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Who Was Who

A tombstone tour of some of the notables who rest in peace (or perhaps not) at Las Cruces-area cemeteries.

Story and photos by Jeff Berg

 

Like taxes, but not necessarily at the same time, death becomes us—or, perhaps better stated, overcomes us. Usually we don't want to go, and when we do, we hope for a quiet peaceful exit, causing as little grief and alarm to our loved ones as possible, while allowing as little money to go to the lawyers as possible.

An American flag flies by Pat Garrett's grave.

But when we do go, most folks end up six feet under, with a marble or granite topping, most often noting birth date, name, day of passing and on occasion things such as wedding anniversary dates for couples who are buried next to one another. (By the way, headstone dates prove that most often it is the gentleman who paves the way to the pearly gates for his mate. Wonder if they stop to ask for directions?)

My recent stroll through several Las Cruces cemeteries did not reveal any pyramids, and larger memorials are not too common, although toys often adorn the graves of children, especially those who were victims of violence by another. At Masonic Cemetery, the city's oldest and largest, a small section contains 75 to 100 very small markers, most from the 1960s but several from the late 1950s and into the early 1970s that noted the resting spots for babies. Some had names; others did not. Several were decorated with small tokens of various sorts.

I didn't find much in the way of original prose on headstones, either, although some folks did have images of their favorite hobbies etched on their stones. One double stone for a couple who entered the pearly gates depicted a man golfing and a woman skiing. A couple of others had cheery outlines of pets, cats and dogs, and another denoted the occupant's taste for all things equine. I didn't spot any stones with dollar signs on them either. Don't try and take it with you, is the message there.

Many of the older stones I found are nearly worn smooth, and the oldest still marked grave is that of John Patten, who left the Earth in 1872. There may be others that are older at the memorial parks in places like Leasburg State Park, or some of the older spots that are no longer in use.

So who are some of the people of note that are RIP'ing at local cemeteries? Here's a sampling of, er, permanent Las Cruces residents—a sort of who was who. Most, except as noted, are buried in Masonic Cemetery, which is at 760 S. Compress Road, in the triangle formed by Amador/Hwy. 342, South Main Street and South Valley Drive.

 

Ovida "Cricket" Coogler

One of the state's most high-profile murders was that of Miss Coogler in 1949. "Cricket" (she was apparently called that because she liked wearing shoes that clicked on the pavement when she walked) was a waitress at a downtown Las Cruces cafe. Even though underage, she also apparently enjoyed partying, a hobby enhanced by any number of elected officials, local and statewide.

One night, Cricket disappeared, and it wasn't until 17 days later that her decomposing, partially clad body was found in the desert.

The current corruption in New Mexico politics hardly holds a flag to what went on in those days. Open gambling, the Mafia (it's said Las Cruces almost became what Las Vegas, Nevada, is now), prostitution—all of the higher quality-of-life factors were wide open here. It took the courage of a group of New Mexico College of Agriculture (now more commonly known as NMSU) students to petition and rally to get a grand jury convened to get some of the sleaze off the streets.

Anyway, after several false arrests by one of Dona Ana's most corrupt ever, Sheriff A.L. "Happy" Apodaca (see below), some of the scuzz was swept out of Las Cruces, but Coogler's murder was never solved. Oh, and by the way, her body was conveniently covered with lime when she was buried.

The 2000 documentary film about this case, The Silence of Cricket Coogler, will be screened at the Fountain Theatre in July. "Cricket" Coogler's twin brother died earlier this year in Albuquerque.

 

Alfonso L. "Happy" Apodaca

As his nickname implies, "Happy" Apodaca had somewhat of a charmed life. A big man who was deeply involved in the corruption that oozed out of Las Cruces 50 or so years ago, Apodaca also is buried in Masonic, not 50 paces from "Cricket" Coogler.

Sheriff Apodaca accidentally helped the civil rights movement when he arrested and tortured an African-American man for Coogler's murder. He even tossed one of his own friends into jail, a one-time pro football player, who acted as a pawn to make people think that Apodaca actually had a suspect in the Coogler case.

