We continue our investigation of a number of mysterious and isolated graves found around the Rim Country. We are on State Route 87, having left the white picket fence that borders the Holder graves along Sycamore Creek. We continue through the Town of Pine, and head up the mountain to the community of Strawberry. There we turn left at the Strawberry Lodge and drive west on Fossil Creek Road. In a few miles we come to the famous Strawberry School, now a delightful local museum. This is the oldest original schoolhouse in Arizona, and if it is open when you arrive, you will want to go in and browse, enjoying its history and nostalgia.
Our goal, however, is the Strawberry Cemetery just up the road that runs beside the school. A sign points to the cemetery, but what is left of it is so small you may miss if unless you look carefully. This little graveyard was much larger at one time. The Pine-Strawberry Historical Society could identify only three of the graves. One of them carries the name "Prather," of whom we know little or nothing except that "he died working in the field." There was a William D. Prather who was postmaster at Reno in 1881, followed by LaFayette Nash, who hailed from Strawberry. Perhaps the grave is William's or belongs to one of his family.
One of the graves in the Strawberry Cemetery is simply identified as LOWTHIAN. It may be Sarah, the wife of John Lowthian. John and his daughter Livvie, however, are buried in the Pine Cemetery. The family had come here from Los Angeles, having first immigrated from Missouri. They were probably the first white settlers in Strawberry, arriving sometime before 1880. John's brother Isaac, known as Ike, also settled in the Strawberry area, and both brothers participated in building the Strawberry Schoolhouse in 1885. It is said that Ike gave Strawberry its name because of the wild strawberry ground cover they found there. The Rim Country History states (page 156), "The women would gather the berries along the banks of the beautiful stream which rose under the Mogollon Rim and flowed deep into Fossil Creek."
Another identifiable grave is for little John Wingfield who died in 1889. The Wingfield name first appears in the Verde Valley when William and Margaret Wingfield settled near the military post in 1875. William's brother John Henry and wife Sarah followed, settling in Strawberry Valley in 1885, and having eight children, he pitched in immediately to help built the schoolhouse. While living at Strawberry, the couple had twin boys, John and James, but John died at 10 months. Five years later the family moved over to the Verde Valley where they ranched the rest of their days. The lonely grave of John Wingfield reminds us of how tenuous life was for pioneer families.
When the mother Sarah died in 1906, seven of her 10 children had already died. One of those was Clinton, who was the victim of murder.
Clint Wingfield and a partner, Mack Rogers, had bought the old settler's store in Camp Verde. Shortly after it opened, July 1899, the infamous Black Jack Ketchum robbed the store. During the robbery, Ketchum shot and mortally wounded both partners. A posse rode out to find the murderer without success, but after other crimes, Ketchum ended up in New Mexico where he was caught and hung. The Wingfields of Strawberry suffered so much loss, though only little John is buried in that cemetery. We can only imagine the continuing grief of these pioneer families who lost their children and loved ones so early and so often.
Strawberry was located at an important junction between the trail leading west to the Verde River Valley (by way of Fossil Creek) and the trail that climbed the Mogollon Rim and headed north to Flagstaff. We drive back now to this junction, and turn left to climb the Strawberry Grade. This twisting road was built around 1937.
Two earlier grades were used by the settlers to come down or get up onto the Rim. Before we proceed to the next isolated grave, it is of interest to know more about these trails.
Families arriving from the north and east to settle in Pine would camp at Baker's Butte before making the descent. When the Lowthians arrived, they camped 10 days before finding a gentle enough place to come down. They widened the faint trail and cut large logs to drag behind the wagons as brakes. After 1880, Lafayette P. Nash and his family made their home at the base of this descent, and it came to be known as Nash Point.
In 1883, a better trail was blazed by the Rile Allen family who had established a dairy farm above Pine on Milk Ranch Point. They were selling dairy products to workers on the Mineral Belt Railroad as tracks were laid across the Rim toward the East Verde descent. The Allens found an old Indian trail leading up Strawberry Canyon, beginning a quarter mile south of Strawberry. They set to work building a five-mile wagon road to the top, including the many switchbacks. On the top it joined the Crook Military Road and headed out to Milk Ranch Point.
Decades later, this had become the main road from northern Gila County to Flagstaff and Winslow. In 1924 the Fossil Creek Road was constructed, and westbound traffic went "that-a-way." "The old Strawberry Grade," as it came to be called, continued to be improved so that automobiles could use it in the 1920s and 1930s. This rugged trail, which can still be hiked, was abandoned for auto traffic in 1937 when the present road was developed.
Next time we will ascend the Rim.