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Grave Undertaking

The silver-mining boomtown of Georgetown may be long gone, but its historic cemetery is getting spruced up.

 

As the wasplike whine of weed-whackers slices the stillness of the last summery day of October, Vada Early picks her way through the brambles and weeds crowding the tombstones of Georgetown Cemetery. Clad in a maroon coat she'll soon shed and carrying a pocket-sized digital camera and spiral notebook, she's documenting this day for posterity. The photos and the names of everyone who's manning a trimmer, spade or pruning saw will go into a scrapbook so, years from now, folks can see how this remote rural cemetery got rescued.

Cleanup organizer Vada Early examines an old headstone at the Georgetown Cemetery.

"The first thing I've got to say is that this is sponsored by the Mimbres United Methodist Church," Early emphasizes, steering around the grave of "Mabel G. Carson, Died April 16, 1889." A crack at the tombstone's base obscures how many days beyond "16 Y'rs, 2 Mos" Mabel's short life extended. Twin wires circle the upper portion of the stone, helping keep it more or less in one piece.

Early bustles on, heading over to check out the luncheon spread — provided by the Lions Club, she notes — that will reward the morning's two-dozen-some cleanup volunteers who've made their way over five miles of rock-studded gravel roads north and east, off Hwy. 152 near the mine lookout. The fire department burned off dry brush, she adds, and the Garden Club has enlisted to help clean off the graves. The Rock Club stopped by for this morning's work session before taking off into the surrounding Gila National Forest for a field trip.

"I came up here in February for a funeral," Early recalls, explaining how this whole cleanup campaign got started, "and got to looking around. There were piles of brush everywhere! I thought, gol-lee, this is ridiculous!"

Although the Georgetown Cemetery dates to at least 1866 and parts of it look long abandoned, "people are still being buried here," she adds. At last count, the cemetery numbered 115 graves, 38 of them unmarked; eight graves belong to victims of an epidemic, mostly children, in 1882, the cemetery's busiest year for burials.

Early confesses, in fact, that her motives for spearheading this whole cemetery cleanup are not entirely altruistic: "I want to be buried here someday, so I had to get it cleaned up."

She and her husband, Carl, have evidently given this some thought. Although her family's been in the area for over a century, neither of them has anyone already interred at Georgetown Cemetery. Carl's grandmother is buried in another rural cemetery that's fallen into even worse disrepair, nearby at Santa Rita, which Vada Early says is in "horrible" condition. ("Maybe other churches will hear about this and get wise," she suggests. "There are lots of old cemeteries that need cleaning up. People just don't care about things like that any more.") But the Earlys had planned on getting cremated when their time comes. "Then I decided I didn't want to be stuck in a rose garden in Silver City," she says. Just in case, she's hoping to create a cremation corner in the Georgetown Cemetery.

An elderly volunteer puts up her spade long enough to chime in, "I plan to have my ashes scattered in Puget Sound. Nobody's gonna stick me in the ground." Then the volunteer resumes sprucing up behind the iron-picketed tombstone of Bertha Smith, put in the ground in October 1882 at the tender age of one month.

"I knew a lot of these people," Early resumes, ticking off the surnames that recur among the tombstones — Fowler, Mattocks, Eddleman, Montoya, Massey. Dorothy Wokee, who lived just up the hill from the cemetery for years before moving back east, did a map of the whole site and transcribed all the tombstones in a booklet that's at the Silver City Museum and online at newmexicoalhn.net/grgrtwnbr.htm.

"It's been real interesting to hear from people who do have family buried here," Early says. "They're all over the world! People have already sent in $230 to help out, and I haven't even asked."

She's already planned a fundraiser next spring, however, at Camp Thunderbird on May 4. It'll be a potluck and a big party, and the camp will donate the $2 a head admission fee to the cemetery cleanup.

 

Georgetown, the silver-mining boomtown for which the cemetery is named, lies another couple of miles farther along the gravel forest-service road that eventually spits out into the Mimbres Valley. But don't bother making the drive — the only sign of life at the town site is a blooming cholla cactus.

According to a writeup by Dorothy Wokee, the cemetery scribe, Georgetown was born as a silver camp in 1866 — the same year of the first recorded burial at the graveyard. Turning into a town in the 1870s, its population boomed from 50 in 1880 to 1,200 by 1888.

Says Early, "It had a school, a grocery store, a millinery store, a post office and 20 saloons. Billy the Kid's stepfather — " That would have been William Antrim. " — ran a restaurant there. It must have been quite a wonderful place."

Wokee's account adds to Georgetown's business listings at its peak: two sawmills, a lumberyard, a boot- and shoemaker, a carpenter, a blacksmith, a wagon maker, a physician, a hospital, a drugstore, a bakery, a meat market, four or five dry goods stores, a second restaurant, a brewery, a billiard parlor, a jail to house the miscreants from the frequent shootouts in all those saloons, a hotel, a skating rink, two churches and "the first free public school in the territory." Beginning in 1881 the town boasted its own newspaper, The Silver Brick, whose name was later changed to the more mundane Georgetown Courier.

When the price of silver fell, however, so did the fortunes of Georgetown, NM. The 1893 repeal of the Sherman Silver Act, which had propped up the metal's price, knocked the legs out from the silver-mining business nationwide. By 1903, Georgetown's population had dwindled to a mere 100. The town was soon less lively than its cemetery, which at least continued to have the occasional mourners.

"The Masonic Lodge took care of the cemetery for a long time," says Early, "but not for awhile."

How long has it been since the cemetery was cared for? Early gazes around at the underbrush, the low-hanging branches and the clumps of crabgrass and replies, "It looks like a hundred years."

But the future looks brighter for the Georgetown Cemetery — Early has big plans. Once the cleanup's complete, she wants to pave the walkways with wood chips. New wooden crosses will mark the unknown graves. She hopes funding will allow for regular maintenance again.

"Everything changes," Early observes philosophically. "Nothing stays the same, that's for sure."

Sometimes, though, as proven by the whirr of trimmers and tang of freshly mown grass on this warm autumn morning, things change for the better.

— David A. Fryxell

For more information or to donate to the Georgetown Cemetery cleanup, contact Vada Early at 536-9527, PO Box 536, Mimbres, NM 88049.

 

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