It is where you might dream when you dream of Elysium. A gently sloping hill, dappled sun through the wild oaks, trails likely following the paths of cows that wandered there before the Civil War, greenery trimmed (but certainly not manicured) bestowing the peace of woods in its scent and hush.
Today this is the state of Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery but until the late 1990s it was decidedly unlovely, choked with weeds, sapling trees, vetch and poison oak. Stories about the cemetery’s abysmal condition are legion. It was said to be so overgrown at times that a hearse could not reach gravesites and caskets had to be carried in. A worker clearing brush came across someone’s home – a vagrant had burrowed deep into a bramble patch and set up camp.
The cemetery has seen its moments of drama and chaos; there’s the mass grave of 1906 earthquake victims and just steps away is the scene of the 1920 lynchings. But mostly it has been an uneventful place – although it also has mirrored the city’s maddening pattern of chronic mismanagement.
This chapter about the Rural Cemetery tells the story of its changing conditions; the following article covers the extraordinary efforts made over a century by volunteers to document who lies there, and where.
In November 1854, Thompson Mize drowned in a small pond near Santa Rosa. He was drunk. Why the 31 year old father of four had brought his children and pregnant wife here a few weeks prior is unknown. Perhaps he was a gold bug who heard the rumors about prospectors mining on the Russian River earlier that year. But there wasn’t much reason for anyone to be in Santa Rosa at the time; it consisted of all of five buildings, including a tavern which probably led to his undistinguished demise.1 Yet Mr. Mize still made a blip in our historical timeline because he was the first recognized burial in the Rural Cemetery. But here’s the Believe-it-or-Not! twist – in 1854 there was no Rural Cemetery, and it would not come to exist until seven years after he ended up face down in (what was most likely) a very large puddle.
Over the next few years “many citizens of Santa Rosa and vicinity” were also buried there, according to an 1859 Cemetery Committee report, although it was still private land owned by a man named John Lucas.2
Although they hadn’t yet committed to buying three or four acres from Lucas, a survey was done on the area where there were already graves.3 Committee chair Dr. James W. B. Reynolds took leadership in approaching Lucas and setting up the deal (in later years Otho Hinton would be falsely credited as being something of the “father” of the cemetery). But the Committee dithered over the price and whether Lucas should give them a discount for the existing graves. Finally in late 1861 a portion of what we now call the Rural Cemetery was purchased. (See the sources section below for transcripts of that item and other newspaper articles.)
Ad hoc burials apparently continued until 1866, when the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Association was incorporated to legally sell deeds to burial plots. There were no exemptions for those already in the ground; notices appeared in the Democrat warning that unless families of the deceased paid up, “bodies will be exhumed and reinturred [sic] in portions of said grounds set apart for that purpose.” It’s not believed they carried out the threat, however.
But just a couple of years after the Association was formed, an item in the Democrat newspaper revealed the place was already starting to slip into neglect: “The Cemetery has not only been allowed to grow up in weeds, but the fencing around it has received no attention; horses, cows and hogs have been permitted to wander over the grounds and among the graves.”
It seems that when it came to caring for the Rural Cemetery, our Santa Rosa ancestors did a lot more moaning than mowing.
Complaints continued through the 19th century: It was “overrun with weeds and tangled grass” (1878) “if those unsightly weeds that abound in all parts of the enclosure could only be removed, our cemetery would present as neat an appearance as any in the State” (1879) “some plan [needs to] be devised to improve the appearance of the Rural Cemetery” (1896). There are probably more references I missed, and I did not even peek at the Santa Rosa Republican.
In the first half of the 20th century, some years there would be cleanup efforts before Memorial Day to collect tin cans and liquor bottles and make the trails passable, the work done by service groups such as the Woman’s Improvement Club and the boy scouts. But over those fifty years you could count the number of those day projects on your hands – and still have enough fingers left over to hold a soup spoon.
The only significant cleanup during that era was done during late 1931 – early 1932. A crew of about 25 men on Relief worked there for a month or more, being paid in credit for groceries at the food bank. “All weeds have been cleared out, tombstones straightened, rubbish cleared away, garbage cans painted and new grass planted,” the Press Democrat reported.
