I stood next to the canvas windbreak, rather than sit on one of the plastic chairs facing the casket. The sky was gray, the wind cold and piercing. A few cows with snow on their backs watched from yards away. Beyond the cows, the land they grazed stretched for miles. The small and remote cemetery was surrounded by a chain link fence and a cattle guard. It was important to me, and for me, to be here in Higbee Cemetery, a forty minute drive from La Junta, Colorado across miles of ranchland, and part of the Comanche Grasslands. The Grasslands lead to the long Higbee Valley as the road from La Junta drops between the mesas, the Higbee Cemetery at the head of the valley, just off the gravel road that goes on for miles.
Mary Jane Gearhart was buried that cold day in February, 2022 in the presence of her family and friends. The twenty or so people were there for Mary Jane, the seventh and last child of Sam and Mollie Allen.
Mary Jane Gearhart 1932-2022
Mary Jane was born in this valley, not a mile from where we stood. The family members here, and those far away, were proud of the history of Sam and Mollie Allen and the lives of the seven children, born into a modest but strong family.
The service was at the Methodist Church in La Junta, an hour or so before we assembled at the gravesite. Several of the men wore dress cowboy boots and black cowboy hats, one with a silver bolo tie. Mary Jane would have liked that. Two songs were played from the church hymnal, recorded by country singers. Perfect moments.
Mary Jane was the last child of Sam and Mollie to attend the one-room school house which had stood less than a half mile from where she is now buried. More than one of the seven children had claimed having had to walk the half mile to the school on a day like this to light the wood stove. Uncle John, however, did not. His role was to clear the skunks from near the school. Jimmy claimed that Johnny could shoot a skunk without it setting off its smell. When Mary Jane was lighting the fire, her three brothers had left the valley to Europe and the Pacific in the 1940’s.
1930s at the school house
Sam and Mollie came to this valley one hundred years ago from the CS Ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico where Sam was a foreman. Perhaps Mollie had had her fill of living on a ranch as Sam cowboyed, and wanted a place to call home and to raise her family.
Raising a family in such a place was a task for a strong woman. Mollie certainly was, and Mary Jane became just like her.
I didn’t know Mollie as well as I would have liked, but I loved and admired her. She was diligent, tough, smart and a good Methodist. Her mother, Barbara Mackenzie, came from Scotland and married William Cartwright, a gun hand for Murdo Mackenzie, Barbara’s brother, and cattle rancher from Scotland who is an historical figure of the Old West.
Mollie loved her children and her husband, Sam, who was orphaned at an early age. Mollie was a model to her grandchildren and those close to her loved her dearly, especially her granddaughters. She rarely, if ever complained. I suppose one could say the family was poor, but I think Mollie and Sam thought of themselves as living a simple life. The house was, as I recall, two rooms. There was a cistern just out the door, water fetched from a spring with a horse-drawn wagon. There was no electricity until the late 1930s.
Sam died in 1946, before Mollie was 50 years old. Mary Jane was only 13 when Sam died, leaving her and Mollie to lease out part of the land while raising chickens and turkeys to make a living, moving to town shortly after Sam died.
Mary Jane graduated Salutatorian from La Junta High School at 16 in 1949. Like her brothers and sisters, the foundation of her education was a one-room school house through the 8th grade, with one teacher. All seven children went to that humble school and went on to do well, certainly a lesson in foundational education for us today.
Mollie and Sam taught the Christian principles of hard work, self-sufficiency and generosity to Mary Jane, as well as her other six children.
The day before Mollie was buried late in her 99th year, I went with Uncle John, my father, Jim and my twelve year old son, Sam, Jim’s grandson, to the farm that was not but a mile from where we stood this day. Sam walked between Jim and Johnny, me walking behind. Jim told Sam how he and his brothers, on a cold day just like the day Mary Jane was buried, would stuff newspapers into their shirts to stay warm as they got on horses to move the few cattle they might have had, to keep them from freezing. Jim, as far as I could tell, never loved this place like Mary Jane. Jim wanted to leave.
“How did you know there was something else, Grandpa, if you had no radio or TV?”
“Books, Sam, were all we had,” Jimmy replied.
“On cold days like this, we read books, or worked, no matter the weather.” With nine people in two rooms, I imagine working outside was preferred.
Mary Jane told me two years ago how she loved growing up in the Higbee Valley. Sam, she said, was a good father and a good man. He had two draft horses to pull the plow, not having any interest, she said, in a tractor.
Mary Jane was part of the business community of La Junta, working at The Colorado Bank and Trust. She never forgot her roots; in fact, she lived them. She hunted the hills where she grew up, loved her hunting trips with her friends and family, while camping in a teepee in the places where the Comanche roamed. As a woman, she never lived far from La Junta and along with her sisters, never far from helping Mollie.
I came here several times over the years to find the spirit of my father. I struggled to find him, to discover who he was. On my last trip, eighteen months ago, Mary Jane helped me, and I am grateful. Who were the good people who grew up here, and what lessons do they have for us?
As I stood by the windbreak, I looked out over the valley that was home to my family, where the history of my family is centered and wondered if I would ever return. I just might come back one more time.
If I do, it will be to visit Mary Jane, who loved to roam these hills in her bare feet. Mary Jane, buried so close to where she was born and lived as a girl, never far away as a woman, now leaves her spirit to roam these hills forever.
If I never come back, I will think of my family every time I hear,