Navajo County Courthouse

Holbrook, Arizona – March 20, 2022

Holbrook, Arizona, located in the northeastern corner of the state, is the seat of Navajo County, which was split off from neighboring Apache County in 1895. Both counties are still huge: Navajo measures 9,960 square miles, and Apache still has more than 11,000 square miles even after the division. Navajo County is bigger than the state of Vermont and just slightly smaller than Massachusetts. (For reference, my home county in eastern Colorado, Kit Carson, is considered very large at 2,162 square miles; in fact, Navajo County is about a tenth the size of the entire state of Colorado.)

Nearly two-thirds of Navajo County is designated Native American reservation land, including parts of the Hopi Indian reservation, the Navajo Nation, and Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

We camped in Holbrook for a week because of the town’s close proximity to Petrified Forest National Park – the park is only 25 miles northeast of the city – but we found plenty to like about the town itself.

The Navajo County Courthouse, completed nearly 125 years ago, is now home to the Navajo County Historical Society’s museum. Built in 1898 at a cost of $15,000, including a $3,000 jail, the courthouse was in use until 1976 when the Navajo County Correctional Complex was constructed on the south side of Holbrook.

Construction of the Navajo County Courthouse in Holbrook, Arizona, was completed in 1898. The courtroom and jail are on the right side of the building. You can probably determine on which floor each is located: one has cloth curtains on its windows and the other has metal bars.

The museum was open on a Sunday afternoon in March after the Goddard’s arrival in Holbrook, so we were able to spend a few pleasant hours touring the exhibits.

The first exhibit in the museum is the county jail, which is to the right after one enters the courthouse. The jail was built in Kansas City, Missouri, by the Pauly Jail Company, which began operations in 1856 and is still in business today – be sure to consider it for any incarceration needs you may have. The jail was then shipped by rail to Holbrook and placed in the still-under-construction courthouse.

The jail’s desk and other office furniture is on display in the office. That’s a receipt book along with some historic postcards on the desk. The longhorns at top left allude to Navajo County’s ranching heritage, which is extensive.
Here’s a handy feature located in the wall across from that desk: it’s a peephole covered by a swinging cover that affords a view into the detention area …
… and here’s what one sees if one looks through that peephole. The sleeping accommodations are somewhat spartan.
I don’t know how often you consider turning to a life of crime, but I know that when I do I make myself think of scenes like these and my thoughts quickly change to other, less illegal pursuits. Nancy and I didn’t have an opportunity to visit the new correctional facilities in Holbrook, so I don’t know how they compare to these. One would think they’re an improvement.

Firmly deciding to continue living our lives on the straight and narrow path, Nancy and I proceeded to other parts of the museum. Volunteers for the Navajo County Historical Society spend more than 2,000 hours each year curating and conserving artifacts from Holbrook’s past. The items represent the lives of Native Americans, Euro-American settlers, ranchers and cowboys, bankers, homemakers, railroad employees, teachers, merchants, and travelers through the area over the past centuries. Like many community historical museums we’ve visited, the exhibits in the building show a tremendous range of cultural, social, and economic pursuits. I wish other museums, however, were as well curated as Holbrook’s: the society has really done a fine job of keeping the exhibits relevant and reasonably sized.

The Mother Road

Holbrook makes much of its location on the former Route 66, one of the original highways of the U.S. Highway System. Established in 1926, Route 66 connected Chicago, Illinois, with Santa Monica, California, and passed through the states of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in its 2,448 miles.

Route 66 was an extraordinarily important highway in the first half of the 20th century, serving as the primary means by which Americans migrated to the West – especially during the Great Depression (John Steinbeck’s novel “Grapes of Wrath” alludes heavily to the highway). The route proved to be an essential economic driver for dozens of cities and towns along the way, as businesses provided food, fuel, shelter, and services to those who traveled the highway. Route 66 was officially removed from the U.S. Highway System in 1985, having been mostly replaced by a variety of segments of the U.S. Interstate Highway System.

The museum displays interesting artifacts from Route 66, and Holbrook itself makes many references to the highway along its former route. While we were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we also saw many references to Route 66 (according to the mileage chart in the display above, Albuquerque is 1,329 miles from Chicago).
This marker for mile 322 on Route 66 was originally located east of Petrified Forest National Park – Holbrook today is at mile markers 285 and 286 on Interstate 40, which follows the path of Route 66 in northern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The interstate highway splits Petrified Forest National Park into two parts, and the 350-square-mile park is located in both Navajo and Apache counties. This is a really attractive mile marker, and I wonder how many of them are still around.

The Hashknife Outfit

In addition to the town’s Route 66 connection, the Holbrook museum also features extensive exhibits on the Aztec Land & Cattle Company. The company was founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1884 to take advantage of significant drops in cattle prices in Texas. Many large ranches in that state had continued to add to their herds, intending to reap profits when the beef markets improved. However, lingering drought caused prices to drop even further.

