I am haunted by cemeteries.
Let me rephrase that, since Halloween is approaching and I don’t want to mislead. I am consistently drawn to cemeteries. When I travel to new places, local cemeteries are always on my “things to do” list. I’ve enjoyed seeing the green, moss-covered gravestones on Bainbridge Island, Washington; the colorful above-ground tombs of Isla Mujeres, Mexico; the dragon trinkets and heartfelt notes left at J.R.R. Tolkien’s grave in Oxford, England.
Here in Amarillo, my own grandparents are interred in Memorial Park Cemetery—amazingly (and unintentionally) just a few steps away from my wife’s grandparents. Still, out of the 50,000 graveyards across the state of Texas, Amarillo’s historic Llano Cemetery captures my imagination most.
The reasons for this are as numerous as the grave markers spread across this nearly 200-acre property. It’s the oldest cemetery in Amarillo, chartered as a nonprofit in 1921 by the Texas Legislature, and with a history of burials dating back to 1888. It’s home to the remains of the city’s most storied residents, from historical figures like Cal Farley and Bones Hooks to, more recently, American astronaut Rick Husband. The grave markers across these sprawling grounds are as diverse as the people who have inhabited this area. Llano’s memorials identify prosperous city leaders and cattlemen, prominent religious leaders, veterans of world wars and unnamed infants.
It’s also a testament to the ways our city has changed for the better, with formerly segregated sections dedicated to the graves of Mexican-Americans, Jewish residents, Black residents and even the traveling Romani people (often known as “gypsies”). Some gravestones have Chinese calligraphy carved into them, or epitaphs in Vietnamese. There are Confederate soldiers buried there. A section called “Babyland” contains the remains of infants, many who lived only a day or two.
The Story of Amarillo
“It tells the story of Amarillo in so many ways,” Carol Lovelady tells me. The former director of Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Lovelady also spent years volunteering at Llano, producing its newsletter and even serving a stint as president of the cemetery’s board of directors. “It becomes a link between the past and the present. There are stories you can see by looking at [headstones] that you might not know. Did they have children who passed away? Did a spouse precede them in death? Did they remarry? You can see how Amarillo families have married one another over the generations.”
The dash between the year of birth and year of death contains so many stories, and a cemetery like Llano is where those stories come to a close. “If you’ve lived in Amarillo for 20 or 25 years, you probably know someone who’s buried at Llano Cemetery,” Lovelady says.
I wanted to see if that was true. So I reached out to Joe Alonzo, the interim executive director at Llano Cemetery, for a tour of the grounds.
If anyone knows the local impact and history of this place, it’s Alonzo. He meets me in the Llano administration building, which was built during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps using bricks from the original Potter County Courthouse. On the way to his office, Alonzo points out carved wooden beams and an interior mural by Margaret Seewald Roberts, a former student of Georgia O’Keeffe when the artist lived in the Panhandle.
Alonzo wears a crisp white dress shirt and tie. That hasn’t always been his uniform. He started working for the cemetery in 1970 as a groundskeeper, making $2.10 an hour. As he tells it, he loved the pay but didn’t exactly enjoy his first day on the job. In addition to mowing the grass and trimming around headstones, the young Alonzo had to set up tent canopies for several burial services. “I was 17 and full of energy, but everyone was crying and sad,” he remembers. “I was just standing and watching. It was a lot of death. I thought, ‘This is not for me.’”
But he stuck it out. Alonzo came back the next day. Then a week had passed. As the months and years stacked up, he earned promotions. He managed other groundskeepers, learned to operate heavy equipment, and worked in the on-site mechanical shop. Eventually, he was named grounds foreman. Then one day, when the rest of the staff was unavailable, Alonzo got called into the office to help a grieving family needing to select a gravesite.
“They paged me and said, ‘You know the maps, right?’” he says. “I knew the cemetery as well as anybody.” He quickly made himself presentable and ended up meeting with a mother in her 40s with two young boys. The father had passed away, unexpectedly. “That was my first experience waiting on a family. I’ll never forget it,” he says.
Alonzo helped them select a burial site that day. He still remembers where it was.
50 Years and Section 66
After that, Alonzo began dividing his time between manual labor on the grounds and meeting with families in the front office. By 2000, he had become Llano’s general manager and knew every aspect of the cemetery’s operations, from trimming around grave markers to selling plots. “That first week turned out to be 50 years,” he says.
