Dear sir or madam; the city destroyed your pioneer ancestor’s grave marker. You may want to hire someone to make a new one. Sincerely, Santa Rosa.

No mistake about it: Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery was a real mess in 1951.

“It is a disgrace to Santa Rosa,” Fred Cooke, chairman for that year’s Memorial Day committee wrote the Press Democrat that May. “I visited this cemetery to arrange for the ceremonies and found it difficult to even drive around the roads. In all my experience, and I have visited many a cemetery, I can say this is the worst of them all.”

Another writer, Guy E. Grosse, agreed in letter to the editor a week later. “In some instances [it is] almost a forest, with weeds, underbrush and young trees making it almost impossible to walk through the roads, and in some cases, impossible to locate tombstones.”

City Manager Sam Hood was most specific of all, saying the cemetery was a jungle of tangled brush four feet high, including matted undergrowth of sweet pea “about two feet thick.”

(RIGHT: View of Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery in 1970. Detail of photograph by Don Meacham courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Alas, the old cemetery had been long neglected, but 1951 was apparently a pathetic low. Overgrown with sweet pea, blue periwinkle, acacia, bramble, poison oak and sapling trees, it must have taken decades to build up enough thicket to conceal a tombstone as tall as an eight year-old child. There were community cleanup efforts in 1907 and 1908, but after that plots were weeded only by the occasional family member – and presumably by undertakers preparing a grave for one of the diminishing number of new burials. The year 1951 as well would have likely passed without anything done had it not been for the vandalism incident.

In the bold headline type usually reserved for earthshaking news, the June 5 front page of the Press Democrat screamed: “Vandals Desecrate Graves in Odd Fellows, Rural Cemetery”. Beneath two large photographs, the article stated most of the damage was in the section of the Odd Fellows cemetery near Franklin Avenue, with 22 tombstones knocked over or damaged. “The littered ground looks as if a bulldozer had ploughed over the graves,” the PD reported. Across the fence at the Rural Cemetery, “several stone and wooden crosses were snapped.”

By the following day, it was apparent the overgrown condition of the older cemetery had concealed the vandal’s scope: the paper now said, “most of the scattered destruction took place in secluded areas of the rambling rural cemetery, where at least 35 ravaged graves have been counted.” A subscriber later wrote he or she counted 87 headstones turned over. The damage estimate there came in at $15,000, with a North Bay Monument quote of over $1,000 to simply right all the toppled markers. In contrast, it was expected to cost only $150 for repairs at the Odd Fellows cemetery. ($15,000 is equivalent to about $140,000 in today’s dollars.)

The vandals were quickly caught – schoolboys age 9 and 12, who said they were “just having fun after school.” Their parents agreed to pay full restitution. The last we hear of the young hooligans was that “State psychiatrists” would soon be examining them. “Investigating officers who questioned the boys expressed the belief that neither vandal was aware of the sacrilegious nature of the crime.”

(For what it’s worth: Every 1951 Press Democrat article described the vandalism as being “sacrilegious” or “desecration” – the offense against morality trumped the criminal act – and there was an editorial on the vandalism titled, “Moral Revival Should Start in the Homes.” This was in step with the pious tone of the newspaper in that era; every day there was a section on the front or editorial page titled “The Shepherd,” with a Bible verse and little homily. In the letters section readers debated bits of scripture continually.)

For reasons unclear, it was decided the monument company needed written consent from relatives of the deceased before they could repair damaged tombstones at the Rural Cemetery. But very few wrote to grant permission; the PD noted “survivors of many whose graves were mutilated have themselves died or moved from the area.” Doubtless there were others who lived around here but didn’t even know there were family members up on the hill, hidden somewhere under the weeds.

And that was the nub of the problems with the Rural Cemetery; nobody took responsibility for the place. It was outside Santa Rosa city limits. Most of it was supposedly owned by the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Association, but that organization was long defunct and there were no records to be found. According to the Recorder’s Office, the last time a burial plot had been sold was in 1930.

