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Marbletown: Guerneville’s Old Pioneer Cemetery

Thursday, October 25th, 2012 | Posted by

Historian John C. Schubert strolls through Guerneville’s Old Pioneer Cemetery. (Jeff Kan Lee / PD)

It’s time for black cats, pumpkin pie, witches, ghost stories, goblins and Jack Frost nipping at your ears.  Mid-Autumn when the brittlebroom  cornstalks crack out on the prairies, the wind howls like a banshee, and  tired old farmhouses creak and moan in the frigid green-gray dawn.

But we’re here atop Woodland Drive, a thousand feet above the Russian River Valley among sentinel oaks, mossy headstones and weary angels in Guerneville’s Old Pioneer Cemetery. Dry leaves scuttle between the rows and huddle against weather stained marble and granite etched with names that are hardly readable. Dry branches like bony fingers stiffly wave a greeting to the 35 visitors historian John Schubert  is taking on his fourth annual tour of the cemetery.

Built during the 1870s the Old Pioneer is Guerneville’s second cemetery after the first which, says Schubert is “uphill behind St. Elizabeth’s Catholic church,” and  home to the three people buried there. At last count, the Old Pioneer has a population of 1,804 people including 17 Civil War veterans, all Union Army troops except for one lonely Rebel. There are also three veterans of the war with Mexico.

Schubert points out  a lamb on the tombstone of a child buried when he was 3 1/2 and explains it’s not uncommon for such a creature to grace a child’s tombstone. We visit an unadorned  lot reserved by six members of the Pippin family in the 1850s,  They never arranged for care and

lamb marks child’s tombstone

maintenance and as a result, the site remains neglected.  T.C. Pippin arrived in 1866 and Pippin Rock, just upriver from Rio Nido was named for him.
In the Southwest quarter lies Maud Mooney, born in 1798 and  one of two cemetery residents born in the 18th century. A short way down the path rests Harold “Cap” Trine who built Armstrong Wood’s forest theater and log administration building in the 1930s.
Gertrude “Ma” Cramer arrived in Cazadero with her husband Carl,  ran the “Log Cabin Resort” and brought the first movie projector to Cazadero. Ma collected local artifacts and it was said her home was like a museum.

Inza Lambert, born in Duncans Mills, rests in the Northwest Quarter and according to Schubert, was a “member of every organization in town.” These included the VFW, the PTA, Eastern Star and the Rebbecas. During WWII she drove a gas truck and was instrumental in creating Guerneville Junior High School in 1923. She also filled in as pastor when necessary, at the Community Church.  Nearby is Anna Taggart, “Goddess of Liberty” at the 1876 Centennial who changed her name after eloping at age 18, with Omar Shoemake. Eight years later, Anna died in childbirth.

Jane Barry and John Schubert honor pioneer women (photo s.d. gross)

had women like Inza Lambert and Ellen Bagley who, as the area’s first newspaper reporter, chronicled events that perhaps wouldn’t have been written about. Guerneville’s first mill was brought to town in 1865 by Bagley’s husband, J. W.

“The power behind every man is a woman” says Schubert, and he explains that although most of the written history of the time was authored by men, the womens’ diaries, memoires and news stories were invaluable when it came to getting the real history down for posterity. Many of them wrote stories and letters to the Russian River Flag, The Santa Rosa Republic and “opened the door” to news like Charlie Smith’s deadly mill accident and the two Chinese communities in Guerneville and at the Quicksilver Mine on Sweetwater Springs Road.
“Old High School albums and yearbooks are also so valuable when it comes to local history” Schubert reminds us. They contain pictures and a few salient words about people who were relatively insignificant but nevertheless an integral part of the local scene. He also talks about “the gossips of the time” and how “I owe them so much” for helping to chronicle history which would otherwise be lost.

Anna Shoemake

Schubert walks us over to the grave of Albert Bierce, brother of E.A. Poe contemporary, Ambrose (Incident at Owl Creek Bridge), who disappeared in Mexico while paling around with Pancho Villa. The grave next to Albert’s remains empty. waiting for a ghost of the past.
We visit the resting place of Theodosia (Button) Murphy, who, at age 18, arrived in Guerneville in 1884, and married Frank Murphy (the son of mill owner, Rufus). They bought Ungewitter property in 1905 and built Murphy’s Guest Ranch, which became the scene of a deliberately set fire and intrigue in the early 70s.  The renovated resort became Fife’s and is now The Dawn Ranch.
In the 1920s the lower Russian River area had available 15,000 guest beds, and while many of the attractive and unique cabins and historic cottages have become year-round homes, many have been washed away by high water or returned to the earth.

Silas Ingram, founder of Cazadero rests in the Old Pioneer Cemetery as does David Hetzel, who was at Gettysburg when Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address.
Schubert refers to Raymond Clar, author of “Out of the River Mist” and a venerable regional historian as “The Russian River’s Mark Twain” and speaks of his memorable contributions to the written and photographic history of the lower River.

