Olive Mann Isbell was the first American schoolteacher in California. She was born in 1824, died in 1899. She taught in 1846 at the old Mission Santa Clara de Asis.
That’s what the monument at her grave in the Pierce Brothers Santa Paula Cemetery says. Research a little further and find that she was the niece of renowned educator Horace Mann and that Santa Paula’s Isbell Middle School is named after her.
There are any number of ways to uncover bits of local history. They can be found in the pages of journals, in the photo albums of native families, in the minds of longtime residents. They can also be found in the closest cemetery.
Whether an area is big or small or old or new, a cemetery’s location, its appearance and the words on the grave markers can provide some background on the town in which it is located. Nothing beats talking to someone who was around while history was becoming history, but short of that, the dead leave headstones that can provide beacons--little signposts along the way--that serve as guides to a rich look back in time.
And Ventura County has its share of aged cemeteries. Santa Paula Cemetery is actually three old cemeteries merged into one. It was incorporated in 1903.
Ojai’s Nordhoff Cemetery dates back to 1870. The Simi Valley Public Cemetery opened in 1890. And most Venturans are familiar with what is now Cemetery Memorial Park off Main Street, which was built atop the bodies of a couple thousand of Ventura’s founders. The place was a city cemetery from 1862 to 1944, before its reincarnation as a park in 1965.
There’s a lot going on in county cemeteries if you just take a look. Consider that you will find pieces of the puzzle: shards of information on prominent families of bygone eras, clues to migrations of ethnic peoples and the exploits of pioneers. Some of it is clear by itself. Yet much of it comes together as history’s mosaic only if you bother to take the interesting pieces to a friendly librarian or cemetery-keeper.
That’s exactly what we did. Collected and sought explanation.
We visited four cemeteries--the aforementioned Santa Paula Cemetery, Bardsdale Cemetery, the Hueneme Masonic Cemetery and the relatively new Conejo Mountain Memorial Park and Funeral Home.
Hueneme Masonic Cemetery
As might be suggested by its name, the cemetery is associated with the fraternal order of the Masons. As might not be suggested by its name, the group that owns the property is not connected to the Hueneme lodge--though it used to be--but rather to the Oxnard lodge.
It’s just as well, because the cemetery itself is in Oxnard.
According to Mason records, the cemetery was incorporated under the name Hueneme Masonic Cemetery Assn. and shares were sold in 1898, making it five years older than the city of Oxnard. Records show that a man most readers may have heard--A. Levy--bought 20 of the original shares.
If you want to find this place, don’t look for it on the map. It’s hard enough trying to find it with the naked eye.
The cemetery is across from the Sunny Acres mobile home park on Pleasant Valley Road and is partially bordered by the Naumann Giant Gum Tree and Eucalyptus Grove, a county historical landmark.
A well-worn path divides the main section of cemetery property in half. A visitor with a good imagination might see both sides as they once were, filled with green, well-manicured ice plant. Now, the gray foliage runs amok.
“The dry years have ruined most of it,” Oxnard Mason John Coultas said. “We used to come out here and clean it up, but not anymore. Our bank account is going downhill all the time. . . . There’s been no maintenance for many, many years.” Recently somebody, though Coultas has no idea who, planted some new ice plant, so there may be hope for the future.
Originally, the cemetery was 3.94 acres and consisted of 340 plots--some of those in what is now an adjacent farm, others in a portion that was used primarily for Japanese burials. Though the cemetery technically still is operable, Blinn Maxwell, the Mason’s attorney, said no one has been interred in the main section since at least 1949. Only a dozen or so headstones remain in that portion.
There’s Rosa Cox, who died Jan. 20, 1902 at the age of 71, 15-year-old Lew Nahan “Gone but not forgotten,” buried next to his father William (1865-1938), “Sergt. Curdin N. Kenyon, Col. 4 Mich. Cav.” There are also Johanna and E.A. Voght, whose tombstone reads, “Selig sind die Todten die un den Herrn Sterben von nun un.” (Written in a southern German dialect, that loosely translates to “Holy are the dead who go from us to the Lord.”)