Shift forward now two months. Northern California had sweltered through a long hot summer and nearly every day the papers reported there were fires burning out of control in the forests. About then, City Manager Hood and other officials apparently remembered there was a vandal-friendly, six acre tinderbox right on the edge of town.

“It’s getting so we can’t sleep night worrying about the situation,” Hood told the Board of Supervisors. “We could have a major catastrophe on our hands” if a blaze at the cemetery jumped to surrounding neighborhoods.

Hood’s proposal was that a workcrew of twenty prisoners from the county jail should be provided to clear the weed-choked narrow roads winding around the cemetery. Following that there would be a controlled burn, supervised by the city fire chief and firefighters from the state Forest Service.

The only objections to the plan came from Supervisor William Kennedy of Sebastopol, who was worried about setting precedent by using country jail labor. “There are plenty of other cemeteries in the county which aren’t in good condition,” he said, adding a cleanup at the Pleasant Hill Cemetery was paid for privately. The decision was that prisoners could be used because fire prevention was in the county’s interest, but no money would be spent to “beautify” the cemetery, which presumably meant resetting pushed-over monuments. “The resulting improvement of the neglected cemetery’s appearance will be only incidental,” summarized the PD.

Thus on August 25, 1951, the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery was burned in a controlled fire.

Or maybe not so controlled; a small item in the PD a couple of days later claimed success, with a small qualification:

Some wooden grave markers were inadvertently destroyed, when the burning revealed a number of plots that had lain concealed for years. An attempt will be made to trace families of those whose graves were hidden, City Manager Sam B. Hood said. He indicated that “private arrangements” will have to be made, since most of the cemetery is outside city limits.

It was a true Pyrrhic victory – Santa Rosa had “saved” its historic cemetery, and in the process, destroyed many of the oldest markers that made it historic. It is a loss that plagues historians today.

We can argue the city and county should be held blameless; the thick overgrowth completely concealed the old wood markers from the fire crews and conditions at the cemetery truly represented a serious fire risk. Or we can also argue it was irresponsible to do it in such a great rush and on the cheap. But whether by accident or carelessness, it’s difficult to defend Santa Rosa’s stance that descendants were responsible to make their own “private arrangements” to replace what was destroyed by the city.

And perhaps the burn may not have been so controlled after all. A few days later a letter appeared in the paper: “For years it has been a disgrace to the community with its majority of unkept lots and weed-covered roads. Now we have acres of blackened fire-swept stubble, smoke-covered monuments, burnt wooden markers and scorched trees.”

As the obl. Believe-it-or-Not footnote, there’s an unseen player to be spotted in all corners of this story: Hyperactive developer Hugh Codding.

Codding had opened his Montgomery Village shopping center a year earlier – hijacking a chunk of downtown Santa Rosa’s mercantile base in the process – and in 1951 was building hundreds of tract houses nearby which were intended to be the foundation of a sister city to Santa Rosa. Just before the cemetery vandalism a wag wrote the Press Democrat to suggest we should surrender and just rename the whole area “Coddingville.” Another PD correspondent at the time thought we should beg Codding to “clean up the terrible unsightly condition that exists” at the Rural Cemetery as a civic duty. (Codding didn’t reply, but in the same edition a letter from him denied “The Montgomery Village News” was about to become a daily newspaper in competition with the Press Democrat.)

But there are cosmic ironies in Sam Hood’s appeal to the Supervisors for an emergency prisoner work crew, which he said was based on the threat a cemetery fire posed to “the Codding Village area.” Hood was then new to the post of City Manager, and three years later would be locking horns with Codding over whether Montgomery Village should be incorporated into the city. By eliminating the greatest fire risk in the area, Hood also lost a major bargaining chip – no longer was there urgency for Codding to compromise in order to ensure his sprawling subdivisions were under the protection offered by Santa Rosa fire stations.

