Should old cemetery be park?

This is the story as it ran in the Simi Valley edition of the Daily News
Sunday, February 06, 2005

Should old cemetery be park?

Survey may help answer question for city of Ventura

By Carol Rock, Staff Writer
Sunday, February 06, 2005 - VENTURA
-- Jack Stewart, a part-time actor and full-time history buff from Santa Clarita, met Steve Schleder at a meeting of the Sons of Union Civil War Veterans.

His curiosity was piqued when Schleder displayed a tombstone dating from the 1800s that came from a park in Ventura.

"He said they found two tombstones under a parking lot," Stewart said. "From what he told us, there are Civil War soldiers buried there."

Schleder, an architectural restoration expert by trade and preservationist by passion, is a man whose heart and soul have become entwined with the 3,000 people buried in Cemetery Memorial Park on Ventura's Main Street, a burial ground that dates back to 1862 in an area rich in American Indian and Catholic mission history.

Stewart's Civil War group is among those now supporting Schleder in his drive to save the cemetery from further destruction as the city of Ventura considers building a tot playground on the cemetery land it bought in the 1960s for use as a park. About 40 years ago, a recreation center and parking lot were built, covering gravesites. The recreation center was since demolished after its foundation cracked.

Established as a Catholic burial ground in 1862, the 3.69-acre parcel, on a hill overlooking the Pacific, was doubled in size eight years later to add room for Protestant burials. The Catholic portion was blessed as St. Mary's in 1884. In 1889, the city of San Buenaventura assumed control of the non-Catholic portion, which included sections for Hebrews and Chinese.

Then, a century after the cemetery was established, the city of Ventura bought the Catholic section from the Los Angeles Archdiocese with the intent of turning the land, which had not had a burial since 1944, into a public park.

Crypts, monuments and headstones were toppled and taken to a city yard; some were dumped in Hall Canyon, some were stolen for pranks and some ended up in a levee.

"I was horrified when I learned about the park. I couldn't live in a town where such a desecrated cemetery existed," Schleder said.

Since then, he's been a familiar face at City Hall, looking up records, asking for anecdotal information, phone numbers, photographs ... anything to solve the mystery of the city's actions 40 years earlier.

It's simple to him: Cemetery Memorial Park is a cemetery, a historic site that was damaged but worthy of rehabilitation -- and respect.

The list of patriots and historians getting on to Schleder's bandwagon is growing daily. After his success with Stewart's group in Santa Clarita, he went to the Sons of Confederate Civil War Veterans, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Knights of Columbus. A local company has offered a free subsurface examination.

Schleder hopes to gather more support when he speaks at 2 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Saugus Train Station in Newhall's Heritage Junction Historic Park at a meeting of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.

Kevin Flanagan, a spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates cemeteries in the state, said Ventura broke no laws in converting the cemetery in 1965. But National Cemetery Director Bill Livingston said that the city's demolition and disposal of grave markers is nothing short of destruction of government property.

"This is just awful," he said, "to treat veterans with such disrespect. Those markers belong to the government."

Livingston offered to help Schleder replace the monuments that could be documented; Schleder's records, compiled by Santa Barbara archaeologist E. T. Strobrobridge, reveal one Confederate and 45 Union soldiers buried within the park grounds.

Archaeology consultant Bob Lopez of Ventura said that regulations protecting burial sites weren't passed at the state level until 1972, when the California Environmental Quality Act went into effect.

"If the city wants to do any building or grading now, it would require an environmental impact report. If they find six burials, then that constitutes a cemetery and slaps a 200-year moratorium on any development," he said. "It's become a moral question, really."

Members of the Barbareno/Ventureno band of Mission Indians are researching the locations of their ancestors. Julie Tumamait, the tribal chairwoman, has an uncle who died in infancy, known to the family only as "Leo," whose remains, she said, are beneath the paved parking lot.

Karla Archuleta and Dayle DeBry, genealogists in the Antelope Valley are contributing their professional services, helping Schleder research names on burial records.

"Their memories have been swept under the lawn of the park," Archuleta said.

With support for recognition of the old cemetery growing, the Ventura city staff is beginning to take notice.

"My gut feeling is that we might end up with a very nice memorial-type park that honors those interred there," said Ventura city parks director Jerry Revard. "There's talk of putting up a commemorative wall and historical interpretive information."

At present, the park is restricted to passive use.

"Out of respect for what it is, we don't book the space for parties or soccer games. This is a place to reflect quietly," Revard said.

Revard, charged with researching burials on the property, said an examination of a grid of the property indicates seven gravesites stand where the city plans either a playground or picnic area.

"If we were to mark them, four are definitely under the parking lot and two might be in the rec center area," he said.

Standing on that land, it's hard to miss the marker for Santos Saucedo (1873-1921) at the edge. Several feet closer to Main Street are two more markers.

Meanwhile, the city is going ahead with a survey to see what residents want at the park, said Mike Montoya, Ventura' parks manager. The poll will go out this month with results due in June.

"We're not trying to ramrod a project, we're simply thinking about some possibilities for the property, especially since we have so little park space near the downtown area," he said.

"We are all in favor of memorializing the existing cemetery."

Schleder says the city is waffling, not saying what documents show.

"City records note pauper and Indian burials, but when those records are compared to the plot plan, there can be no other location than the western end of the property," Schleder said. "The Indians would not have been buried in coffins, so there's nothing to find. In the days when they built the rec center, I'm sure they came across voids in the ground, or bones, and they just turned their heads. It was a different world back then."

Col. Lewis Millet, 83, one of the most decorated soldiers in America, is rallying the national Medal of Honor organization to help Schleder, inviting him to speak before the national convention of honorees in September. He came forward when he read about fellow honoree Private James Sumner of Company G in the 1st U.S. Cavalry who battled Indian warrior Cochise in defense of a settler's child in Arizona. Sumner was given the Medal of Honor in 1869 for gallantry in action. His grave, marked with a brass plate placed recently by the American Legion, is one of less than 100 markers in the park.

Maj. Gen. William Vandever who fought for the Union in the Civil War also is buried there. Vandever went on to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs and served two terms in Congress, where he played a key role in establishing Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

Carol Rock, (661) 257-5252

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