And there’s the resting place of Old Man D’Agnello whose fame reached its pinnacle on the labels of the bottled vinegar he sold. Wearing nothing more than a handle bar mustache, shoes and a bowler hat. D’Agnello was pictured sitting with his fanny tucked in a vinegar barrel, an image which sold more bottles of Vinegar than anyone could ever use.

Other notable residents include Betty (Clar) Brawley, one of two women WWII veterans who repose in the Old Pioneer, George Sully Jr. whose Starrett Hill (Monte Rio) resort became Camp Imelda for girls,  canoe builder of note, Dave Easdale, and members of the Curry family, a few of whom were members of the ill-fated Donner Party which struggled its way across the Sierra many winters ago.

One of the most telling tombstones is that of a woman who was married to one of the Korbels. The inscription reads, “F. Korbel wife.”

“F. Korbel wife”

As the group follows Schubert to the path leading to the Cemetery’s exit, he pauses beside an unmarked, untended plot and pulls out a newspaper clipping written by Ellen Bagley many years ago. A body was discovered near Hulbert Creek in Guernewood Park, a mile or so west of Guerneville lying on a carefully arranged bed of boughs. The fully-dressed corpse down to his white knit underwear was carefully covered with branches and a quilt. The pockets of his pants were filled with nails, a hammer and other tools a shoemaker would normally use.

Maya and the angel

Although he appeared to have been lying there for some length of time, his body was undisturbed by any woodland creature. Bagley refered to him as “The Cobbler.” The body was removed and reburied up at “Boot Hill” as Schubert calls it, and unless visitors are told about it, there’s no way of knowing it’s even there.

Looking into the Pioneer Cemetery’s history wouldn’t be complete however without mention of the week it received more visitors than any other time in its history.

The Big Flood of February 1986 when the River reached nearly 50 feet at Guerneville bridge saw Guerneville and environs pelted with  26 inches of rain, necessitating the evacuation of hundreds of people who were transported by helicopter to  Santa Rosa’s Veteran’s memorial building. Because of its altitude and close proximity to Guerneville, the cemetery became the assembly point for evacuees where Cherokee helicopters squeezed their bulk between angels and tombstones so they could they take aboard refugees. Military personnel and jeeps were unloaded and promptly got stuck in the mud before the hundreds of displaced citizens who slowly snaked their way up Woodland Drive where they were able to clamber aboard and be carried to safety.Schubert plans a return trip next October which, he says, will focus on people who settled Cazadero.

From the Mountain Cemetery by Edgar Bowers

The weight of cool, of imperceptible dust
That came from nothing and to nothing came
Is light within the earth and on the air.
The change that so renews itself is just.
The enormous, sundry platitude of death
Is for these bones, bees, trees, and leaves the same.

Russian River’s Pioneer women

  • http://www.brendancoen.com Brendan Coen

    I’ve never seen John with such a serious look on his face!

    • http://www.brendancoen.com Brendan Coen

      He must have just stepped in dog poo!

  • Stephen Gross

    I was not the one who took that picture. The ones I took were in the online article I published.
    Did you see the one of Jane and John? If not I’ll send it to you.

  • Lynn VonHoogenstyn

    So nice to see a photo of John ( stepping in pooh or not) Is it coincidence that I told one of my favorite Schuburt jokes at school yesterday? – The real reason the chicken crossed the road. Every afternoon on his way home from work John would regale me with a tidbit of Sonoma County history.

    • Stephen Gross

      Do you have a favorite historical Schubertism you would care to share?

  • Lesli Ackermann Webb

    Thank you for your wonderful article, Mr. Gross. My wife and I love hearing/reading about histories of our Sonoma County cemeteries, and plan to visit the Pioneer Cemetery next month. Now we know some key sites to visit!

    • Stephen Gross

      Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comment. I Hope it’s not raining the day you visit.
      Also, if you care to comment about your visit I’d love to hear your impressions of it. Happy Thanksgiving.

  • Stephen Gross

    Thanks very much. Have you ever visited the cemetery? I always enjoy hearing about other people’s impressions and points of view.

  • Left Bank

    It’s been a few years but I used to take my dog to the cemetery to run off-leash. I know, a big no-no. That said, I remember the grave of Randy Shilts who it seems was left out of the list of historical Guerneville citizens no interred on the hill.

  • Stephen Gross

    Randy Shilts (August 8, 1951 – February 17, 1994) was a pioneer, an excellent author and a very brave individual. When I lived on Woodland my pooches wandered down to his property to play with his critters and he kindly called me to let me know. He was very brave, a candid and artful writer, and had the will to follow his conscience and his convictions.
    However, my posting was not an attempt to cover every significant person who is buried there and there are several more folks who deserve to be mentioned but weren’t due to time constraints and space.
    Thanks for mentioning Randy – he’ll not soon be forgotten.

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