EDITOR: There are many men and women buried in the Rural Cemetery who were well known and well liked citizens of Santa Rosa.

When alive and active in making this city “Designed For Better Living” they gave their time, money, labor and they paid taxes and had hopes for the progress of Santa Rosa.

Now they seem to be forgotten, with but few exceptions, and to show how shameful all this is, just take a walk or drive through this cemetery. It is a disgrace to Santa Rosa.

Why do we neglect the respect for our dead? When you read the names on the headstones of many who were well known, and see the condition of them, you wonder why something is not done to care for this cemetery.

Being the chairman of the committee for Memorial Day Exercises, I visited this cemetery to arrange for the ceremonies and found it difficult to even drive around the roads. In all my experience, and I have visited many a cemetery, I can say this is the worst of them all…

..You may say the relatives of the dead should clean it up. Some whole families are buried here and no one left. Others have moved away. Decency demands that some provision should be made to clean this cemetery, at least, before Memorial Day.

I have been told the Board of Supervisors are responsible for this condition and I hope that everyone interested in cleaning up this terrible condition will demand some effort be made to clean up this condition which is a disgrace.

Let us not forget and forsake our dead.

FRED A. COOKE, Commander, United Spanish War Veterans.

– Press Democrat, May 18, 1951

EDITOR: I read with great interest the magnificent article written by Commander Fred A. Cooke…

…Why not call up your favorite supervisor or several of them, and they will possibly arrange to have the county jail prisoners do the clean-up work under the supervision of the city or county park gardeners, or let them use common sense.

Certainly it will not take any amount of brains to do the job. Of course the supervisors may have a better solution for cleaning up not only these graves, but the roads and paths into the plots of our pioneer dead…

…Their resting places are, in some instances, almost a forest, with weeds, underbrush and young trees making it almost impossible to walk through the roads, and in some cases, impossible to locate tombstones, let alone the markers of the revered dead. Shame on you, Santa Rosa and community citizenry. Do you want your lot to be the same?

Why not make it a semi-annual affair to clean up the Rural Cemetery. Then we will be able at least to pass the cemetery without a shudder and be ashamed to drive past it with visitors who have been attracted here by what our Chamber of Commerce and we like to say is a city “designed for living”…

GUY E. GROSSE, Santa Rosa

– Press Democrat, May 24, 1951

EDITOR: I hope that the public will read the following lines and be as serious about the entire matter as I am. I am sincere and have no thought of sarcasm and I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Hugh Codding, and feel that this town and Sonoma County are indeed fortunate in having as progressive a man as he in regard to his terrific subdivisions.

There has been much comment regarding the terrible condition surrounding the cemetery at the end of McDonald Ave., and I, too, feel that this is one of the most disgraceful situations we have in this beautiful city of Santa Rosa.

Everyone feels that something should be done to correct this unsightly condition, but there seemse to be no heads or tails as to what should be done.

Now if Mr. Codding is able to move the bank which was to be built on 4th street to the Codding subdivision in Montgomery Village, and if Mr. Codding was able to get a permit to build a theater in Montgomery Village, and I think if he tries hard enough he will move the court house to Montgomery Village–if all this is possible, why isn’t it reasonable to believe that with a little encouragement Mr. Codding could move the present cemetery and clean up the terrible unsightly condition that exists?


HARRY B. FETCH, Santa Rosa

– Press Democrat, June 3, 1951

EDITOR: I am wondering how many have been through the Rural Cemetery since the recent cleanup and just what they think of it.

For years it has been a disgrace to the community with its majority of unkept lots and weed-covered roads.

Now we have acres of blackened fire-swept stubble, smoke-covered monuments, burnt wooden markers and scorched trees.

Surely it is a showplace for a “City Designed for Living” to be extremely proud of.

MARY A. McDANNEL, Santa Rosa

– Press Democrat, August 30, 1951

Read More