SIERRA VISTA — Remembering history can be difficult, but the City of Sierra Vista and multiple volunteers are making it easier for local residents by restoring a local monument to the past — Fry Pioneer Cemetery.
“Sierra Vista is still a fairly young community and there are few remaining historic sites that tell the story of the early settlers here,” Sierra Vista City Manager Chuck Potucek said in a statement emailed to the Herald/Review. “The Fry Pioneer Cemetery is a National Historic Landmark and a vital piece of our local history.”
Members of the public had their first chance of seeing the newly renovated cemetery on Saturday at the rededication ceremony, hosted by the Henry F. Hauser Museum and the blessing of the cemetery by Fr. Greg Adolf.
Nancy Krieski, curator for the Hauser Museum, said the cemetery was first rededicated in 2011 after receiving historical site status. Now with the 100th anniversary and the improvements that have been made, they wanted to celebrate.
At the end of 2018 the City of Sierra Vista became owners of Fry cemetery, located on North Seventh Street, and have since been cleaning it up with the goal of taking down the fences and opening it up to the public.
For months the Sierra Vista Historical society, with some help of the Hauser Museum and the city, have been working to revitalize the cemetery, since its appearance resembled little more than a dirt lot, and was not a place to honor those who are buried there.
“To be able to not only honor the history of the Fry family but to also to pay tribute to those buried outside the Fry family plot’s walls is incredibly exciting,” Potucek’s statement read. “We’re grateful for the hard work of the Sierra Vista Historical Society and the generosity of Pioneer Title, which made this project possible.”
When Oliver Fry and his family moved to present day Sierra Vista in 1912 he didn’t have a place to bury his loved ones. Seven years later, on Christmas Day his wife Elizabeth Cathcart Fry passed away and was the first person buried on the Fry’s plot in the Pioneer Cemetery. Just under one hundred years later, the museum opened the “Try Pioneer Cemetery: A Century of History & Culture” exhibit, which will run through June, to celebrate the milestone.
“This whole project has been in the making for decades,” Krieski said. “The cemetery represents the entirety of this community. ... It’s the only place you can stand and understand our history.”
Oliver Fry opened up the surrounding land to laborers, who helped established the town. The City of Sierra Vista took ownership of the Fry family plot and some of the surrounding land in 2009. Krieski said there are currently 200 people buried in the cemetery, many of whom are not identified.
“There are at least 57 babies (buried in a portion of the cemetery) who were either stillborn, aborted or died shortly after birth, (many resulting) from the business of prostitution, from the 1890s to World War II,” she said.
What fascinates her about the cemetery is its representation of of the city’s diverse history, as it houses the founders, the people who helped lay the foundation for the town, and has a strong reminder of the consequences of the prostitution industry that was happening in the late 1800s.
In the late 1990s, Nacho Valenzuela, 94, and his now deceased uncle Serapio Valenzuela, mapped out the graves and laid bricks identifying the bodies. Nacho’s daughter Marta Messmer said that her father decided to create a map of the graves because there were rumors of the land being sold, which years later did happen.
The Valenzuelas’ work was erased as the bricks were destroyed, however, the map the pair created was used by Tim and Marty Doyle to remark the graves. Since September, Messmer has worked at the cemetery with other members of the Sierra Vista Historical Society to lay bricks to identify the bodies and clean up the cemetery.
“I’m kinda just taking over for my dad,” she said. “I wanted to make sure everything he did wasn’t overwritten.”
The map Naco and Serapio created is on display at the museum as part of the exhibit, as well as photos of some of the workers who are buried there. Krieski said some of the bodies that have been identified were those of a World War II veteran and migrants who worked on Fort Huachuca.
“When you can go and see all the markers, it’s incredible,” Messmer said. “They must have done something right on the foundation (of the city) for us to still be going.”
The Historical Society still has some improvements they would like to complete before opening the cemetery to the public on a permanent bases. Adam Curtis, public information officer for the city, said they will make an announcement when they have a set date to open the cemetery.
“Now it’s a proper cemetery, a proper historical site and all the people buried are honored,” Messmer said.