Coultas said there are no doubt plenty more headstones buried beneath the wild foliage. Others, in a manner of speaking, just more or less got up and left.
“After Ivy Lawn Cemetery (in Ventura) opened, a lot of people moved the graves there,” he said. “Some of the younger people wanted (their predecessors) to be over where they’d be buried, I suppose.”
Six members of the Coultas family are buried at Ivy Lawn, but one, Coultas’ great-great uncle, is interred at Hueneme Masonic. His headstone, bordered by a white picket fence, reads “Thomas Clark 1815-1903, Native Yorkshire, England, Pioneer 1848.”
Ask Coultas about the pioneer part and he will eagerly explain.
In 1848 Clark, his mother, three brothers and a sister left Illinois on a northern route to Oregon. “They were attacked by Indians near Snake River in Idaho. (Clark’s) mother and brother were killed,” Coultas said. “The two boys and the sister went to Oregon. When the Gold Rush hit they came to California.”
As the story goes, Clark eventually had enough gold, $30,000 of it, to purchase a 1,000-acre piece of land between Wood and Pleasant Valley roads. At one time, the Coultas family owned three farms in that general area.
Just west of the main portion of the cemetery, past a grove of trees and usually a fair share of discarded potato chip wrappers and other trash, lies the third-of-an-acre Japanese cemetery, still a part of the Masonic spread. Locals may be familiar with the triangular parcel at Pleasant Valley and Etting roads, home to the graves of some Chinese along with the Japanese.
Assemblyman Nao Takasugi, former treasurer of the Japanese Cemetery Assn., joins others in suggesting that local Japanese residents, and perhaps Chinese, might not have been allowed to bury their dead in regular cemeteries about the turn of the century, so the Masons allowed them to use their land.
Pierce Brothers Santa Paula Cemetery
Santa Paula Cemetery is easier to find than the Masonic cemetery. It’s on Cemetery Road, for one thing; it’s 25 acres, and it looks like what it is, a fully operable burial site.
The cemetery, run by Service Corp. International, is actually a combination of three cemeteries that merged when the place was incorporated in 1903. The first recorded burial there was that of Benjamin Whitton on Oct. 11 of that year.
But “recorded” is the key here.
According to cemetery manager Wayne Palone, the first burial appears to have been in 1872, and there are other burials on the far right side of the property with no accompanying markers. “But there are graves, we know,” Palone said. “We’ve dug down a few times, so we know.”
Palone said most of the older graves there belong to farmers, which is probably to be expected in this old agricultural town.
A roll call of headstones includes surnames of families who would be included in any historical text of Santa Paula: Teague, Goodenough, Hardison--all names of prominent farming and oil families in the area.
And now for the history of it: Charles C. Teague was vice president and general manager of the Limoneira Co., director of the California Fruit Growers Exchange, president of the First National Bank of Santa Paula, director of the California State Chamber of Commerce, head of Sunkist and a member of President Herbert Hoover’s Federal Farm Advisory Board. Teague’s son, Charles M., was a congressman from 1954 to 1974.
The senior Teague was also the grand-nephew of Wallace L. Hardison, one of the most prominent ranchers in the area and a founder of Union Oil Co.
Edgar D. Goodenough was a lemon and apricot grower and hay farmer. His father, Oren J., contracted and built some of the first buildings of Fillmore, including the first school and church.
An inspection of a couple of monuments in the upper part of the cemetery’s midsection would uncover a series of deaths on the same date in the late 1920s. A casual passerby might guess at some sort of tragedy. Even semi-historians of the county could pitch in with some mention of the great flood in March, 1928, caused by a break of the St. Francis Dam. (By the way, Charles C. Teague reportedly led emergency relief efforts following the flood.)
One headstone that doesn’t stand out in the slightest, located at the front of the cemetery and to the right of the entrance, belongs to Henry S. Brubaker (1865-1940). Though he died more than 50 years ago, his grave plaque is relatively new.
