History of the San Juan Bautista Cemetery of Florence, Colorado
Mystery surrounded the San Juan Bautista Cemetery as late as 1971, when a story about the cemetery ran in the local paper, the Canon City Daily Record. When doing research on the cemetery, the journalist covering the story, Jack McFall, was unable to come up with any official records about the cemetery beyond a couple of quit claim deeds in the county courthouse records.
At the time the story went to press, there was no proof that records had survived, or ever even existed. The only information McFall was able to come up with was that the land was originally owned by the Continental Oil Company (COC). In 1940, the COC did a quit claim deed to John Montour for $1 and other items. Two days later, Mr. Montour did a quit claim deed to the San Juan Bautista Cemetery Association. The cemetery had already existed on the site for 40 years.
Mineral, oil and gas rights continued to be owned by the COC.
After seeing the story in the Record, Aureliano Solano contacted McFall and told them that he, his brother, Rufilio Solano, and Ben Duran had maintained and kept records for the cemetery since 1938; he also stated that they were the only living members of the original cemetery association.
The cemetery association, founded in 1923, was charged with maintaining and improving the cemetery. The other founding members were: Rasendo Ramires, Amaudo Gell, Pedro de la Rosa, Juan Aragon, Prajedes, Esquinel, Julian Silvo, John Montoya, Ray Luna, Cleofas Alvardo, Louis Gallegos, Aureliano Solano, Rufilio Solano, and Ben Duran. Ray Luna was the first elected President; J.D. Montoya was the Treasurer.
The original by-laws were written - in Spanish - on September 17, 1923.
There are almost 300 people buried here; sadly, many of them are infants and young people who perished during the 1917 flu epidemic. There are also many Penitente buried here.
I included the list of people buried in the cemetery below.
The small cemetery did not go neglected over the years; the Florence Jaycees maintained it during the 1970s, a high school student mapped it in the 1980s, and an Eagle Scout built the memorial at the cemetery as his service project in 2002. But the most beloved and loyal caretaker of the San Juan Bautista Cemetery was Juanita (Jennie) Valdez.
- In New Mexico, A Brotherhood Of Ancient Hymns : NPR
Life, death and piety are the recurring themes in hauntingly beautiful alabados preserved by lay brothers called penitentes. "You have to feel them," one says. "You have to feel them in your soul."
Juanita (Jennie) Perez was born in Mexico in 1891. She moved to Trinidad about 1900; she later married there. Sadly, her first husband died five years after their marriage. She remarried and she and her husband, Carlos Valdez, moved to Florence; there they built an adobe home on the Mexican Plaza. She was a stepmother to his five children.
She and Carlos had nine children. All of their children died of unknown causes, before they were two years old; Juanita and Carlos buried all of them in San Juan Bautista. They dug the graves and made the headstones themselves. Carlos died in 1939 and, like the rest of Jennie's family, was buried in the San Juan Bautista Cemetery. She made his headstone herself. In total, she purchased materials and poured the cement to make the headstones for eleven of her own people.
Not only did Juanita work outside the home to provide for her family, she also tirelessly maintained San Juan Bautista. She was the sole caretaker of the cemetery for many years. There was no water connected to the cemetery; to keep the flowers at the cemetery alive, Juanita hauled buckets of water in a handcart from her home to the cemetery, a distance of about 2 miles, almost every day.
Even after a neighbor stole $175 from the cemetery association, she faithfully cared for the cemetery, taking money out of her own pocket to pay for expenses.
Carol Fox of the Fox Drug Store in Florence, Colorado, submitted this statement on November 15, 1981:
“It was formerly cared for by Jennie Valdez of Florence who is said to have nine ninos buried there. She hauled water in a hand cart from Florence to the graves, a distance of several miles. She died in the late 1970s in the nursing home at Florence in her 80s. There are several graves outside the fence at the south east corner. Jennie said one was of a gringo who was murdered and one of a child. She, herself, however, is buried at Union Highland as there have been no burials at San Juan Bautista for over twenty years.”
The first burials in the cemetery were in 1902; Mandoria Esporia and the infant daughter of Mrs. Baca were buried there. Records indicate that people buried their loved ones there between 1904 and 1945.
There were no :official" burial plots at the cemetery, people would choose a place to bury their dead and dig their own graves themselves. They would pay a 50 cent fee to whoever ran the cemetery
Rick Archuletta told his father's story to Carol Fox 1988 (story from James Archuletta):
"First burials there from preference, not discrimination, partly because some families were Penitentes. There was cemetery assn. (dues $5.00) and different family assigned each year for upkeep and grave digging. Sometimes fence around grave or no marker meant death by suicide. At one time Penitentes had Moreda north of river (prison land now). Graves were tamped as mourners filled in dirt."
The paper gave different information regarding the cost of dues and burial fees: A grave space was $5, and dues were 25 cents per month into the cemetery fund. If you were a non-member, they charged $5.50 for a grave site; people still had to dig the grave themselves. However, if you were a member, you only had to pay 50 cents to bury a loved one there.
List of Inhabitants of Cementario de Juan Bautista, South of Florence, CO November 15, 1981Click thumbnail to view full-size
McFall, Jack. "Mystery Surrounds History of Old Florence Spanish Cemetery." Canon City Daily Register 22 Apr. 1971: n. pag. Print.
McFall, Jack. "Old Records of Florence Spanish Cemetery Found." Canon City Daily Register 24 Apr. 1971: n. pag. Print.
Burrous, Charlotte. "Remembering the Past: Florence Citizens Fight to Keep the Memory Alive of Those Buried in the San Juan Bautista Cemetery." Canon City Daily Registern.d.: n. pag. Print.
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© 2017 Carrie Peterson