With Halloween and Dia de los Muertos upon us, we ventured into the land of the dead, visiting cemeteries and the graves therein, reflecting on the past and finding a few mysteries. This year, we visited several cemeteries, graveyards that perhaps few realize are actually there and likely know little of the people interred at them.
Hueneme Masonic Cemetery, est. 1898
Location: Pleasant Valley and Etting roads in Oxnard
Mrs. Emily Snow had been a resident of California for eight years and called Oxnard her home when she passed at 85 in 1912. She was respected and revered, the wife of an eminent educator and the mother of four sons and one daughter. From her obituary, it’s clear she was a valued member of the community. One hundred-plus years later, however, her memorial, her headstone at the Hueneme Masonic Cemetery, is among dozens of others and hundreds of apparently unmarked graves in the cemetery of the Gone and Forgotten.
It’s a sad state of affairs: a sandy graveyard with headstones scattered about, many askew from what seem to be their original spots, some outside plots, and several without names, with brown, overgrown knee-high weeds and crunchy gray ice plant covering many of the plots. In 1994, the L.A. Times did a story, “Dishonoring the Dead,” about the Masonic cemetery having been neglected and in ruins. Twenty years later, it’s only gotten worse, if that is even possible, given the way it was described in the article.
Nicole Doner, staff to the Ventura County Cultural Heritage Board, said that the board applied to make it a Ventura County Historical Landmark with the city of Oxnard, but it has been in limbo since it went before the City Council in August 2012. Doner doesn’t blame the city; such things are slow moving, especially when the paper trail of ownership is sparse at best or nonexistent at worst. She said that the property is registered to the Hueneme Masonic Cemetery, under the nonprofit Hueneme Masonic Association, which no longer exists, and the PO Box for the organization is no longer being paid for. When she made an inquiry about ownership of the cemetery to the Oxnard Masonic Association, it was turned down. Anyone connected to the ownership or care and management of the cemetery has either disappeared or is, well, dead.
The Naumann property, which begins at corner of Etting and Pleasant Valley roads, includes the Historic Japanese Cemetery, two bare sites and the Masonic cemetery, which lies between. A Robert Naumann is mentioned as a neighbor of the cemetery in the L.A. Times article, but how it came to be Naumann’s isn’t quite clear. According to Doner, a joint venture between developer Daly and Dansk Investment group has applied to build a senior housing and memory care apartment complex between the two cemeteries and another family housing project at the southeast site. Because of the historical landmark status of the old Naumann Giant Gum Tree and Eucalyptus Rows as well as the Historic Japanese Cemetery at the property, development seems to be far off with many questions still to be answered.
All cemeteries have their mysteries, but the unmarked graves, the headstone labeled “Baby” and another labeled “Marshall,” who lived between 1908 and 1911 and whose gravestone appears not to belong to any particular plot, add a certain air of uneasiness that really doesn’t exist at most of the cemeteries around the county.
Charles Johnson, research library director at the Museum of Ventura County, said he hopes to publish a report on those who are interred and those who have purchased plots there, but there is a severe disconnect at this point between the living and the deceased.
St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, (Cemetery Memorial Park), est. 1862
Location: Between Main and Poli streets, adjacent to Aliso Lane, in Ventura
Photo courtesy Mark and Cheryl Tovar
Cemetery Memorial Park, known to most as Cemetery Park, isn’t much of a cemetery any more. In fact, for many, it is just a park with spectacular panoramic views of the coast, where many use as a place to run their dogs, playing fetch and whatnot. But six feet under, lie more than 3,000 dead, from Catholics to Presbyterians, Chumash to veterans and more. It has a sordid past, having once stood as a pristine cemetery, then become dilapidated and overrun with weeds. Because it had become so neglected, the city opted to remove all the original headstones — with one exception — and make it into a park in 1965.
Thousands of headstones ended up in all sorts of places, some thrown into Hall Canyon near Ventura High School, others picked up by homeowners and stored in backyards as decorations.
