Daily News - Los Angeles, California February 07, 2005
Activist Strives to Give Cemetery Land Eternal Respect
You wouldn't know Cemetery Memorial Park was a cemetery at first glance.
There's no sign announcing its existence and a solitary flagpole is the only indication the grassy knoll at Main and Poli streets in Ventura might be a public assembly area. But for its 3,000 silent occupants, it used to be a place for their lasting tributes.
In 1965, the city of Ventura decided that the property, a hillside slope with a brilliant ocean view, would better serve the public as a park.
More than 600 monuments were removed, some destroyed in the process. Tombstones of civic leaders and decorated veterans were taken to a city yard or dumped in a landfill. Several ended up in back yards as Halloween pranks with certain permanence, if only for the weight of the stones.
"The white granite and white marble quarries of Georgia and green marble quarries of Vermont have supplied us with headstones since before the Civil War," wrote preservationist Steve Schleder, who is leading restoration efforts at Cemetery Memorial Park, formerly known as St. Mary's and Ventura Cemetery.
"How many thousands of miles do the headstone blanks travel by clipper ship and wagon train before they come to their final 'contract' location?"
Schleder's goal is to honor the past by recovering and replacing monuments to their original locations.
On Jan. 15, 1993, a tombstone reading "Mother Ida May Shivley, May 3, 1867-June 2, 1901 Son Lonnie Winston, Jan. 26-July 4, 1891" emerged from the concrete rubble off Surfer's Point. One of the most significant markers missing is a 15-foot high marble kiosk said to have graced the burial site of Brevet Maj. General William Vandever, a Civil War officer who went from serving his country on the battlefield to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs and then to Congress for two terms, where he helped to establish Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.
Remains of the massive monument have never turned up. In 1990, members of American Legion Post 339 placed bronze flush markers over his grave and that of Pvt. James Sumner, one of 17 soldiers who survived a bloody ambush by Indian warrior Cochise, receiving the Medal of Honor for Gallantry in 1869.
A large white cross from the center of the cemetery was removed along with the monuments to the city yard in Hall Canyon -- named for E. S. Hall, a Mason and city father who is buried beneath the grass at the park. His remains keep company with those of Tedora Rafael Lopez, who died in 1895. Lopez was the widow of Don Jose Raymundo Olivas, builder of the historic Olivas Adobe. Her tombstone was most likely part of the landfill used to patch up the levee near the historic structure her husband built.
Archaeologist James Deetz took 30 photographs of the headstones as in a city yard. Architectural restoration expert Steve Schleder, who has taken up the cause of restoring the cemetery to its former glory, carries the pictures of the desecrated markers.
"The epitaphs on the headstones, every 'In Sacred Memory," shows the love, anguish and sorrow that goes into a cemetery. Removing the psychological reminders of what this really is makes it easier to forget where we are.
"This is demonic. Every culture around the world honors their dead. That's why I've made it my quest. I'm going to every group that will hear me."
He started by spreading the word through the preservation communities in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Now, support is coming from national veterans groups, other historical societies and some of the families of the deceased. Schleder isn't afraid to roll up his sleeves in the recovery effort, either.
"I was driving along Thompson Boulevard one day and saw what looked like a headstone in the parkway. I deliberated for about a block before I went back and saw it belonged to a Captain Hawes of the Union forces in the Civil War. When I knocked on the door and told them what I was doing, they helped me load the headstone in my truck and went to a cargo container in the back yard to give me another one."
Recently, Schleder heard about 24 antique cast-iron lampposts destined for city salvage after being removed from Main Street. Schleder found help from the Ventura County Chinese American Historical Society, which agreed to work on placement of the lights at the cemetery as part of the restoration efforts.
Information about Cemetery Memorial Park is available by visiting Schleder's Web site at www.restorestmarys.org