Then last fall—when COVID infections skyrocketed in Amarillo—Llano’s executive director, Mark N. Blankenship, passed away from complications related to the disease. “I talked to [Mark] on a Friday, heard he was in the hospital on Sunday, and then got another call that he didn’t make it,” Alonzo says. Joe looks at his hands, weathered and tan against the white shirt cuffs.
It’s clear the former groundskeeper and cemetery GM didn’t expect to be in this position. “We barely had time to grieve the loss of our director because so many families were coming in. It’s something I’ve never been through, ever,” he says.
Maybe Llano employees hadn’t dealt with a situation like that before, but the city and cemetery had. Alonzo says he spent most of last year thinking of the cemetery’s Section 66, located along 34th Avenue. It’s one of the oldest parts of Llano, back when the property was mostly a treeless grid. “There’s a section in the cemetery from the 1918-1919 flu epidemic, so we have some kind of understanding of what the people went through during that time,” he says.
Those were the years when the Spanish flu pandemic—one of the deadliest in human history—hit the United States, centered in the Midwest. Llano holds many of Amarillo’s victims in a series of mass graves. The city dug trenches so residents could bury the dead as quickly as possible.
“They didn’t even have markers. They didn’t have the time to do that,” Lovelady explains to me a few days later. A few simple markers do exist—some with only a last name and the year, 1918—serving as a stark reminder of the tragedy.
20 Acres and 400 Dollars
As bleak as it may be, that kind of history is one thing I appreciate about cemeteries. Section 66 specifically links the past with the pandemic present, just like Lovelady described. Llano is more than just the oldest cemetery in Amarillo. In 1987, Llano became the first cemetery in Texas to be approved as an official Texas Historical Commission site. In 1992, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The actual origins of Llano Cemetery, however, are murky. The first known burial on these grounds took place in 1888, when the Morrow family was traveling west through early Amarillo only to be hit with tragedy: their daughter, Lillian, passed away. With permission, they buried her on a treeless 20-acre plot of land southeast of the upstart city. The land was owned by T.B. and Hattie Clisbee.
A handsome, white marble headstone marks Marrow’s remains beneath the shade of a tree in the cemetery’s Section 36. It’s not the oldest part of the cemetery and likely not her original place of burial. The marker says she was born in 1864, which would have made Morrow 24 years old at the time of her death. Other local stories, however, insist she was a child when she died.
It’s likely she wasn’t even the first burial. The Texas Historical Commission signage near the administration building admits “a number of burials had already taken place” by the time of Morrow’s death. Regardless of the circumstances, her burial was the first recorded by the city. Other burials followed, probably in proximity to her. Three years later, Potter County bought the Clisbee’s 20 acres for $400 and named it Amarillo Cemetery.
Soon after, a group of local women formed a cemetery association to maintain the small graveyard. The city continued to flourish and the cemetery’s population grew. Needing to expand, the city had local Judge James Nathan Browning, a former Texas Lieutenant Governor, draw up a charter for the nonprofit Llano Cemetery Association. Browning completed the papers and mailed them to Austin on Nov. 10, 1921. That evening, the judge died in his sleep.
The Texas Legislature approved the charter two days later, on Nov. 12, which happened to be the same day Judge Browning was buried in Section 3 of Llano Cemetery. That charter still matters. “We kept it a nonprofit association,” Alonzo says. That’s something he and the current staff remain proud of. It’s not just a living monument to Amarillo’s history. It’s also the city’s only nonprofit cemetery. Llano belongs exclusively to its property owners, supported by income from a dedicated trust fund.
A Calling and a Comfort
Despite the air-conditioning of his office, I ask Alonzo if he can show me some of the cemetery’s highlights. We walk outside into the sunlight, climb into his truck and cruise to a few of its best-known locations: the “Christ praying” statue, the gypsy graves, the headstone of Lillian Morrow, and the Garden of the Four Chaplains memorial, which honors the World War II clergymen on the torpedoed Dorchester who gave up their flotation devices to save others.
Alonzo drives, slowly, with the windows rolled down, completely at home on the sprawling campus and its twisting, narrow pathways. He points out one section after another. He tells me how gravediggers measure every grave down to the inch, how the entirely above-ground irrigation system works, how New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps gave work to unemployed locals and produced several buildings at Llano during the Depression, and how the former caretaker’s cottage and visually striking pump house were designed by notable Amarillo architect Guy Carlander, who is also buried at Llano.
