The Restoration of Sierra Vista’s Fry Pioneer Cemetery

Community is important. It’s more than just where we live. It’s store clerks, mechanics, doctors, and teachers. It’s our friends and neighbors who keep us company. It’s also the people who take care of the places we mourn members of the community we’ve lost.

Elizabeth Wrozek, the new curator of the Henry F. Hauser Museum in Sierra Vista, Arizona, alongside many dedicated volunteers in the community, have worked to save and restore a historic cemetery resulting in being nominated for Arizona’s Governor’s Heritage Preservation Honor Award. 

What is Fry Pioneer Cemetery’s history in relation to the history of Sierra Vista?

Elizabeth Wrozek: The Fry Pioneer Cemetery is named after one of our community’s founding pioneer families, who established the cemetery on their land in 1919. Oliver and Elizabeth Fry and their children originally homesteaded on land east of Fort Huachuca, beginning in 1912, where they farmed and sold milk and cream to the fort. 

Photos by Corey Dembeck

The family businesses expanded, and son Erwin Fry increased land holdings and began several businesses himself. They became very prominent in the developing community, and at one point, the land that was to become Sierra Vista was named Fry. 

The Fry family established the cemetery after the death of Elizabeth Ruth Cathcart Fry on December 25, 1919. At the time, there was no mortuary in the area, and most who died were sent to Bisbee or Tombstone for burial. However, not everyone could afford that. In the area outside of the Fry family plot, the Fry family permitted burials free of charge for many people who worked for them, or for family members or friends of those who worked for them. 

Many of those who labored in the area were of Hispanic and/or Yaqui descent who immigrated here in the late 1800s and early 1900s before and during the Mexican Revolution. The men worked as woodcutters on Fort Huachuca or in the canyons, or in the mines, while women worked as domestics or in local stores. Many worked for and knew the Fry family. So, the Fry Pioneer Cemetery really embodies the spirit of all of those early settlers who built the community that was to become the City of Sierra Vista. 

Although, it is interesting to note that the cemetery itself, while owned by the City of Sierra Vista, is located within the Fry Township, a section of land that refused incorporation in 1956 and remains relatively independent to this day. 

How many people are buried in Fry Cemetary?

Elizabeth Wrozek: The first burial there was of Elizabeth Ruth Cathcart Fry, who died on December 25, 1919. The last is Margaret Jeanne (Fry) Corona, who died on February 19, 2010. There are 14 Fry family members buried in the family plot, 199 known burials in the general cemetery area, and about 57 unknown babies. No notable burials, but it is interesting to note that as a National Historic Landmark, no one else is allowed to be buried in the general cemetery area. However, Fry family members are still allowed to be buried within the family plot. 

Why is restoring the cemetery important to you and the community?

 Elizabeth Wrozek: Well first, of the 199 known gravesites in the general cemetery area outside of the Fry family plot, only two had pre-preservation markers indicating who was buried there. This was largely due to family members leaving them unmarked or only being able to afford wooden markers, which eventually disintegrated, and also to removal and vandalism before the cemetery was secured. So it was important to us to recognize these individuals for a couple of reasons: some of them still have descendants who reside in the area, and those descendants were unable to honor their ancestors in their final resting place; and because these are the people who built, supported, and shaped our community, and it is important to remember their contributions as much as some of our founding families. 

Historically speaking, much emphasis is given to manifest destiny and the westward expansion of European Americans. What we wanted to do, is to also tell the story of the multi-cultural roots of our borderland community by exploring the history and heritage of those of Hispanic and/or Yaqui descent who are buried in the Fry Pioneer Cemetery. So along with our preservation efforts, Sierra Vista Historical Society and the City of Sierra Vista’s Henry F. Hauser Museum undertook extensive research efforts to create educational programming and an exhibit highlighting not only the Fry family but those buried outside the walls.  

Can you tell me about restoring the cemetery, what did it involve? How long has it taken? When will it be complete? The award you guys won?