Aztec bought the Continental Cattle Company and its Hashknife brand (so called because the cattle brand resembled a bladed kitchen utensil), then shipped a total of 60,000 cattle and 2,200 horses from Texas to northeastern Arizona. The cattle were grazed on land purchased for 50 cents an acre from the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad. The grazing lands stretched about 300 miles from just south of Flagstaff to the New Mexico border (Arizona and New Mexico were both U.S. territories until 1912). With the ranch headquarters in Holbrook, the company’s employee base was a significant economic force for the town. However, Holbrook’s population of 300 residents found that not all of the Hashknife Outfit’s cowboys were of the law-abiding type. Cases of armed robbery and cattle rustling escalated, and there were 26 shooting deaths in 1886 (again, in a town of 300 people).

The Aztec Land & Cattle Company’s cattle brand looks a lot like this handy-dandy kitchen utensil, called a hashknife.

As was typical in the days of the Old West, range wars involving different ranches and their possessions were common. Many of the cowboys involved, either current or former Aztec employees, were incarcerated or outright killed.

The original end of Aztec as a beef-raising company came in 1902, with a drought, flooding, and overgrazing that destroyed the land on which the cattle were grazed. Aztec sold off its land and its remaining cattle, and the Hashknife brand was sold to a family in Flagstaff (and Aztec continues today as the third-largest private landowner in Arizona).

However, many of the cowboys of the Hashknife Outfit would go on to become respectable citizens of Holbrook and the surrounding area as independent ranchers, law enforcement officers, businessmen, and community leaders.

Although it was definitely the largest, the Aztec Cattle & Land Company wasn’t the only cattle concern around Holbrook and the museum has many artifacts about the ranching way of life.

Is it really a Western historical museum if it doesn’t feature a barbed wire exhibit? I think not. These barbed wire examples from the early Holbrook area date from the mid-1870s and 1880s.

Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher and cattle trail developer, is credited with introducing the chuckwagon, a mobile kitchen used to keep cowboys’ bellies full, in 1866. Goodnight’s model was a modified wagon from the U.S. Civil War, to which he added a box with drawers and shelves for food and supply storage. Goodnight’s cattle drives took cattle from Texas to New Mexico on the Goodnight-Loving Trail (which also followed part of the Butterfield Overland Mail route). He’d later go on to drive cattle from New Mexico up into Colorado and Wyoming. Cooks for the cattle drives would also serve as barbers, dentists, and bankers for the outfits, and were so important that they were usually second in command to the trailbosses.

This particular chuckwagon belonged to George Hennessy (1877-1974), who was mayor of Holbrook in 1918 and was married to the daughter of the Hashknife Outfit’s foreman. Another resident of Holbrook, C.F. Lee, owned the wagon later, and his son, who donated the wagon to the Holbrook museum, said it was special to his father because, as a teenager on his first cattle roundup, he ate off this chuckwagon.

Back to the Triassic

One of the things I really appreciate about community historical museums is the breadth of items they display. The artifacts can range in dates from the times of ancient Native American cultures up to the Great Depression of the 1930s and even more recent. As I wrote, the Navajo County Historical Society has excelled at displaying just a few items from each era in order to abstain from overwhelming visitors. Let’s go back even further in time for a moment:

This is the fossilized skull of a critter still needing positive scientific identification, found about a mile east of present-day Holbrook. It is likely an amphibian that lived during the Triassic period, 250 to 200 million years ago. The skull is maybe 18 inches wide. Holbrook is, of course, also near Petrified Forest National Park and its huge fossilized trees that lived about 225 million years ago.
Writing of hard things, this is an example of an adobe brick from an early Holbrook building. Many of the buildings of the city are constructed from adobe, which has since been stuccoed to prevent erosion. Adobe is, of course, a time-honored construction material in the American southwest. This display also included other building materials, including sandstone blocks and red clay bricks, from since-demolished Holbrook buildings.
The citizens of Navajo County have long held a strong interest in preserving the past. In 1940, the war in Europe was threatening to spill over into other parts of the world, including the United States. Political leaders in Navajo County wrote a prayer for peace and sealed it in the three-inch galvanized pipe shown above. The capsule was then deposited in the left pilaster of the courthouse entrance. Other items included in the time capsule included two buffalo nickels, two March of Dimes pins, a newspaper from 1940, an election ballot form, and a number of written letters. The capsule was unearthed in 1995 during an annual celebration in Holbrook. In 1998, the contents of the time capsule along with other items from that year were reburied in a PVC pipe in the same location, and officials decreed that the plastic time capsule will be reopened in the year 2098.
The courtroom, located on the courthouse’s second floor, looks much like it did in the final days of its use in 1976. The jury seats are on the left, and museum exhibits are on the room’s other walls. The judge’s chambers and legal library, through the door to the left of the exhibit cases, are also preserved. After the courthouse’s construction, this room was also used for community dances until it was decided that the festivities were putting too much weight on the floor. Note the ornate design of the ceiling. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent in courtrooms, willfully or not, but for some reason they always have a calming effect on me.
I took this photo of the courthouse’s front door as we were leaving the museum. There’ve been a lot of people who walked through this door in the last 124 years: some to face a trial, some to pay a county bill, some to attend a dance in the courtroom (when that was still permitted). The door and its hardware have a lot of character, and they’re just a few steps from the PVC time capsule that will be reopened in just over three-quarters of a century.

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