Mark and Cheryl Tovar of Ventura are among several who have been tracing the family lines of those buried at Cemetery Memorial Park and have even located around a dozen headstones that they hope to return to the original graves. The only original headstone said to be remaining is that of Mother Ramona V. Velarde, 1851-1910, found on the southwest side of the park. Not too far away, just a few yards toward Main Street, is the headstone of Candelaria Valenzuela. Her headstone was installed in just the last six months; she is the first Chumash woman to be recognized since the city began working on installing new headstones.
But her obituary, the tale of the end of her life, is quite horrific.
Aged Indian Dies
(Obituary, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1915, courtesy of Mark and Cheryl Tovar)
Candelaria, the celebrated Indian basket maker of this section, is dead. She was aged 80 years and weighed 300 pounds. Her death was a tragic one. The woman was known as Candelaria Valenzuela, and while working a few days ago on the Peirano ranch on the Santa Ana was badly burned by kerosene.
In attempting to start a fire she used the oil. It caught fire and the fluid spread quickly all over her person, burning her frightfully. She was brought to this city [Ventura], where she passed away.
Looking for headstones at the park is somewhat of an Easter egg hunt, since the current stones are level with the grass. While it has been no easy endeavor — one which has been going on for the last decade — the Tovars continue their search trying to link families to their ancestors buried at Cemetery Memorial Park and paying respect to the dead and to the pioneers of Ventura.
Nordhoff Cemetery, est. 1870
Location: Del Norte Road, adjacent to Cuyama Road in Ojai
Nordhoff Cemetery is one of the more eclectic, ornate, well-preserved cemeteries in the county. From Civil War veterans to cremation sites of those who have recently died, it’s a brisk, serene walk through time. While the graves and lives of the people who once lived decades or even more than a hundred years ago arouse a certain curiosity, the real question is about the tender love and care continues today for those who lived so long ago.
Along the main road is the grave of a young girl named Verna Miller, 1897 to 1908, buried alongside a Mattie Ann Miller, 1876-1965. According to Ojai’s Illustrated History and the Nordhoff Cemetery books by Patty Fry, Verna was the daughter of a Clark V. Miller, though it is unclear if Mattie was married to Clark or if Mattie was related to Verna; Mattie was around 21 when Verna was born. Not much is known about Verna other than the fact that she died of spinal meningitis at 11. Part of Mattie’s life story is the fact that she presided over the first Parent Teacher Association meeting of Ojai nine years after Verna’s death in 1917. Due to a raging fire that burned through Ojai around that time, the PTA was short lived. Clark is interred at Nordhoff as well but his grave was not clearly visible near Verna’s and Mattie’s. Mattie’s gravesite is almost identical to Verna’s with the same fencing and flower basket in the middle of the site. It is not clear whether Mattie had any children or whether Clark had children other than Verna.
It’s not so much that there is this unusual disconnect between Verna and Mattie, buried side by side, with no clear documentation that they are related, or the fact that there is no information about who Verna’s mother was. The real mystery is the relatively new I CAN READ book left beside her headstone, plus the red glow stick, the toy casket with a shell bracelet and a dime inside and the polished stone left atop it. There once was a group called Adopt-a-grave, but that went defunct over a decade ago. Trying to trace the glow stick and book to the one who left it for Verna has proven to be impossible — a stakeout could take months. With no obvious documentation showing Verna had any siblings, a shroud of mystery remains over the one who bestowed these gifts for her.
Piru Cemetery, est. 1914
Location: End of Center Street in Piru
In the small town of Piru, population just over 2,000, lies the Piru Cemetery. The well-kept cemetery is rather modest, with its nicely trimmed grass and quaint little headstones. Though it has more than 500 graves filled with a century of lives lost, the Piru Cemetery isn’t frequently talked about. But the tragic loss of young lives is an anomaly for Ventura County. Take, for instance, the children of the Rogers family. Four children, aged 4 to 13, died when the St. Francis Dam near Castaic burst in March 1928, sending a 140-foot wave through the Santa Clara Valley.
There are also, the six children taken from two families by diphtheria, which came from drinking water from the Santa Clara River. One of the families, the Baum family, buried four children in two weeks.
This depressing loss of life puts into perspective the tough regulations we now have in place and that so many fight against. These children’s graves stand today in remembrance of their short lives and what we can do now to protect the most vulnerable.