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Navajo County Sheriff Joseph F. Woods

Joseph and Rowena Woods ca. 1890.

Etched into a piece of glass at the Navajo County Historical Society in Holbrook is the name Joseph F. Woods, sheriff, an artifact from his tenure as Navajo County sheriff. He is largely forgotten today, but he served Navajo County during the transition period from the largely lawless days of the late 1800s to a more civilized community.

Woods’ (1859-1923) story begins in California where he is listed on the 1880 census as a 21-year-old farmer, and family legend says he was also a jockey because of his slight stature. His obituary says he came to Arizona in 1881, but does not say why. He reportedly hired on as a cowboy with the infamous Greer family and is mentioned as a participant in the St. Johns clash on June 24, 1882. In 1883, fellow Californian Albert F. Potter joined Woods in Arizona (note: The accounts of the St. Johns skirmish incorrectly include Potter.) They may have been related, as Woods’ descendants knew Potter as ‘Uncle Bert’.  Potter needed the dry climate to curtail his budding tuberculosis and when he arrived in Holbrook, he too, joined up with the Greers and learned cowboying . Both Woods and Potter were recognized for their excellent horsemanship.

By 1885, Woods and Potter were doing well as cattle ranchers on the Milky Wash between Holbrook and St. Johns.  This was before fencing and overgrazing, and cattle from all outfits roamed together until bi-annual round-ups, or rodeos, were held. Woods was a member of the Apache County Stock Growers Association, which coordinated these events. About a week before the round-up, cowboys started herding cattle to a designated spot. On round-up day, cattle were divided by brands and returned to the owner.  A few years later, however, thousands of cattle and sheep had been allowed to overgraze and destroy the native forage. This, combined with drought conditions, caused hard times and Woods and Potter sold out.  Potter turned to sheep and in 1901, moved to Washington, D.C. to serve as the U.S. Forest Service chief of grazing until he retired in 1920.

Woods married saloon piano player Rowena Harris (1868-1947) of Kingman in 1890, and brought her, her son, her mother and her piano to Holbrook. Holbrook was a bustling intersection of trains, stages, and horses for people to access the Hopi villages, Petrified Forest, Fort Apache, Keams Canyon, Snowflake, Springerville, and St. Johns. He owned the Pioneer Saloon, the local theater, and the first ice house. The theater shared movies with the Joseph City theater and the reels were carried via bicycle between the two locations. Woods chopped ice slabs from the frozen Little Colorado River and stored it in sawdust.  From about 1904-1924, Joe and Rowena owned and lived in the aptly-named Old Trails Hotel — once the most elegant and expensive home converted into a hotel in the crossroads town. Descendants tell of stories from those hotel days; unfortunately much of the correspondence from the era was lost during the frequent Little Colorado River floods that affected Holbrook.

Woods served on several grand juries indicating his interest in law and public service. He ran for sheriff twice before being elected in 1905, and then was re-elected for the next several terms. (His actual length of service varies with different documents; Navajo County shows him as serving from 1906-1914, yet a newspaper article dated January 1918, mentions him as sheriff.) Each campaign season found Woods and his family traveling by buckboard with a case of whiskey and a trunk of beautiful women’s gowns around Navajo County. At the stylish Cooley Ranch near Pinetop, Rowena would wear one of the dresses for formal dinners.

Woods had a quiet, confident demeanor that commanded respect. He kept bloodhounds and horses next door to their hotel to be used in tracking miscreants. Taking prisoners to the Yuma Territorial Prison required nine days of travel and Woods preferred a buckboard to horses for these trips as it was harder for a prisoner to escape. On at least one occasion, Woods shackled a prisoner to a tree at the Scott Ranch near Lakeside for the day as Woods attended to business there.

Woods spent his entire adult life in Holbrook and is named in the “Who’s Who in Arizona, Volume 1.”  He proudly led the parade following Armistice Day in 1918, “…carrying the national colors on horseback.”

Woods’ final years saw him decline rapidly and painfully from medical operations and he died in a Gallup hospital in November 1923. His body was returned to Holbrook and a funeral held at the Woods home and interred in the Holbrook cemetery. This pioneer of Arizona’s Territorial days was eulogized as a man who led with “…wise and kindly discretion, unfaltering grit, and unswerving devotion …”

— S.D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of D.W. Ruoff.

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