By Linda Kor –
Living in this region of Arizona it is not uncommon to come across artifacts from the area’s ancient civiliza-tions on the desert landscape such as pottery shards, arrow points and grinding stones. But a discovery several weeks ago of what appeared to be mummified African pygmies at the end of a rural street in Holbrook was something altogether new and remains somewhat of a mystery.
It began when a local resident went for a walk along Apache Drive and made the rather bizarre discovery, one that prompted him to contact the Holbrook Police Department. Sgt. Matt Molique responded to the call and was just as puzzled at the man’s findings of four small wooden crates that appeared to have been discarded along with some other items at the end of the street.
The crates appeared old and stuffed with pieces of old newsprint. Nestled in each one were four of what appeared to be mummified creatures labeled on the box as “pygmies.” Each creature measured approximately 2’ tall and had what appeared to be a grayish brown, tissue-thin skin covering a skeletal form with tufts of hair and pointed teeth. One had a demonic look with what appeared to be animal hooves attached as feet and horns.
The crates were taken to the police department, but the discomfort caused by having the disturbing creatures in the building resulted in their placement in a container outside the facility until an investigation of how they came to be lying in a residential street could be completed.
Sgts. Molique and David Hall began their investigation by trying to determine who may have dumped the crates where they were discovered. No one seemed to have any answers and the mystery grew, along with the eerie uncertainty of what the purpose and meaning behind the strange figures could be.
Realizing that the creatures were very old (one of the newspapers used as packaging had a date of the late 1940s) and that they were definitely man-made due to the exposure of underlying papier mâché, the two officers began contacting universities and historical institutions hoping for an identification, idea or any lead at all that would solve the mystery.
One of their contacts was Susan Haskell, a curatorial associate with Harvard’s Peabody Museum. In re-sponse to their query she wrote, “Your dolls are extraordinary, both because they are so unusual and because we have one also… No one has been able to figure out what it is.”
After further research the answer finally came from Joe Meehan, curator of the Arizona Historical Society-Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff. He responded that the dolls were in fact creations of the late Homer Tate, who made a variety of “artifacts,” including mummies, mummies of mermaids, shrunken heads, which were appar-ently popular rear view mirror ornaments in the 1950s and ‘60s, and other “freaks of nature.”
A look into the life of Homer Tate reveals that he became an artist of the weird and bizarre beginning in the 1940s, and was well known for his “sideshow” memorabilia found in the roadside curio shops of 1940s to 1960s. His little pygmy bodies and crudely crafted mummies and freaks were also shown coast to coast in road-side museums and circus sideshows.
Even today travelers along Interstate 10 can see billboards beckoning drivers to stop and, for just $1, see “The Thing? Mystery of the Desert” at a Bowlin’s Travel Center between Benson and Wilcox, where visitors can get a cold drink while gazing at the apparent mummified remains of a woman holding a child. The unusual artifact is actually said to be one of Tate’s creations, purchased by the shop owner in the 1950s as a way to at-tract customers.
Tate immersed himself in the creation of his sideshow oddities following a career of working in the mines of Globe, as a farmer and even as sheriff of Graham County in the 1920s when he owned a motel and gas station in Safford. Tate passed away in 1975, but his creations still cause a stir. Although of little monetary value, these creations will find a home in the Arizona Historical Society-Pioneer Museum.
“State statute allows that any discovered unclaimed item considered to be of historical significance can be donated to a museum. We’re glad to be able to donate the items so that society can enjoy the uniqueness of these creations,” stated Molique, who added that museum officials have indicated that they will create a small display as a tribute to Arizona’s unusual artisan and his contribution to the curiosities that made traveling the byways of America an exciting adventure.
What remains a mystery is how the dolls came to be in the location where they were found on city property.