By Nick Worth
Holbrook Parks Department employee Mike O’Dell loves the city’s history. Specifically, he is interested in the historic preservation of the old Holbrook Cemetery.
In addition to working for the city, O’Dell is also a member of the Holbrook Old West Cemetery Group, local residents interested in historical preservation of the old cemetery. The group works in cooperation with the city parks department.
“I’ve been coming out here for 15 years,” O’Dell said. He said his initial interest was in developing the tourism aspects of the Holbrook area.
Jerrie Jennings Paschal is the group leader and they have a Facebook page called Historic Preservation of Holbrook Projects, which currently has 64 members. O’Dell noted that the group got its start when Rebecca Beck put up a Facebook page called History of Holbrook Photos, Stories, Events Past Only. Both pages are “closed” pages, open only to members.
“Becky’s Facebook page really jump-started the whole thing,” O’Dell said. “I don’t think our group would have ever got together if she hadn’t done that.”
O’Dell said the group is also getting support from the city.
“The city is helping us a lot,” said O’Dell. “John Guttery, the head of the parks department, has really gotten behind us on this.”
He said that rather than plant grass and try to make the old cemetery look like the new one, the group is trying to preserve it the way it was.
“We (the city parks employees) do some weeding in here, but we’re trying to encourage them to leave the wildflowers, while taking out the weeds,” O’Dell said. “We’re looking into getting some drought-resistant flowers and plants.”
He said he sowed some wildflower seeds last spring, but looking around at the bare dirt, he remarked, “Remember those couple of days of high winds we had last March? I think the wind blew all the seed away.”
O’Dell pointed to a crumbling rock headstone which no longer holds any writing, the remnants of an old grave marker.
“These old rock grave markers haven’t lasted very well,” he said. “The rock breaks away and you can’t read the names anymore. We’re looking to replace some old stone markers with something more permanent.”
“Our emphasis is on preserving the history,” O’Dell continued. He said one of the group’s main missions is locating missing graves in the old cemetery. Although there is a map indicating some of the burials, it is far from complete and all the names, and even some of the locations, are not known.
“In a way, it’s a lot like archeology,” O’Dell said. “A while back a guy was raking here and uncovered this.”
He indicated a small piece of stone marking a grave which had been completely covered over by blowing dirt and the passage of time.
A historically important grave marker also suffered the same fate, until O’Dell searched for and uncovered it many years ago.
“This is the grave marker of the Blevins men,” O’Dell said, pointing to an enclosure with three white crosses and a large square stone listing the men’s names. The men were killed in the famous Sept. 4, 1887, Holbrook gunfight with Commodore Perry Owens.
He said the group’s latest project will be to buy or build a display case to hold information about the gunfight. They will locate the case by the Blevins stone.
O’Dell said some tourists and local people have commented they preferred the Holbrook old cemetery to that of Tombstone.
“They said they felt ours was more historically accurate,” O’Dell said. “I think we could promote the old cemetery and the Blevins headstone in the same way Tombstone does.
“Our gunfight was just as compelling a story as the OK Corral in Tombstone,” said O’Dell.
He pointed to a row of plain, wooden crosses, all marked with the word “unknown.” There are several such crosses in the cemetery.
“These are all graves we located,” said O’Dell. “Bill Perkins and Randy Murph made the crosses to mark the unknown graves.”
The two also made some more elaborate wooden headstones to mark some graves of the Baca and Peralta families. The wooden crosses should last for a long time, as some of the original wooden crosses still exist in the cemetery.
“I’ve been amazed at some of those old crosses,” O’Dell said. “There are two old wooden crosses that have been there since 1912–that’s over 100 years.”
“Quite a few families have put new headstones in the old section since we started this,” O’Dell said. He added that even though the new headstones aren’t original, in a lot of cases they replaced the old, unmarked rock headstones and that identification of the people buried there is important to the historical preservation of the cemetery.
“Once we have a gravesite identified we can go to the map and find other graves that were located near that one,” O’Dell said. “That has helped us a lot.”
According to O’Dell, Perkins, Murph and Tom Sample also brought in the large pieces of petrified wood which line the gravel drive separating the old cemetery from the new. There are also several hitching rails Perkins got from an old ranch and installed along the road, and Sample has been working on planting some wildflowers.
O’Dell noted that the work on the cemetery is ongoing and is done entirely by volunteers. He said anyone wanting to work on the old cemetery is welcome to help, and should contact Guttery or himself.
Donations to the Holbrook Old West Cemetery Group can be dropped off at city hall, or mailed to the city at P.O. Box 970, Holbrook, Ariz. 86025.
By Nick Worth