Breckenridge’s Valley Brook Cemetery up for National Historic Registry
In the late 18th century, Breckenridge was an Old West mining town and one of its most popular saloons was owned by a local named Johnny Dewers.
Dewers’ wife was the kind of woman who often became the subject of scandalous rumors in a small Victorian town and was said to have spent time with men other than her husband. Among those men was a physician, Dr. Joseph Condon, who owned a practice across Main Street from the Dewers’ saloon. Mrs. Dewers would eventually leave her husband for someone else, but she left behind a palpable tension between the two men, who, legend has it, continued to stare each other down across the street until Condon finally began carrying a gun.
One day, Dewers approached Condon as he was crossing Main Street, some say hoping to bury the hatchet. But the doctor drew his gun and shot the saloon owner three times in the chest.
“He dies in the middle of the street in the middle of the day, with lots of witnesses,” said Jen Baldwin, who tells the salacious tale in front of Dewers’ tombstone on her tour of Breckenridge’s historic Valley Brook Cemetery.
Condon was found not guilty of the murder, by reason of self-defense, by a jury made up largely of fellow members of his fraternal society, while Dewers was laid to rest alongside his family and neighbors in Valley Brook Cemetery.
He would later be joined there by Frank and Theta Brown, a Breckenridge couple credited with seeing the town through some of the more difficult decades in its history between the end of the mining era and the arrival of the ski industry, as well as Alice Richardson, whose 19-year-old daughter died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic that swept through the western U.S. while Alice was serving in the Army Reserve nurse corps during World War I.
Together, their stories and their grave sites create a narrative of the town’s history that members of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance hope to protect by landing Valley Brook Cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places.
Inclusion in the registry, a list of some of the most significant sites, buildings and monuments in American history, would memorialize the cemetery as a place of local importance and could be a stepping stone in preserving the graveyard from future development and securing grants to maintain it.
Cemeteries typically do not make the list because the registry is generally reserved for places where America’s historic icons did their productive work, rather than their final resting places. But exceptions are made when the cemetery is one of significant architectural value, houses the graves of individuals of particular prominence, is itself a potential keeper of undiscovered historic evidence or reflects an important incident or tragedy in the past, such as the Spanish flu.
The Valley Brook Cemetery does all four, according to representatives of Historitecture, a private firm hired to help with the graveyards application to the registry.
“You can tell a lot about social life in the town based on the cemetery,” Historitecture historian Adam Thomas said. “Reading the cemetery like a book, it gives you little nuggets, little bits of information that, if we didn’t preserve a place like this, would be lost.”
Once the application is finalized, it will be submitted to a review board in Denver, which meets quarterly. With the boards approval, Valley Brook Cemetery’s nomination will advance to the national keeper of the registry, who must sign off for it to be included.
Thomas said the graveyard’s case for inclusion is strong.
Valley Brook was established in 1882, after gold was discovered in Breckenridge’s first cemetery, which was located in the Warrior’s Mark area near where the Conoco gas station is currently located. The graves were dug up and relocated to the current location on Airport Road so the town’s early residents could mine the old site.
Locals who wish to be buried in Breckenridge are still laid to rest in Valley Brook.
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