“A guy came around 10 years ago and (placed) it for his great-grandfather,” Palone said. “Brubaker was an outlaw back in the Midwest. He was so ornery his family couldn’t get along with him, so nobody had bought him a marker.”
Marge LeBard, president of the Bardsdale Cemetery District board of trustees, remembers putting flowers on her in-laws’ graves on a typical Memorial Day and, while doing so, running into friends and neighbors she hadn’t seen for some time.
“If we had cookies and punch,” she said, “we’d have had a ball.”
One might expect that feeling at a small town cemetery, and Bardsdale’s is just that. “I think people still feel it’s part of our community,” LeBard said. “I think they have a close association because we’re smaller. We haven’t become metropolitan.”
Bardsdale Cemetery opened in 1895 under the direction of the Bardsdale Cemetery Assn. The list of original stockholders included LeBard’s husband’s grandfather, James D. LeBard. In 1914, it became a district cemetery, covering Bardsdale and Fillmore. Members of the Bardsdale Cemetery District board of trustees are appointed by the county’s Board of Supervisors.
The property is next to farmland, south of Fillmore, and well out of the way of just about everything else.
There’s a friendly cemetery dog, who belongs to cemetery manager Leonard Boynton, and a restroom that’s actually a shack sans electricity. The community feels so at home with the cemetery that the local driving instructor uses the pavement as a training road.
There are 4,500 people buried here, not counting the 100 or so in an out-of-use potter’s field where local poor were provided free burials.
A look through the cemetery’s log book lists 1-year-old May Zanor as the first person buried at the cemetery. Causes of death among the first deceased include tuberculosis, apoplexy, an accidental fall, and suicide by jumping in front of a train.
Many of the larger family plots were sold all in one chunk, and relatives continue to use them. “So there’s some permanence of family,” said LeBard, who’s father-in-law bought nine plots for his family.
The Shiells family, a longtime ranching clan, has one of the larger plots. James Shiells, a citrus rancher who died in 1898, was instrumental in founding the Fillmore Veterans Memorial building and the Fillmore public library. Helen Kimball Shiells, the family matriarch, was in her 90s when she died a couple of years ago. Members of the Shiells family recently donated some trees to the cemetery.
The Inadomi family, Wari, Midori and John Jr.--who were in Bardsdale before and after World War II--is represented, though not as grandly as the Shiells family. “During World War II, they were rounded up and had to leave everything,” LeBard said in reference to the internment of Japanese Americans at the time. “Everybody felt bad, but it happened everywhere.”
Though Bardsdale has always been the epitome of a small town, there have been enough burials at the cemetery to force the trustees to search for more land. They are currently working on that acquisition. Money has been a problem in the past, too. In 1981 voters approved a $5-per-parcel tax measure to keep the cemetery afloat.
Conejo Mountain Memorial Park
A time capsule buried beneath a tree at the back of the 30-year-old Conejo Mountain Memorial Park and Funeral Home is indicative of the facility’s place in the county’s cemetery lineage.
It’s a small touch of the past, mixed with a whole lot of the present, and a look toward the future.
The time capsule is scheduled to be unearthed in the year 2030, at which time those buried at the relatively young Camarillo cemetery will themselves be part of history.
But for now, the place is clearly modern. There are no tombstones, just neat plaques lying flat on neatly trimmed lawns. The place is tucked away at the foot of the Conejo Mountains.
The cemetery was founded by Mary Howard Smith, who died last year at the age of 94. Smith and her husband owned 800 acres of ranchland, which they used for raising cattle. In 1964 Smith donated 119 of those acres for use by the cemetery because that, she is reported to have said, would ensure she would never have to leave her land, even after her death.
Pam Beardsley, the funeral director of Conejo Mountain, has been in the cemetery business for many years. She appreciates the older burial grounds and realizes that some day her place will be part of history.
“Eventually, today is going to be tomorrow’s history,” she said. “I think people are going to know the local people we have (buried) here.”