In The Tiny Hamlet Of Dos Cabezas, The Dead Are Not Forgotten.
By Leo Banks
THE WIND TELLS the story of Dos Cabezas. It carries the yip of coyotes and the snap of a turkey buzzard's wings over mesquite hills. But not much else.
This tiny southeastern Arizona hamlet, population 40, has been in steady decline for years, suffering the fate of so many Western towns that rose on the backs of stout miners and died with their dreams.
But for one day every year, the remaining pioneers and some of their kin return to gather at the hillside cemetery and remember.
"We talk about the old days and clean up around some of the headstones," says Carol Brunner, whose great-grandfather came to the Arizona Territory as an Army bugler at Camp Grant. "A lot of the folks have certain graves they take care of, usually someone they knew or had some connection to. It's important to remember."
Cemetery Day in Dos Cabezas is a 14-year-old tradition, the last remaining community function. Brunner and her father, Ray Wien, started it out of concern that the cemetery would go the way of the rest of the town unless they acted.
The place was in terrible shape. Weeds and trees had grown up over the graves. Many old wooden crosses, weathered by 100 years of hard sun, had fallen over.
A total of 111 graves had no readable markers, and many more had simply vanished over time. When residents went to bury someone, they'd sometimes dig into an existing grave.
No one kept records. In small towns, the dead are remembered more in hearts than on paper. Wien had buried many of the pioneers himself, using a pick and dynamite to blast through the rocky ground. He received no pay. It was just part of being a good neighbor.
"Burying those folks yourself makes this cemetery kind of personal," said Wien in a 1992 interview. He died that same year after being gored by a bull on his ranch.
"You'd drive by at night and see a light up on the hill and know it was daddy burying somebody," says Brunner, a 49- year-old nature photographer. "The cemetery meant so much to him that he didn't want somebody building a road through the middle of it."
They formed the non-profit Dos Cabezas Pioneer Cemetery Association, acquired the three-acre property from the rancher who owned it and went about reclaiming their past. They rooted out trees and brush, put up a perimeter fence to keep the deer and cattle from trampling everything and built a dirt road wide enough for a hearse.
Now the 60-member group meets once a year, on the Saturday before Memorial Day, to conduct its annual cleanup. Members come from points around Arizona and states beyond.
The first of them begin showing up in the coolness of the desert dawn. Some unfold lawn chairs and talk, while the heartiest tug down on their cowboy hats and break out the shovels and hoes. Afterward they go to Brunner's house for a cup of cider and maybe some tamales and homemade pie.
"There's nothing better than Arizona ranch food," says Miles Standish of Canoga Park, California, who makes the trip to Dos Cabezas every year. His father was born there and his grandfather was a constable and miner.
"I like hearing stories about what it was like in the old days," says Standish. "My father never talked about it much and this really brings the town to life for me."
Everything about cemetery day is informal, including the manner in which each person selects a grave-site for tending. Brunner looks after Harold Camenisch, a World War II veteran who died in 1958.
While passing through town one day, Camenisch's sister asked where Harold was buried. Brunner drove her up to the cemetery and pointed out the headstone. "I could see it was real emotional for her, so I've taken a special interest in him," says Brunner.
Orville Mickins looks after Col. William Downing. He was a cavalryman during the Apache wars, then he ran a sawmill until his death in 1898. Some say he was murdered by Apaches.
"There's quite a few up there that were killed by Indians," says Mickins, an armchair historian and proprietor of the Frontier Relics Museum in Dos Cabezas. "They used to raid through here."
Many graves hold youngsters taken during the typhoid epidemics of 1916 and 1917. Then there's Matias Pacheco, a 4-year-old boy who died in 1908 after a bite from a rabid skunk.
But most are miners who came looking for gold, silver and copper. The biggest venture was Chicago financier T.N. McCauley's Mascot Copper Mine. It began operation early in the century and brought the railroad and 3,000 people to Dos Cabezas--which means two heads in Spanish, after the twin mountain peaks to the north.
At its height, the town boasted a mercantile, dance hall, post office, and some saloons. In later years it was home to Kate Harony, better known as Big Nose Kate, Doc Holliday's lover during his Tombstone days.
When McCauley's venture collapsed in the early 1930s, the slide began. These days cows sleep on the hot-top of State Highway 186 and graze amid the broken-down adobe buildings. But the cemetery sparkles. A few residents have planted flowers that require once-a-week treks up the hill with water hauled in buckets.
Don Clemens, an ex-cop, drives up there every morning to do some sprucing up, and Dickie Stansberry built a fine wooden sign that hangs over the gated entrance.
"When this thing started we had eight or 10 people show up to clean, and last year we had 55," says Stansberry, a retired National Park Service ranger. "Every year it grows because people got relatives up there they just can't forget about."
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