But don’t take the good news too literally. An earlier PD item on the project mentioned, ” …it is proposed to work similarly at the Stanley cemetery”, so the work didn’t necessarily encompass all gravesites on the hill. That article also stated “only the pathways will be cleaned unless work on the plots is authorized by the plot owners. Those wishing such work are urged to communicate with the relief council.”
That edict about authorization came from the Rural Cemetery Association president and threw ice water on hopes that the cleanup could morph into an ongoing maintenance program. How many owners could give permission? The original owners of those old plots were likely dead themselves; there might not be any family members still in the area or who even knew they had an ancestor in an overgrown grave. It was suggested the families of all those buried there could organize and hire a caretaker (imagine the exciting Thanksgiving dinner squabble over who owes how much for upkeep on Great Uncle Fletcher’s gravesite).
And what was the status of the Association, anyway? The standard expiration for a corporate charter is fifty years, which meant that it should have ceased to exist in 1916. Yet they sold the last new deed in May 1930 and continued to hold meetings to elect officers at least until 1937. The Association’s lack of standing was finally noted in a 1938 Press Democrat editorial:4
|Established some time in the ’50s, before the idea of perpetual care had even been heard of, at least in the west, Rural cemetery is now and for years past has been an abandoned child. The association’s charter expired fifteen years ago, and has never been renewed. Nobody owns Rural cemetery, it had no board of trustees, and since no public body holds title, it is ineligible to WPA or other aid of like character.|
At the time, PD editor Ernest Finley and others in the city were begging voters to approve a “Cemetery district” which would create a small property tax for the upkeep of both the Rural Cemetery and the Calvary Cemetery. That idea had been first proposed and spoken of approvingly more than a decade before, but now that it was on the 1938 ballot a loud opposition was heard. It lost by almost a 4-to-1 margin.
After WWII the situation grew steadily worse. Its neglected condition drew tramps and delinquents who trashed it further, knocking over large monuments and smashing marble tombstones. Fine statuary was stolen. It became the meet-up place for drinking parties.
These problems did not go unnoticed, with letters and news items more frequently lamenting the terrible conditions in the Press Democrat. But the city’s position was that nothing could be done – the legacy of the Association was to instill the notion that everything outside of the trails was private property and could not be touched without explicit family approval. City workers could not even spray for weeds.
But by 1951 something had to be done. It was so bad the Santa Rosa City Manager called it a fire risk because the matted undergrowth was “about two feet thick.” They decided to do a controlled burn which did not work out so well, as it also destroyed historic wooden markers and blackened monuments (see “BIG BURN AT THE CEMETERY“). There was no followup maintenance so in a few years it was again a thicket, as seen in the photos above. The cemetery was becoming like the village in the musical “Brigadoon,” revealing itself ever so often before again disappearing.
In 1965 the Rural Cemetery Association was reformed under the wing of the Sonoma County Historical Society and the old place saw its first work crew since the Relief men during the Great Depression. This group still lacked support from the city, though, and by the end of the decade the volunteers had drifted away.
The city finally began taking some responsibility for the conditions in 1979 when it declared eminent domain over the entire burial ground and put up a fence. But the restoration didn’t really begin until 1994, when the Recreation & Parks Dept. began providing mowers and other material support for a new crop of volunteers. City crews were also made available to provide heavy labor, such as dealing with fallen trees. This effort is still ongoing.
Despite this being an all-out campaign to restore the Rural Cemetery, things didn’t immediately turn around. Some sections of the weed forest remained mostly untouched for years. Vandalism continued to be a problem and the troublemakers even targeted the newly repaired gravestones. An information kiosk built near the entrance included a Merit Award to the restoration committee from the city – until someone broke into the display and stole the award.
So many people have devoted great amounts of time and energy to bringing the cemetery back to life that even an abridged list would test Gentle Reader’s patience (if such a list could even be constructed). But there are a few who must be singled out for honors.
