This is the second in a five-part series submitted by Edres Barney of the Eastern Arizona Museum and Historical Society of Graham County Inc., commemorating Arizona’s Trailblazing Women in conjunction with Arizona Archives Month.
Verna Rae made her appearance April 11, 1931, at the Thatcher home of her grandmother McRae, the first grandchild, and the first child of Samuel Verney Cluff and Grace McRae Cluff. Both sets of grandparents were all early Gila Valley pioneers — Nymphus Charles McRae and Sarah Frances Cheney, and Joseph Edwin Cluff and Elizabeth Dorinda Moody.
Until Verna was 2-1/2, she and her parents lived in Cork in a one-room house with a dirt floor, then moved back to Thatcher. At the tender age of 7, she began cooking for her family and helping care for her siblings as her mother had resumed her teaching career.
Her dedication, talents and abilities were apparent at an early age as she was the valedictorian of her junior high class in Central. The next four years found Verna busy as a baton twirler, playing the snare drums, participating in volleyball, basketball, baseball and field hockey. During her senior year, she met a 145-pound boy from Eden who had absolutely no interest in sports! All of these activities did not keep her from her studies. She was the valedictorian of her Thatcher High School graduating class.
Robert J. “Bob” Colvin and Verna Rae were married May 22, 1949, and she moved down the road to Eden, where she lived the remainder of her life, constantly working to improve the quality of life there. She obtained a degree in accounting from Eastern Arizona College, earning highest honors. Archaeology and geology were favorite classes, sparking a lifelong interest of rock collecting and study. In 1985, she and Bob participated with the college and the Coronado Chapter of Arizona Archaeological Society in a dig at the Owens-Colvin site, which was a Salado village prior to 1200 A.D., with the Hohokam influence apparent.
Along with other community members, Verna and Bob spent the ‘60s trying to obtain legal water rights for Eden. They secured a government loan and grant from the Farmers Home Administration to build a water system that extended from Pima through Glenbar and Cork across the Gila River at the Cork Crossing through Eden. Upon its completion, decades of hauling water for culinary purposes came to an end.
Verna assisted with valuable input for the centennial publications of Pima, Central, Thatcher and St. Joseph Stake. “The Garden and How It Grew” was her crowning achievement, and the hundreds of hours she spent gathering, compiling, writing individual and family histories and the history of the area is her lasting legacy. In 1981, Bob and other stalwarts hosted the two-day Eden Centennial Celebration, where 5,000 people enjoyed a parade, barbecue, program, dance and “the book.” Proceeds were used to build a fence around the cemetery. She immersed herself in extensive research for her publication of “The History of Canals in Graham County.” Gov. Fife Symington appointed her to the State Historical Records Advisory Board.
When their children, Lindy, Jay Dee and Gary, were growing up, Verna taught Cub Scout rock requirements and Boy Scout Merit Badge in geology. She taught horsemanship, cooking and sewing for about nine years as a 4-H leader. In the summers, she organized baseball games for the youth.
Her accounting degree was put to good use when for years she kept books for six entities: Colvin Farms, Eden Water Company, Indian Hot Springs, Eden Fire District, Eden Cemetery and Caldwell Funeral Home. She retired from Caldwell in 1996 after 25 years.
The Eastern Arizona Museum is but one beneficiary of their many years of dedicated community involvement. During their tenure as officers/directors, working members of the museum board, numerous improvements were made, of which I will mention only three. Verna and friends designed and furnished two rooms in the Carter Farm Museum to depict a 1930s-’40s home. She gathered, labeled and recorded hundreds of historic photographs of local people and the area. Verna’s extensive rock collection is a favorite part of the museum tour by school kids.