Hosted in a cemetery, an interactive Kiwanis dinner showcases some very special guests from the past.
Story by Kimeko Martinez
Photos by Curtis Billue
Marilou Wayburn was just a girl when she was shooed off the sidewalk outside of Lucy Stump’s home.
“I was kind of cranky and got mad at the kids skating by,” says Stump, a widow who opened her hat shop after moving to Farmington, New Mexico, in 1897.
Wayburn, now 86, flashes a knowing smile.
She remembers Stump. In fact, she remembers many of the people in Greenlawn Cemetery tonight — the living, the dead and the living who tell stories of the town’s early settlers.
But Lucy Stump isn’t Lucy Stump at all. That’s actually Wendy Schmidt (above, at right), who portrays the shop owner as part of an annual fundraiser called Dining with the Dead, which is hosted by the Kiwanis Club of Farmington Rio del Sol, New Mexico.
More than 350 people fill the cemetery on this warm September evening, filling their bellies with barbecue before being guided through the plots for a living history tour with a dozen local actors and Kiwanians playing a range of characters, many of whom are buried here. Including Lucy Stump.
“This event honors the legacy of Farmington,” says Kiwanian Gene Schmidt, who originally came to the event as a guest and is now in the cast. “People come and listen to stories of the people who built this town into the community it is today. In this cemetery, every stone is a living legacy to the past.”
Wayburn, an author and local historian, sits in her walker and fans herself with the event’s printed program. More than 30 people are in the first tour group. And like Wayburn, many have ties to the stories being told tonight.
“That’s my great-grandfather,” remarks one woman after the first tour stop. She’s talking about Bell Hudson, who rode with Pat Garrett’s posse and was friends with Billy the Kid. Tonight, he’s portrayed by Realtor Chuck Holmes.
“My whole family is buried here,” says Tanis Harris, who grew up in Farmington and is returning to the event for a third year. “Six generations. I wanted to see what their story was before they were laid to rest here. And it’s for a good cause.”
Indeed, Dining with the Dead has become a signature event for the club and sells out every year. It supports a number of projects, including clothes, shoes, coats and books for children, as well as a new garden for kids with cancer.
“This year sold out sooner than ever before,” says Charley Tyler, who plays cattleman Hiram Washington Cox. “We easily could’ve sold out two nights. People enjoy coming to hear about their history.”
Some of the characters enjoy local fame, like Ike Stockton. Portrayed by Tony DiGiacomo, Stockton was one of the most famous cattle rustlers in the U.S. West and allegedly had more newspaper stories written about him than Billy the Kid. But many others were everyday people. These first Anglo “pioneers” endured months-long journeys in covered wagons during the late 1800s and early 1900s to settle the territory after the Civil War.
“There’s a certain grit that people who settled in the West had to have,” says Rebecca Morgan, who played Agnes Miller Furman, the first non-Native American baby born in the Farmington area. “There were ordinary women doing extraordinary things.”
Judy Castlebury agrees.
“It’s part of the story of our country,” says Kiwanian Castlebury as she portrays Susannah Rhoades, her own great-great-grandmother. “These women were tough. They were independent.”
As those on the tour learn, the pioneering women of the West were, in many ways, ahead of their time. Stump, a widow, opened a hat shop after moving to Farmington in 1897. Others founded schools and churches, and some even found themselves in positions of power.
Ada Ivie Burdick worked at her husband’s law office before becoming one of the first female judges in the area, despite not having been to law school. She held many political offices and eventually retired as a United States commissioner in 1936 after serving 22 years in office.
“She was a smart lady,” says Lauren Harris, who portrayed her. “I admire how outspoken she was. She always did what was right.
“And it is so cool — almost spiritual — portraying a person at their resting place,” Harris says. “I’m trying to keep her memory alive. I feel very honored.”
Steven Clark, who plays homesteader Charles Holiday McHenry, feels similarly.
“Any kind of living history connects people to the past in a way a book cannot,” he says. “There’s something compelling about taking people to a slightly sacred space; something theatrical but that has a lot of heart. We get to see how the past reverberates throughout our community.”
Cast members and guests alike leave the experience with a better understanding of the women and men who laid the foundations for the city they now live in.
“I came because I knew so many of them,” says Wayburn, reflecting on her own past. “But I learned so much tonight.”
As the sun sets and candles are lit for the remaining groups making their way through the cemetery after dark, club Secretary Jill McQueary, who leads the event, is thinking about pioneers to portray next year. Several attendees already have given her ideas or made requests.
“It is wonderful when community members ask us to portray their family members,” she says. “That’s the highest compliment that anyone can give us.”
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.