Apodaca was eventually sent to federal prison for civil-rights violations, and was supposedly (there are conflicting stories about this) pardoned by Harry S Truman, perhaps showing how far up the ladder this corruption went. Incredibly, Apodaca later became a justice of the peace in Las Cruces, until getting bounced from that job for handling the cases of relatives. Apodaca passed away in 1981.

 

John Newbrough

Using an "automatic writer"—actually a newfangled typewriter—Newbrough was the author of a "new Bible" called Oahspe, which was said to mean "earth, sky and spirit" in the language of "the sunken continent of Pan." Newbrough claimed that he was under "spirit control," although it is not noted what kind of spirits controlled him, when he wrote the book. It set forth a plan for gathering the outcast and orphaned children of the world and raising them, according to strict religious principles, to be the spiritual leaders of a new age.

In 1884, Newbrough, a one-time dentist, relocated to the Las Cruces area, near the village of Dona Ana, with 20 of his followers, who called themselves "Faithists." An East Coast wool merchant, Andrew Howland, financially supported the little colony. Although the first year was tough for these lost and found souls, the Shalam Colony, as it came to be known, prospered for a few years afterward, becoming a model of agricultural progress for the area.

After Newbrough died of the flu in 1891, however, tragedy soon set in. Human locusts, thinking that this utopian community would allow them to live labor-free, helped to bring the colony to a grinding halt, as did floods from the Rio Grande, which still flooded at that time since it had water year round. The Faithists also suffered from a lack of markets for the colony's products.

By 1901, Shalam had closed, and the children who were still there were assigned to out-of-state orphanages.

Newbrough's headstone eloquently thanks him for writing and introducing the Oahspe.

 

Hiram Hadley

Hadley was one of the founders of and the first president of Las Cruces College, the forerunner to NMSU.

Hadley was born in 1833 and came to New Mexico in 1887, opening the college in 1888 at the corner of Amador and Alameda. He later served as acting president of the University of New Mexico. According to a brief biographical sketch, Hadley, who was married and had two daughters, wished to see three things accomplished in his life: national prohibition, women's suffrage and international peace. Two out of three isn't bad. . .

 

Pat Garrett

Another person of note whom most everyone who's lived here for more than 15 minutes knows about is one-time Dona Ana County Sheriff Pat Garrett. He and a number of family members are interred at Masonic, where a family member moved them about 50 years ago.

Garrett of course was also a murder victim during New Mexico's earlier days of avarice, and is known as the gent who dusted Billy the Kid. Garrett's 1908 murder was never solved. According to the Western Outlaw/Lawman History Association, "Wayne Brazel confessed to the killing, but most historians believe Jim Miller was responsible."

 

Private George R. Taylor

Although there are an abundance of military graves in the cemeteries around Las Cruces, I came across only one grave for a soldier who served in the Confederate army. The old ghost town cemeteries of Shakespeare and Lake Valley each have several, but Private Taylor is possibly the only known Confederate vet buried here.

Taylor's year of passing is listed as 1932, and note is made that he rode with Waller's Texas Cavalry. There was no information readily available about Trooper Taylor, but a quick Googling of Waller reveals that he was given a commission in his home state, and was attached to the command of John Baylor, one of the major players in the Confederate invasion of New Mexico in 1862. Waller survived the war and later was promoted to colonel.

Evidently Taylor liked what he saw of New Mexico during the war, and made his way back here, passing away in 1932, according to his tombstone at Masonic Cemetery.

 

Francis Boyer

Just south of Las Cruces is a little cemetery where one might find it difficult to rest in peace. Located south of a truck stop, adjacent to Interstate 10, and a short distance north of one of those foul-smelling dairies, is a small plot where the earthly vessels of some residents of the Vado area spend eternity. Among them is Francis Boyer.

Boyer has never achieved the fame that he richly deserves, as the founder of a New Mexico town designed and built for African-American freedmen. His father, who came through this part of the world in the 1840s (and who was probably present at the only battle of the Mexican-American War fought in New Mexico, again just south of Las Cruces, the Battle of Brazitos), for many years after told tales of how beautiful the Pecos Valley area of New Mexico was. So in 1900, Francis Boyer walked from Georgia with his brother-in-law, Daniel Keyes, and founded the community of Blackdom, just south of Roswell.