Elizabeth Wrozek: In 2006, when there were reports that the cemetery property was going to be sold and developed, local citizens moved to prevent this from happening. Descendants of family and friends buried in the cemetery created a list and map of proposed burials and wrote affidavits that were provided to the State of Arizona and the National Preservation Office in the application for historic designation […] Their sworn affidavits and other historical data were used in the application for the nomination of the Fry Pioneer Cemetery as a state and national historical site which was granted in 2009.” -from the “Fry Pioneer Cemetery: A Century of History & Culture” booklet produced by the City of Sierra Vista’s Henry F. Hauser Museum.

In 2008, the City of Sierra Vista purchased the cemetery parcel to the south and west of the Fry family plot. However, it wasn’t until 2019 that the Sierra Vista Historical Society, with the help of an anonymous donor, was able to purchase the cemetery parcel on the east. The latter had been sold for commercial use and was being utilized for parking. SVHS then gifted that lot, and another they purchased to the north for parking, to the City of Sierra Vista and preservation work began. 

Utilizing a hand-drawn map created by Ignacio “Nacho” Valenzuela and Eugenio Moreno Jr. -who buried many laid to rest in the cemetery and compiled a burial list of individuals based on their recollections and family history- Fry Pioneer Cemetery Preservation Committee Co-Chairman Marty Jones and SVHS President Tim Doyle measured, string-lined, and plotted the locations of almost 200 graves. 

They then marked them with survey whiskers. After the burial locations were marked, SVHS contracted a local company to begin installing a walkway, and volunteers began to embed engraved bricks marking the individual graves. At the same time, the City of Sierra Vista delivered gabion baskets and over 108 tons of rick rack that was hand placed.

A flagpole was also donated and erected at the entrance of the Fry family plot. After that, security was the next priority. The cemetery hadn’t been open to the public in over a decade, and we all wanted this significant local historic site available to the community without worrying about vandalism. So, over the gabion wall, we had wrought-iron fencing erected and on the north side of the cemetery, a wrought iron pedestrian gate.

We still need the funds to install a service gate, but after that, the cemetery will be open with the city’s Parks & Leisure Department unlocking it in the morning and securing it at night. Besides that, our only other big project there is create educational signage that highlights the cemetery’s unique, multi-cultural history. 

So far, it has taken about a year and a half, but we are working with very limited financial resources and almost entirely with volunteer labor. We are not sure when it will be complete, especially because of the impact of COVID-19. 

Back in the beginning of March, with the help of SVHS members and the City of Sierra Vista employees, I nominated the Fry Pioneer Cemetery for a Governor’s Heritage Preservation Honor Award. The State Historic Preservation Office and the Arizona Preservation Foundation grant ten of these awards a year throughout Arizona. According to the APF website, these awards “are given to individuals, businesses, organizations, and/or projects in recognition of outstanding achievements in preserving Arizona’s prehistoric and historic resources.” 

Awardees are then honored during the APF’s annual preservation conference, which this year will take place virtually on June 18. During the conference, they will announce the winner of the prestigious James W. Garrison award, who is chosen from among the ten honorees. It is an honor to be receiving this statewide recognition for our work in preserving and restoring this 100-year-old pioneer cemetery, and we cannot wait to open this significant historical site back up to the public. 

Can you describe the unknown babies found in the cemetery?

Elizabeth Wrozek: Little is known of the identities of the infants buried in the cemetery. What we do know is that there was widespread prostitution in the area from the 1890s through World War II. There were established brothels like “The White City,” which is currently the old Daisy Mae’s Steakhouse, and a string of cribs located in the early rock houses along what is now North Garden Ave., one of which still stands today. 

Many of these infants were products of these ladies of the night- abortions, stillbirths, and infantile death shortly after birth- and were buried in the cemetery under cover of darkness. There are estimated to be approximately 57 unknown infants buried outside of the east wall of the Fry family plot. Their exact locations are unknown, but the Sierra Vista Historical Society has laid bricks in remembrance of the unknown infants, and Butterfly Gardens created a memorial garden to honor them. 

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