In the Shade of the Old Cemetery

After making a few jokes about 30 Rock’s Rural Juror episode, we went off Saturday to Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery. It didn’t matter whether we could pronounce it or not.

It’s been reportedly voted one of the scariest cemeteries, but in summer sunshine it’s as beautiful as it is historic.

Rural Cemetary monuments

The canopy of oaks makes this a good summertime walk. I imagine myself skipping on the wide dirt and gravel paths listening to the leaves rustling under my footsteps. You don’t have to skip and the main hill can be avoided by circling it. But there are gentle slopes.

Rural Cemetery Santa Rosa

This walk is just over a ½ mile, so you’ll have to make many loops or walk in the nearby neighborhood to get any distance. A brochure at the entrances provides a map and site location of many burials.

It qualifies for scary because some plots are sunken, tombstones have collapsed, been vandalized or overgrown. The first burial was in 1854. Stones from the 1930s are crude in keeping with Depression Era. This is also the time when the cemetery’s maintenance declined.

Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

The Rural Cemetery was neglected for a number of years, but beginning in the mid-1960s maintenance and improvement efforts began. In 1985, the site marked trail was created to encourage people to learn and appreciate the cemetery’s history. The four main cemeteries of 17 acres are now a City Historic Landmark.

The cemetery’s main entrance used to be at the end of McDonald Ave as funeral processions came up the avenue to the burial site. We came in on the Franklin St. Gate. We’d just missed the last tour, Saturday. There are tours from April to September, focusing on different aspects of the Rural Cemetery.

Santa Rosa street names may lack meaning to you, but in the cemetery you can find out to whom those names belonged: Hahman, Carrillo, McDonald, Wright, Fulkerson, and Pressley. The Rural Cemetery is a place of history.

Perhaps the most famous person is at site #6 is Col. James Armstrong. He’s the highest ranking officer of the 150 Civil War veterans in the cemetery. He’s the one who donated a parcel of old growth redwoods that became part of the Armstrong Woods State Preserve in Guerneville.

Julio Carillo, one of the founding fathers of Santa Rosa was Gen. Vallejo’s brother-in-law. He owned much of central Santa Rosa including the cemetery. He died and was buried in 1889. Another founder, Feodor Hahman preceded him by six years.

I studied the tombstones, noting the short life spans of children and women who perhaps died in childbirth. Many lives were of 30-50 years. At 99 yrs. Phoebe Fulkerson seems to be the oldest.

Early business people in the development of Santa Rosa, who are buried here, include bankers, Elijah T. Farmer, Natale Bacigalupi (Bank of Italy – Bank of America) and Manville Doyle (Exchange Bank). Winfield S.M. Wright died in 1892 and was one of Sonoma County’s richest men. His name is on several places including one of my favorite places, Wright’s Beach.

Rural Cemetery Taylor headstone heavily overgrown by tree

Dr. John F Boyce was Santa Rosa’s first physician, starting his practice in an earlier town, Franklin, near Farmer’s Lane and FourthSt. Dying a generation later in 1916 and buried here is Dr. Annabel McGaughey Stuart, a Civil War nurse and Santa Rosa’s first female physician.

Besides the well-known and wealthy, on adjacent County land is a potter’s field for the poor. Near the Franklin Gate is a plot memorializing the 75 people who died in the 1906 Earthquake.

Rural Cemetery Wright Monument

In less inspiring history, the cemetery is the site of a vigilante hanging of three men accused of killing a sheriff and two policemen in 1920. Chinese were not allowed to be buried here, though they were an important part of Santa Rosa and the County’s development.

A guide at each entrance describes some to the ‘resident’s and the site location. I suggest you wander yourself and see what attracts your attention. John Richards a successful and  popular black barber who died in 1879 intrigued Mike. The brochure also notes that Richards ran a way station for freed slaves before the Civil War.

The giant oak trees are beautiful and delightful to walk under on a hot day. Many of the families who sought to memorialize their family members planted trees of their European countries. That’s why there are locust, olives and other exotic bushes. Many rose bushes were planted over the years, but the heavy cover of trees prevents their thriving. Near the new garden of native plants, rose bushes have recently been planted on a sunnier slope.

The Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Preservation Committee holds a number of tours, the next ones on September 16, 17 and 18. These are evening tours with dramatic presentations along the way. Bring a flashlight and pay ahead.\ruralcemetery. You could even volunteer to help the Preservation Committee or buy some tombstone shaped soap.

McDonald Mansion Santa Rosa

They also have an historic ball once a year, in July, at the McDonald Mansion. Saturday, we went there to take a few pictures. The exterior has been restored to the original and they’re working on the inside now. The gardens will also be restored.

The McDonald neighborhood is a great flat walk. I suggest the weekends, because there’s too much construction and landscaping during the week. It gets noisy.

Dogs: On a leash, please. Plenty of bags available to pick up their you-know-what.

Food: Nearby Town and Country shopping center has a Pacific Market, Village Bakery and Carmen’s Burger Bar. There’s a little coffee stand outside Pacific Market. My nearby favorite coffee is the Caffino drive-in at Pacific and Mendocino.

Lynn Millar

Photos by Mike Millar

Click on one of the location for a list in that area for more walks.

Published by Lynn Millar

Walker, reader, writer, traveller - see About Walking

4 thoughts on “In the Shade of the Old Cemetery

  1. Buried in your cemetery is John Richards – a prominent African American man who established the first school for “colored” children in Santa Rosa in the 1860s. Mr. Richards, a barber, had considerable wealth and was known throughout the Bay Area for his leadership ability. He took part in the early Colored Citizens Conventions held in California during the 1850s and 1860s and was helpful in housing many African Americans, many who were newly freed from slavery, in the Santa Rosa area. To learn more about John Richards, please read my book, “John Grider’s Century – African Americans in Solano, Napa and Sonoma Counties from 1845 to 1925.”

    1. Sharon – thank you for leaving this comment. I have mentioned Mr. Richards in my tour of the cemetery. How can people access your book? I would be happy to put in my Wednesday news and/or share on Facebook and Twitter. Okay? – Lynn

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