Off a path that meanders through a vast sea of potted plants, some bursting with the smell of citrus, sits a tiny, forgotten cemetery--an island of consecrated tranquillity in the San Gabriel Valley.
Hidden from view, surrounded by a commercial nursery, the 118-year-old Fairmount Cemetery, the area's first Protestant graveyard, still survives. It is a remnant of a sometimes violent pioneer past that will soon be surrounded by California's future: development.
The lonely little cemetery on San Felipe Hill in Glendora began in 1876, when settler James Carson Preston donated the two-acre parcel--a former Native American burial site--as a public graveyard. The need arose after a German immigrant and woodcutter named Nelson was killed protecting his wood from a thief.
Many early settlers followed Nelson into the little graveyard, most of them under more peaceful circumstances. They were from such families as the Wrights, Doughertys, Pollards and Griswolds, who carved the first farms and towns out of the San Gabriel Valley. The northeast slope of the cemetery was set aside for Latino farm laborers, Native Americans and outlaws. Higher ground was reserved for the graves of whites.
The land was once part of the old Rancho Azusa, owned by another noted family, the Slausons.
After World War II, part of the ranch was broken up, mostly for houses. One heir sold her land to the Manresa Jesuit Retreat Center.
Another section became property of the Monrovia Nursery Co.
Now, the nursery--the world's biggest commercial grower of potted plants--is selling off the old Rancho Azusa land for residential and commercial development, joining a major home builder in a plan to develop the 600 acres, which lie along the border of Azusa and Glendora. The project would be one of the largest in the San Gabriel Valley.
There has been little public opposition to the project, which will preserve the cemetery but take away the dense plants and shrubs on the nursery grounds that have shielded its 200 graves for 40 years.
In fact, the Fairmount Cemetery Trustees, a court-appointed body that oversees the graveyard, couldn't be happier. Elizabeth Shorey, president of the trustees, said, "We're kind of anxious to see the development get started, as long as the developers take care of certain conditions, such as proper grading, building an access road, wall and parking spaces."
The cemetery is so remote now that the only way to get there is through the nursery entrance at Foothill Boulevard and Palm Drive, which splits into twin driveways lined with 226 California fan palm trees.
"We want the cemetery to be respected and (want to) be a good neighbor to it," said Randall Lewis, executive vice president of Lewis Homes Management Corp. "It will take six or seven years to develop the property. We are still working out the details."
In the early 1900s, picnickers enjoyed the fragrance of citrus trees and the songs of the birds that flitted among the tombstones. Years later, teen-agers used the graveyard as a hangout. Their imaginations ran wild as they read inscriptions on the tombstones.
Over the years, the cemetery became weed-choked and overgrown. Several times, Junior Marines, a battalion of 60 martially disciplined and khaki-uniformed volunteer youths, stormed the hillside with hoes, rakes and shovels to spruce up the cemetery.
The trustees put up a fence in the 1950s after some local boys on horseback lassoed several headstones, carrying them as far away as El Monte. Other vandals broke headstones, stole copper markers, dug up graves and even beheaded one skeleton. Someone rolled up a large stone, solemnly if incorrectly engraved: "Fairmont Cemetary."
Amateur filmmakers once made a Western using the cemetery as a backdrop. "A stunt man fell off his horse riding through the cemetery as desperadoes--hiding behind the tombstones--jumped him and stole the box of gold on the back of his horse," recalled Christopher Wilmans, a Glendora resident who played in the cemetery as a child. Wilmans recalls catching tarantulas and playing cowboys and Indians amid the cactus, sagebrush and eucalyptus trees.
Always, there were jokers. Shorey said that several years ago, "as a prank, someone deposited my husband's great-grandmother's tombstone on the lawn at City Hall."
Each trustee has ancestors buried in the cemetery, and Glendora declared the burial ground a historic landmark in 1991. "We also give about five cemetery tours a year for local groups, including elementary schools," Shorey said.
The small plot of land is so crowded that only descendants of the original dead can be buried there. The last burial took place seven years ago.
Every Memorial Day for four decades or so, the trustees have arranged for a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps to honor the score of veterans buried there, soldiers from the Civil War to World War II.
Development plans or no, they will do the same this Memorial Day. Monday's ceremony begins at 11:30 a.m.
But the neighboring Manresa Retreat is planning to close its doors later this year, unwilling to live with the disruption and noise of development.
"We're not just moving, we're closing down for good," said Ruben Quezada, a spokesman for the retreat. "Without peace and quiet, this will not be a suitable area for a retreat house, once the development goes in."