The interim director’s demeanor is quiet and confident. I ask him what he likes most about working here. “When you come inside the cemetery, you’re away from everything else,” he says. “My office is here. I don’t have an office on Soncy or Coulter surrounded by traffic. It’s here, surrounded by outside. You go outside and it’s like walking in a park, a huge park.”
We end up at the Llano Pantheon Mausoleum in the center of the property. It was built and financed in the late 1920s, designed by Chicago architect Sidney Lowell and supervised by Amarillo architect Joseph Champ Berry. (Berry’s own projects include the Firestone Building at 1000 S. Tyler.) To raise funds for the marble structure, Llano made advance sales of rooms and crypts inside the mausoleum to the city’s pioneers, including Colonel C.T. Herring and M.D. Oliver-Eakle.
Llano expanded the mausoleum in 1949 and added an underground portion in 1964. Alonzo unlocks the door and guides me through the mostly dark building, turning on lights to supplement the sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. Our footsteps echo off the marble floor and walls until we reach the wide, carpeted steps leading to the basement.
“There’s no elevator,” Alonzo says. “When we have an entombment down here, we carry the casket all the way down these steps. It’s all by hand. Thirty-four steps.” I count them as we descend. With very few spaces left in the mausoleum, those indoor properties that remain are priced in the high five figures.
But there’s plenty of space remaining in the outdoor portion of the cemetery, which means there’s plenty of history still to be made at Llano. Joe Alonzo intends to be part of it. “I think it’s a calling,” he says of his job. “There are times I’ve wanted to leave and do something different, but something keeps drawing me back. You’re able to help so many families that have lost somebody. It’s a good feeling to be able to help them out during the most difficult time in their life.”
After that period of difficulty, Llano remains part of these families’ lives. That’s one of the unique things about cemeteries all over the world. “It becomes a place of great comfort to [families],” explains Lovelady. “They go all the time. They tend the graves for their family. They just like to be there. It’s such a beautiful place.”
A beautiful place, where a long walk through its history becomes a walk through the history of our city.
Is Llano Haunted?
This is our October issue, so we’ll go there: More than a few online message boards and social media posts tell spooky stories about Llano Cemetery. So we asked the question directly to Joe Alonzo, who has spent the past 50 years on every acre of the cemetery, at every time of day, in all kinds of weather. Is Llano haunted?
He chuckles. “I’ve never seen anything,” he says.
Others are less certain. “We’ve never been disappointed when we go there,” says Caroline Garcia Lister. She’s the founder and lead investigator of 806 Paranormal Investigations. “There’s always something we catch, voice-wise or on our phones.” She’s photographed what she believes to be a spectral face between the limbs of a tree and claims to have seen black mist coming out of a grave. A friend once recorded a disembodied voice in the Mausoleum. “No one else was in there, but she asked if anyone was there and a voice said, ‘Yes,’” says Garcia Lister.
Another time, in Section 8 and 9 near one of the Romani graves, she heard a giggle. “That one was the creepiest. I always feel like I’m being watched in that place,” she says. A maintenance worker once told her he didn’t like being in that section alone, even in the daytime. “I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that place is haunted,” she adds.
Tonya Trimble has had very similar experiences. The lead investigator for the nonprofit Palo Duro Paranormal, she says 80 percent of the places she investigates for supernatural activity show no evidence of it at all. And in her experience, most cemeteries aren’t haunted anyway. “It’s usually homes or hospitals, places where a death occured, especially if it’s tragic or unexpected,” Trimble explains. Though filled with death, cemeteries don’t tend to be places where death actually takes place.
But she and a friend once were taking photos on the stairs in the Llano Mausoleum. Though alone in the building, they heard a woman’s voice, followed by footsteps in the basement. “We weren’t expecting anything like that. We looked everywhere, but literally there was no one there,” she says. “While we were on the bottom floor, we heard the heavy metal door upstairs slam.” They rushed back upstairs and out the door, but saw no one.
Trimble also has a spooky story about the ethnic Romani graves. During the same photoshoot, her model posed near a husband-and-wife burial site when she felt her leg being caressed by an unseen hand.
“[The model] jumped up and said, ‘I’m done,’” Trimble says. “I have no explanation for that.”