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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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: