1893. She attended grade school at the old Central Avenue School (where the San Carlos now stands) and Phoenix Union High School. The next few years were filled with art classes at the Throop Institute in Pasadena, travel and study in Europe and Art School in Los Angeles. Then in 1913, she married Dr. Emery E. Oldaker, D.V.M., head of the U.S. Bureau of Animal Husbandry in Arizona.
In 1919, the Maricopa Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution appointed Elizabeth Oldaker as chairwoman of a committee to work for the preservation of Arizona’s historic and prehistoric treasures. This was to be the beginning of Elizabeth’s passion for the collection and preservation of Arizona’s past culminating with the establishment of the Arizona Museum which is now the Phoenix Museum of History.
After the initial meeting of the D.A.R., Elizabeth sought to begin the process by convincing the Phoenix Public Library to make available space for exhibits in wall cases. The first exhibits contained loaned items as the fledgling effort had no collection of its own. Although the goal of these early exhibits was to stimulate interest in establishing a municipal museum, the small, but ambitious effort gained only slow public support.
When the library could no longer spare the space, Elizabeth secured permission to display exhibits in a school administration building. After borrowing exhibit cases from the Fair Commission and the City of Phoenix, she had a case built for $300. It was a valiant effort, but the frustration of inexperience began to set in. By this time the D.A.R. came to realize that developing a museum was more difficult than they imagined. For professional advice, Elizabeth began corresponding with officials of the American Association of Museums. Dr. Madison of the Cleveland Museum and Dr. Charles F. Lummis, founder of the Southwest Museum were especially helpful in assisting in the design of a museum strategy for the D.A.R.
The Arizona Museum was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1923. Elizabeth Oldaker was elected the first President of the Board of Trustees. According to the plans of the new president, the first order of business was to find adequate space for both storage and exhibits. To Elizabeth that meant planning for a building — specifically for the museum. Under her gentle prodding, the City of Phoenix provided a site in the southeast corner of University Park facing Woodlawn Avenue on a long-term lease. Local architects Fitzhugh and Byron drew plans for an ambitious museum constructed of adobe with the actual bricks being made on site.
To raise funds, D.A.R. members sold certificates in the shape and color of adobe bricks for one dollar. Local building trades unions and merchants also donated materials.
Finally in 1929, under the leadership of the energetic and persuasive Elizabeth Oldaker, the Arizona Museum opened its doors to the public. The task of developing a comprehensive museum strategy was to prove invaluable for Elizabeth.
With the experience of the Arizona Museum’s birth to aid her, Elizabeth launched into many other preservation projects in the area. She founded the First Families of Arizona, a project aimed at not only preserving the material culture of our past but the spirit and knowledge of Arizona’s pioneers. Later she led in the restoration of the Duppa-Montgomery Homestead, and she supported the conservation of the old Cemetery.
In 1945, the American Artists Professional League honored Elizabeth Oldaker for founding the Arizona Museum and named her “An Accomplished Artist; One of the Great Women of Arizona”. The Arizona Historical Society honored her with the “Al Merito” award in 1975.
At her death in 1975, Elizabeth Oldaker had spent over 40 years of her life working to preserve Arizona’s past. Her legacy lives on in the projects she believed in so dearly. Perhaps her greatest memorial is the Phoenix Museum of History itself.