There can be no question that Bill Montgomery has done more to rescue the cemetery than anyone in its history. He was deputy parks director at Recreation & Parks in 1994 when he put out a call for volunteers and led members of the Cultural Heritage Board and others from the city on a tour. He started the “Adopt a Pioneer Gravesite Program” and drew attention to the cemetery via a couple of featured stories in the Press Democrat. In essence, he reintroduced the Rural Cemetery to the public – it was so little known at the time that the PD felt compelled to add a map illustration to one of the stories to show where it was. Bill continues to be actively involved with everything having to do with the graveyard.
Laurels also must be given to the late Alan Phinney, who managed the volunteer work parties for 20+ years and launched “The Tombstone Trio,” which still meets Tuesday and Thursday mornings to repair and clean markers. Also to be honored was Evelyn McMullen who organized volunteers in the 1960s, continuing to work even after there was no one still interested except for herself and son, Jay. More about her and Alan will appear in the following article.
Over the years the cemetery has also drawn mavericks who worked independently on the place just for the love of it. There was Larry Leathers – well known as the spokesman for the County Fair and Fairgrounds in the 1980s and 1990s – who tackled the Fulkerson section by bringing in his own lawnmowers. He wore out three of them.
But a special salute goes out to Roland Gevas, a 55 year-old Spanish-American War vet who worked on the cemetery during the summer of 1929. Roland was none-too-subtle in hinting that he hoped someone would pay him $1,200 a year (!) to work there full time, be it the city, the Cemetery Association, a service club or some benefactor. In a lengthy letter to the PD, it seemed like he might have been expecting donations from the public.5
“I have done all that was humanly possible,” he wrote. “I have put in every day at the cemetery and have cleaned more than 95 per cent of the rubbish away, have kept free water at all times, cleaned all lots free of charge around the main entrance and the approach to it.” After working for six weeks and receiving just $21.50 (from whom?) he was bitter at Santa Rosa’s indifference:
|I am sorry to state that the public, unlike myself, are not much interested in the City of the Dead. I have come to the conclusion that all those loving carved words on tombstones and monuments are a living lie to the dead, that forgotten and so pitifully alone, stand as a shame to the living.|
“The cemetery is a naturally pretty one, well located and with many stately monuments, some of them real works of art,” he concluded, before begging the public to come see all that he had done:
|I would like to have you come to look at the place if you have not seen it since before Decoration Day. You will see some real changes in the view looking up from the McDonald avenue entrance, and if I could only have a little support the Rural Cemetery would not be a disgrace, nor would people have to be ashamed of their home of the dead.|
There was nothing more in the newspaper about Roland Gevas at the cemetery, so one might assume that was the end of that. But when the census-taker came around the next April, Roland opened the door of his Olive street home and answered the questions about what he did for a living. Industry: Cemetery. Occupation: Sexton.
How long that lasted we don’t know. It’s unknown who paid him – or if he was even paid at all. But at least for awhile the old sailor was at the cemetery he cared about, doing what he could. A small victory is a victory still.
1 Although the streets were already platted out in their current layout, there are no reliable descriptions of Santa Rosa in the key year of 1854. Almost all sources blur together 1854-1856 as being the years the village was formed. Confounding matters further is that some of the housing stock was being moved in from Franklin (such as Sterling Coulter’s building) so some places could have been in both towns during the same year. Aside from an 1876 sketch, there are the two books Robert Thompson wrote about Santa Rosa and the county. His most detailed description is in the 1877 county book, not the 1884 book on the town. See: Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Sonoma County, California, pp. 72-75
2 In 1850, Julio Carrillo sold 640 acres near the Carrillo Adobe to Oliver Boulieu, who established the short-lived village of Franklin. Boulieu sold parcels to Commodore Elliott (100 acres in 1853), Richard Fulkerson (94 acres in 1856), Emmanuel Light (11 acres in 1856) and the remaining 435 acres to John Lucas in 1857. Source: “Oliver Beaulieu and the Town of Franklin” by Kim Diehl, 2006; pg. 19
3 Surveyor W. A. Eliason surveyed part of the cemetery (at least) twice, in 1859 and 1872. The 1859 survey is lost but probably just showed rough boundaries, as the Cemetery Committee had not yet made a decision whether to purchase 3-4 acres from Lucas. After having purchased an additional 3½ acres in 1867, the survey of 1872 was apparently to plat out the lot lines.
|4 Press Democrat, September 11 1938|
|5 Press Democrat, August 11 1929|
Inquest. — We learn from the Sonoma Bulletin that an inquest was held at the town of Santa Rosa, on the body of a man named Mize, who was found dead in a pond of water a short distance from town. He was intoxicated, which accounts for the accident verdict accordingly.
