By Bob Edgren
For local trivia buffs, what is the link between Stagecoach Mary and the Santa Cruz “Old” Holy Cross Cemetery? Most people in Montana know of legendary icon Stagecoach Mary Fields, as the first black person to arrive in Montana and the only female ever to hitch and drive a U.S Postal stagecoach. Mary Fields was also the only lady allowed to sit in a Montana bar gambling with the local men. For hours one could find her with her pet eagle, swearing, cussing, gambling, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars with the group.
Born in 1832, Mary’s life had changed after the emancipation. From her home in Tennessee where she grew up a slave, she eventually found her way to Montana in 1884 through circumstance. Near Helena Montana, Mary worked at a remote Christian mission school, located in Blackfoot country. The small St. Peter’s Mission established a school for Indian and white children. One day, a young, white, seven year old girl with big brown eyes and pigtails arrived with her sister and two brothers to start their education. The year was 1885. Her name was Mary Wells. Soon the young Mary Wells and the fifty seven year old Mary Fields became best of friends. According to Stagecoach Mary, “…us Mary’s have to stick together.” Later the older Mary saved the young Mary from a severe illness with some old slave remedies.
Now here is the link; local Santa Cruzan James Franks is Mary Wells’ grandson. His grandmother told him many of Stagecoach Mary’s perseverance stories. Franks is a historian, educator, author, husband, and “fun” grandpa for his grandchildren. On the career side, Franks is the former director of the United States Agency for International Development and Director of International Programs for the University of California, Santa Cruz. He also worked for the Department of State in Vietnam (1966-1968). In addition to writing some 16 books, Franks has been involved in many community activities and issues. He helped to preserve the Pogonip and Lighthouse field, and was active in the restoration of the town clock. His current project started five years ago, the renovation of the historical Old Holy Cross Cemetery.
In 2010, Franks decided to save the Old Holy Cross Cemetery located on Capitola Road Extension. He explains, “I have a few relatives buried there. I got tried of driving by and seeing what appeared to be a field of five foot tall weeds.”
Many people just shook their heads and said, “Good luck Jim.” But in the true spirit of perseverance and his pioneer heritage, Franks jumped right in, explaining, “Once I got the weeds down so the headstones and plots were visible, I realized I was uncovering an important part of Santa Cruz history. I was taken back that the cemetery was neglected, we have so much history here.”
Franks is eager to provide an overview of the cemetery’s history. It is called “Old” Holy Cross Cemetery to differentiate it from the “new” Catholic burial ground nearby. Old Holy Cross Cemetery contains the oldest remains of any Santa Cruz cemetery except for a few know Native American burial sites. Even when officially founded in 1873, the “Old” cemetery already a documented history of 82 years.
Walking through this burial ground is like walking through a Santa Cruz museum. One can find original Santa Cruz pioneers, desperados, businesspeople, veterans and politicians.
Preservation has been nearly a daily commitment. Thanks to a handful of volunteers, and Franks’ friends, donors, and his dedicated wife Marianne, it is now a local showcase. Historian Norman who enjoys dressing up in one of his 1880’s era outfits gives tours. There is a beautiful new fence donated by the Simpkins family and new blacktop for the entrance and drives donated by the Castagnola family that really enhances the overall appearance. Years ago the Stagnaro family had moved their family plots to the new Holy Cross Cemetery. Now they have donated a beautiful crypt that is reserved for veterans – and yes, now there are people requesting to reserve a plot at the “Old” Holy Cross.
Stagecoach Mary Fields never made it to California and rests in Montana, but Grandma Mary gave grandson Jim many personal stories that he has included in his book about Stagecoach Mary. The Connection? If Stagecoach Mary had not helped to cure his grandmother, Jim Franks might not have been here to preserve “Old” Holy Cross Cemetery!
If you would like a tour of the Old Holy Cross Cemetery, phone James at 831-423-3481. He appreciates any donations, which are tax deductable and can be sent to: Catholic Diocese of Monterey, c/o James Franks, 719 Fairmont Ave. Santa Cruz, CA 95062. Checks: to the Catholic Diocese of Monterey with “Old Holy Cross Cemetery” in the memo area.
For a list of James Franks books, visit: http://wildgoosepress.com/jafranks.html