Things went well for Boyer, as he advertised Blackdom around the country, eventually drawing several hundred other black people to the farming area, which was rich with water and crops at the time.

However, the water soon ran out, as did money. Interestingly, few issues of black vs. white were reported (actually, my extensive research of Blackdom has found none) but rather a community of at least polite tolerance with some mingling of the races, especially at holiday celebrations.

When Boyer left Blackdom, he moved his family to the Las Cruces area, before finally settling with some of the other Blackdom pioneers in Vado. Boyer is credited with the introduction of cotton to the area as a cash crop. His wife, Ella, became very active in education, founding the Paul Dunbar School, which helped ease some uncomfortable segregation problems of the time.

Blackdom is probably one of the more successful "blacks only" communities, which sprouted up all over the continent as far north as Nova Scotia after the Civil War. Research is now being done on a railroad town called Dora, which is said to have been founded in the Cimarron, NM, area by black cowboys.

Francis Boyer passed away in 1949 and lies next to his wife in Vado.

 

My research also turned up (figuratively speaking) at least one amateur comedian who passed away in Las Cruces, according to Jody Eubanks, the manager at the "new" Hillcrest cemetery, which opened in the 1950s.

Although Eubanks could not recall the location of the stone, she did remember that the man for whom it stands, a lawyer by profession, had the following message chipped into his foreverness:

"See, I told you I was sick!"

 

Paws to Reflect

Besides the luminaries mentioned in this article, research also found that other names of note are at rest in the Las Cruces area. Among them are Benito and Houdini Juarez. Not to mention Corkey Lemons, Tinky Tink, Terrible and of course Unknown. These are all four-legged creatures buried at the Alicia Melgaard Pet Cemetery, a few miles down the road from the Las Cruces Animal Shelter. The Dona Ana County Humane Society operates the place, located just off of Hwy. 70.

According to "Sam" Borden, who is the Humane Society's finance manager and systems organizer, among other things, Melgaard was a long-time board member and president of the shelter who felt that the community needed such a place.

Borden says the plots run from $65-90, depending on the size, which includes one marker. An extra 10-spot will get you a casket, or you can provide your own.

The pet cemetery is sandwiched between two homesteads that sport a couple of horses (live ones) each and several trailer homes, one with a watchful pit bull, Princess (I know this because her owner/operator told her to shut up several times while tearing through the area on one of those obnoxious four-wheelers). The cemetery is in need of a bit of repair. There are a fair amount of low weeds, the sign needs a major upgrade, a small bridge is seeing signs of wear, and some of the older graves at the back of the small cemetery are caving in. Ironically, the day I visited, a dove had died and fallen into one of the concave graves.

Each grave did have a stone, either homemade or from "stock," with the critter's name on it and sometimes with a short epitaph.

As I walked between the rows of trim gravesites, covered in bright white stone, Princess watched me with a touch of disdain, like a four-legged St. Francis.

A woman was also at the cemetery when I stopped. A recent transplant from the East Coast, she was planning for the future, since all of her companion animals are getting up in years. She was not impressed with what she saw, but we did agree that some upgrades and maintenance would make this place a comforting and welcoming place for bereaved pet owners.

Princess had no opinion.

I thought back to my own "personal" pet cemetery that I haphazardly maintained during my childhood, a short distance behind our house and in a flower patch on the quarter-acre lot that the house sat on. Although the deceased canines went somewhere else with Ma or Pa (RIP to Puppy, Juno and the collie we had briefly, whose name I do not recall), the various other critters—hamsters, fish and cats—were all interred just east of the jonquils and north of the tulips. Alongside the garage were buried any number of plastic soldiers from Marx Toys "Play Sets," most often those from the Civil War sets, which as noted in a previous article here, are now worth hundreds of dollars.

Always compassionate, perhaps I wondered why a three-inch plastic chaplain was not included in the play sets as I interred the soldiers who did not strike what I considered "cool" poses. The price of being uncool was death.

During a flurry of yardwork years later, my mother disinterred any number of these lonely blue and gray souls. She informed me that she had found them, but never offered information on a reburial ceremony. She probably sold them on eBay for a few hundred bucks.

 

Senior writer Jeff Berg will write your eulogy for a small fee.

 

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