– Sacramento Daily Union, December 5 1854
Santa Rosa Cemetery.
Ed. Democrat — Dear Sir: I am glad that you anticipated me in your remarks about the Cemetery, in last week’s issue. It is high time something should be done by the citizens of this place and vicinity, in regard to this matter. While we are continually taxing both head and hands in efforts to secure homes for the living, and spending our time and money for public and private convenience and show, let us not forget the spot, beneath which, sleep our silent dead! True, their spirits rest not in the cold, cold clay; nought but the mouldering forms which contained them are left behind. But, we cherish a daguerrotype or painted likeness of the dead. Then, how much more should we revere the sacred resting place of the loved companions, whose smiles cheered us on in the race of life — or the dear child, that sat in prattling innocence upon our knee.
But I know it is unnecessary to make any appeal to the sympathies of the generous hearted citizens of Santa Rosa, to induce them to assist in securing, and suitably embellishing a home for the dead. Indeed, my principal object in writing this article was to suggest the propriety of immediate action, and the necessity for having a general meeting of the people, so as to arrange some definite plan.
In a conversation with Mr. Lucas, who owns the land on which the present burying ground is situated, he informed me that he would willingly sell to the citizens any number of acres they might require for the purpose, and for a lower price than he would dispose of it for any other object. He also informed me, that under the existing state of affairs, he was deprived of the use of 150 acres of pasturage; and, unless something was done by the citizens, soon, ho would be compelled to turn the graveyard out of his enclosure. As it is, every grave, not specially protected by a railing, is liable to be trampled upon by cattle and horses.
Having understood that Mr. Eliason has surveyed the premises, and now has a complete plot of the same in his office, there remains but little to be done, but to raise a sufficient amount to pay for the land — the expense of surveying and enclosing it, and ordering a public sale of lots; or, by placing them in the hands of Trustees to sell privately.
But, I am anticipating, and giving a detailed opinion, which would properly belong to the citizens when they meet, which I respectfully suggest, may be next Saturday evening, the 3d of Dec., at the Disciples’Church, at 6 1/2 o’clock, p. m.
Santa Rosa, Nov. 28. J. W. B. R.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 1 1859
Met pursuant to adjournment on the 13th of December, 1859, at 7 1/2 o’clock P. M.
On motion of Otho Hinton, S. T. Coulter was elected chairman of the meeting, Whereupon the committee appointed at the previous meeting, make the following report, the same being read, and on motion accepted:
REPORT OF CEMETERY COMMITTEE.
The committee to whom was referred the duty of ascertaining the most suitable location for a Cemetery, the price of the land, and any other information which they might deem pertinent to the subject, beg leave to submit the following report, viz:
Whereas, the present grave-yard, (on the land owned by Mr. Lucas) is a beautiful site for such purpose, not subject to overflow in time of high water — is in a reasonable distance of the town, easy of access — and more particularly, as many citizens of Santa Rosa and vicinity already have relatives and friends buried there — we do not hesitate to give this location the preference over all others.
We have ascertained on inquiry, that the present owner (Mr. Lucas) of the ground in the vicinity, is willing to sell any number of acres the community may require for a Cemetery, at Fifty Dollars per Acre. And your committee would recommend the purchase of four or six acres of said land at the sum above specified – excepting one acre, including the present graves, for which your Committee are of opinion the owner should take cost price, and reasonable interest on the same to the time of purchasing.
