She was dying as she took her place on the wooden wagon. Wrapped in quilts and an oil cloth against the cold pelting rain, her relatives spoke urgently, encouraging the team of horses. But it was no use.
“They got as far as that hill. In that deep, wheel-sucking mud, the horses wore out and could go no further. She died that night, and they buried her here,” said Ralph Klusman, telling the origin story of the Oxford Cemetery, one of 22 publicly known pioneer cemeteries in La Plata County.
“Her name was Mrs. Hattie Maynes, and she had the Spanish flu,” Klusman said. “It was 1918, and they left Ignacio trying to get her to Mercy Hospital in Durango, but here, near Oxford, the adobe mud is legendary, and the horses gave out right here on the hill. When she passed, they buried her among the junipers.”
Despite waking up to snow and rain on a May morning, 25 residents braved the chilly spring weather to join Ruth Lambert, archaeologist for the San Juan Mountains Association, on the second annual Historic Driving Tour of La Plata County. The La Plata County Historic Preservation Commission sponsors the tour during National Historic Preservation Month. This year’s theme focused on select cemeteries in the county, and the cold, wet day accentuated graveyard tales of longing and loss and memories of the departed.
Across rural La Plata County on hillsides, above creeks and rivers, sit historic cemeteries containing the remains of county pioneers. Volunteers such as Klusman keep up the cemeteries, help with maintenance and fencing and assist relatives searching for their dead.
“Cemetery research pulls in all lines of information – genealogy, gravestone art, archaeology, oral and family history,” Lambert said. “Researching cemeteries adds a deep and meaningful context to local history.”
Lambert organized the driving tour that featured volunteers and spokespeople at four sites, beginning with the Pine River Cemetery or Bayfield Cemetery, which dates to 1883, 15 years before the town incorporated. Like the Oxford Cemetery, the Pine River Cemetery began with a single burial, Susan Dunham in 1882, on land later donated by Walter Dunham.
Beth Sower told stories of the Pine River Cemetery and explained graves of pioneer families, Civil War veterans and two farmers killed by neighbors in separate incidents fighting over water rights.
“The folks who are telling stories are terrific,” said SJMA volunteer Wendy Allen. “I love it. Two of these cemeteries I’ve never been to.”
The McClure, Hood and Hampton families rest in the Florida Cemetery near the 1912 Baptist-Presbyterian clapboard church listed on the La Plata County Register of Historic Sites. C.E. Hampton homesteaded the land and set a portion aside as a “burial ground.”
Later sold to John Conway, son of Irish immigrants, the cemetery was deeded to the Baptist church. Now, the Florida Cemetery Association maintains 600 recorded “old burials” – some with wrought-iron fences and wooden, marble and even tin grave markers fabricated to replicate stone. This is an authentic pioneer cemetery where no fees are charged for community members and original farm and ranch families bury and care for their dead.
Out of the rain, inside the wooden church, visitors munched crackers and cookies as Fred Robyns, sexton and president of the Florida Cemetery Association, spoke.
“Here, historically, people have literally buried their own with a pick and shovel,” he said. “At this traditional cemetery, it’s very personal. If family or loved ones can be involved, it’s deeply healing, because death is a confusing time. Some families make their own caskets. Often family and friends put a symbolic shovelful of dirt on the casket as the grave is mounded up.”
“A year or so back, this fellow lost his mother,” Robyns told the group. “With death, people are upset and deeply grieving. She had been cremated. When he became aware that he could hand-dig the burial site for her urn, a couple of feet into this sandy, clay soil, it gave him a last duty to perform for his mother. It’s significant, because it’s a personal thing that you can do, one last responsibility.”
Because of the importance of these sites, Lambert has a $46,000 project supported by the State Historical Fund to document and research 13 rural cemeteries “to compile a burial record for each cemetery, an inventory of internments and a thorough field verification of the sites because some headstones have fallen,” she said.
The two-year project includes seven SJMA volunteers and public-history student interns Erin Pierce and Whitney Wyngaert of Fort Lewis College.
“By documenting the cemeteries and encouraging people to research their own families, the San Juan Mountains Association is working to keep the area’s history alive,” Wyngaert said. “Whether or not you have family connections, the rural cemeteries are an important part of La Plata County’s history. We are hoping to show that the cemeteries’ history is really everyone’s history.”
“Cemeteries are my thing,” said Naomi Riess, a member of the county’s preservation commission.
“It’s enlightening to know more history of the county,” said tour-goer Tina Marie Trump.
Also on the tour, La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff agreed.
“I think cemeteries are interesting. I’ve been known to stop in on cemeteries for vacations, and it’s great to see this turnout on such a rainy day,” she said.
From Florida Cemetery, visitors drove to the Oxford Cemetery and then on to Ignacio East Cemetery, established in 1918 on land owned by Ute native May Shoshone who sold her Indian allotment to create a community cemetery with burials relocated from the west side of town. Laura Whitt discussed the cemetery’s evolution.
Aspaas family members, some of the first Anglo residents in the county, are buried there.
“They came to make it rich in the mines. They never did, but they found other opportunities,” said a cheerful Helen Ruth Aspaas, smiling under her open umbrella. “So here’s the clan and all my family.”
She told a variety of stories, including one about Susie Turner, who married into the Aspaas line, taught at the original Fort Lewis Indian School and was nicknamed “Mrs. Lotsa Soap,” by Native American children who attended her classes on hygiene.
For those on the driving tour, it made a meaningful day. We thought about our own loved ones buried across the nation. We felt respect and admiration for pioneering La Plata County families and their descendants committed to maintaining historic burying places.
I cannot get out of my mind the pathos of trying to rush a sick woman to the hospital in Durango only to have wagon wheels mired in mud. To sit with her through an everlasting night only to bury her in wet clay soil the next day.
Because of rock, clay, sand and dirt, “not many folks are six feet under here at the Oxford Cemetery,” Klusman said. “If you got five feet, you were lucky.”
“My grandma let kids walk to the Oxford store for candy, but only as long as they dumped a milk-can full of water on the lilacs and flowers planted on the graves,” he said.
That’s cemetery stewardship, keeping and maintaining family connections over generations. Those are the ties that bind.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at email@example.com.