This article appears in the May 2005 edition of the Camp Chase Gazette
The past is coming alive for the City of Ventura, California in a less than positive way. Forty years ago, the city turned a cemetery into a park. They pulled up the grave markers and used many of them to shore up a levy. Now Ventura’s past has come back to haunt them.
Originally known at St. Mary’s Cemetery, “Cemetery Memorial Park” contains almost three thousand graves. This number does not include Native Americans – many of whom were buried in mass graves as a result of epidemics. Estimates here run as high as an additional nine hundred.
Among those interred are the remains of many veterans, including at least forty-seven Civil War vets. Some of them may rest under a parking lot.
This count includes forty-six Union vets and one Confederate vet. Jack Stewart, a man very involved in rectifying this situation, believes there are more Confederate vets buried here. Judging by other accountings of Civil War veterans buried in Southern California, he’s likely correct; there should be at least four or five more.
Among those interred is Colonel Russell Garrett, CSA, from Virginia and Maj. General William Vandever, USA, from Iowa. As a Representative from California, Vandever was instrumental in establishing Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.
Private James Sumner of Company G, 1st U.S. Cavalry is interred here as well. Sumner was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action while battling Apaches on October 20, 1869. Sumner’s grave was recently re-marked by the American Legion.
Another gentleman out to make the city accountable is Steve Schleder, “I found out about this desecration a year and four months ago and I haven’t let go since.” Steve states he’s been hammering on the city for records and states he’s been rebuffed and stonewalled at almost every turn.
Schleder has enlisted the assistance of the Sons of Union Veterans (of which he is a member), Sons of Confederate Veterans and several historical societies in his quest to rectify the situation.
“It’s a very complex, and intense issue involving integrity and serious evaluation,” says Rick Cole, Ventura’s city manager. “Where we come from is a certain humility, asking the question, ‘How do we rectify the past in the context of today?’
“We can’t recapture what was destroyed forty years ago,” Cole continued, “but I think the vast majority” (of Ventura’s citizens) “feel a sense of responsibility.”
The City of Ventura has responded by sending out a survey to 800 citizens, who live in the surrounding area, asking them what they’d like to do. They also mailed a notice to all Ventura residents making it known that the survey was available on the city’s web site.
The six questions in the survey include asking residents if they would like to see a children's play area on the portion currently covered by the parking lot and would they like to see a memorial, monument or wall installed.
The survey also asks about developing an off-leash dog area, more trees, benches and lighting as well as keeping the status quo. The survey does not ask if the park should be restored.
Schleder insists the dead deserve better than the options, above and vows that he will persevere in his effort to correct the issue. He believes that with enough support, publicity and exposure, “the city will have to come clean and ultimately be forced into doing the right thing.”
For further information, log onto www.restorestmarys.org. The survey is on the City of Ventura’s web site at www.ci.ventura.ca.us