As to the mode of purchasing, &c., your committee recommend that eight responsible citizens of Santa Rosa and vicinity be appointed by the present meeting, who shall organize under the general corporation law, with instructions to purchase such quantity of land as may be agreed upon, and to give a joint note of the company. — Therefore, payable at such times, and in such installments as may be mutually agreed upon between them and the owner of the land. Said company shall be known and designated by the name of the “Santa Rosa Cemetery Company.”
It is further recommended by your committee, that said company, after organizing, shall appoint three or five of their number, whose duty it shall be to have the grounds surveyed, and a plot made thereof; provided, said plot shall be drawn in such way and form as to preserve the natural character of the scene; and provided, further, that said plot shall in no wise interfere with the graves already on said grounds.
Finally — Your committee would recommend that said company be requested to organize, and fulfilling their duties at as early a date as possible, report to an adjourned meeting at such time and place as may be agreed upon.
All of which is respectfully submitted.
James W. B. Reynolds, Chairman.
On motion of Wm. Churchman, the proceedings of the meeting and copy of the report of the committee as accepted, be published in tho Santa Rosa Democrat, and that the meeting stand adjourned until next Tuesday evening, Dec. 20th, 1859, at the Baptist church, and that the ladies be especially invited to attend.
S. T. Coulter, Ch’n. Wm. H. Bond, Sec’y.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 15 1859
Efforts are making to purchase a tract of land near Santa Rosa, a part of which has been used as a burying-place by people of that town, to be set apart exclusively as a Cemetery. Those who favor this excellent project will please call at Gen. Hinton’s office.
– Sonoma County Democrat, November 21, 1861
CEMETERY. The grounds for the Santa Rosa Cemetery having been purchased, it is particularly necessary that the friends or connections of the deceased buried there previous to the purchase should secure lots immediately. Such and all others who desire burial lots in the Cemetery may secure them of Gen. Hinton.
– Sonoma County Democrat, November 28, 1861
THE CEMETERY INCORPORATION. —An adjourned meeting of citizens, for the purpose of incorporating the Cemetery Grounds, was held at the Court House, on the evening of Dec. 3rd., H. P. Holmes acting as Chairman and Thos. H. Pyatt Secretary, pro tem. The meeting agreed to incorporate under the name of “Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Association.” The number of Trustees was fixed at seven, and the following gentlemen were duly elected as such…
– Sonoma Democrat, December 8 1866
SANTA ROSA RURAL CEMETERY ASSOCIATION. —That such an organization has had an existence in the past we, of Santa Rosa and vicinity, do most positively know, but that it now exists we cannot speak with so much certainty. For several months nothing has been done by this Association — a meeting has not even been held. The Cemetery has not only been allowed to grow up in weeds, but the fencing around it has received no attention; horses, cows and hogs have been permitted to wander over the grounds and among the graves. But worse than all no steps have been taken to give the owners of lots deeds of the same, so that improvements could be made and the graves properly taken care of. The evil can be remedied, and the necessary steps in that direction should be taken at once. In this connection, we are requested to say that a meeting of the citizens will be held at the Court House on next Saturday afternoon, the 26th inst., at 2 p.m., for the purpose of taking this matter in hand. We hope to see every one interested turn out, as something must be done.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1868
THE TRUSTEES OF THE SANTA ROSA Rural Cemetery Association, having, in company with W. A. Eliason, surveyor, and G. Kohle, sexton, visited the grounds and tied by location the numbers of the lots, down on the adopted plat and survey — now all persons having paid for lots in said grounds will, within forty days of the date of this notice, file with the Secretary of this association his evidence of purchase and payment, and receive the necessary title. Persons who have buried their dead in said grounds, and not yet purchased or paid for their lots, will, within the above period, pay the Treasurer of the association, J. M. Williams, for the same, and file his receipt with the Secretary. A neglect of claimants or purchasers to comply with either of the above requisitions, for the above period, will be deemed a voluntary abandonment of all claim to lots in said grounds, and in isolated interments on single lots the bodies will be exhumed and reinturred in portions of said grounds set apart for that purpose.
By order of the Board of Trustees.
HENDERSON P. HOLMES, President.
Attest: W. Churchman, Secretary.
Dated this 21st day of September, 1872.
– Sonoma Democrat, September 28 1872