A dozen volunteers made record time in restoring the grave of a vivid Rim Country pioneer on Saturday — hauling fencing and wielding rakes and clippers to honor the man credited with discovering the Tonto Natural Bridge.
“Sometimes in life you get down on people,” said Bill Gibson who spent months lining up permits and donations to restore the grave of David Gowan, a sailor, prospector, rancher, farmer and doughty survivor. “Then you run across a group of people like this and it kind of restores your faith in humanity. What a cool deal.”
Gowan froze to death sitting against a tree alongside Deer Creek, but not before he helped settle Rim Country.
The Civil War sailor and lone survivor of the sinking of his commercial fishing boat, Gowan was among the first settlers in the region. When the sheep he drove out from California mostly died, he started a homestead, developed one of the richest mines in the area, settled for a time at Tonto Natural Bridge and survived numerous Apache raiding parties.
After he vanished one January, neighbors set out to find him leaning against a tree, his boots alongside his frozen body.
Gibson, a former U.S. Marine and one-time owner of a background jeep tour company, came upon Gowan’s lonely, overgrown grave on a hike and soon found himself driven by a need to restore the grave and honor Gowan’s pioneer courage.
It took months to gain permission from the Forest Service to restore the grave. Once he had the permits, he talked Home Depot into donating the fencing and other materials.
Then he put out word he needed volunteers and showed up at the Deer Creek trailhead at 8 a.m. Saturday morning, wondering whether anyone would show up to help.
He need not have worried: Given the cheerful willingness to work for a good cause among many Rim Country residents.
“We got 11 people — and five men and six women. Three of them were school teachers and one retired from the university. We also had a little girl: It was just great the way it all came together.”
The group met at the trailhead and distributed the fence posts, tools, water and other supplies for the brisk hike to the gravesite, where they hoped to use an old photograph of the grave to restore it. Someone had set fire to the fence that once marked the grave and brush had nearly reclaimed the site.
The group included hikers, the former owner of a landscaping company, teachers and history buffs, all marked by a cheerful willingness to pitch in.
“It was amazing,” said ‘Wild Bill’ Gibson. “I turned around one time to get a drink of water and turned around back and there were two posts up. I turned around again and some of the ladies went down to the river and hauled rocks up from the river to cover the grave. It came out incredible. Everyone had great attitude, everyone just jumped in and did something. It was so uplifting: I feel just like wow, what’s the next project.”
Volunteers included Bill Tenoquer, Chris Chambers, Kari McCleskey, Preston McMurry, Jeremy Simko, Kim Chambers, Bill Gibson, Heather Langi, Patti Behm, Lanae Laurias and Barb DeWiese.