I’ve been planning to write this article on Anderson Valley cemeteries for a while now and my May visit to Anderson Valley was – in part – research. However, a stop at the Philo post office took the subject from abstract to very real. It is tradition to post death notices and memorial service information on the post office window and on this trip there were three such notices – a shockingly high number considering Anderson Valley’s small population (perhaps 1,700 people). “When a person dies, a library burns,” goes an old African saying and every person who leaves takes their stories with them: all that remains are the memories of relatives, lovers and friends, and – less and less often, it seems – a marker in a burying ground declaring their time here.
Anderson Valley has five cemeteries, though only four are in general use. All are old, all are still active, all have rustic character befitting the valley – no manicured lawns here — and all abound with historic family names, many that still had a strong presence in the valley during the years of my youth there in the late 1950s and 1960s. A few of those families remain in the valley today, others have passed on or moved on. Still, the cemeteries are snapshots of the valley, past and present.
The Yorkville Cemetery is the southernmost of Anderson Valley’s burying grounds. Marked by a modest sign alongside Highway 128 approximately three miles northwest of the current Yorkville, the cemetery is situated near the original site of Yorkville, which was destroyed by a major flood on Rancheria Creek in 1937. Yorkville Cemetery’s setback, upslope location provides a peaceful setting, despite the proximity of the highway. The graves are scattered on the slope amid a natural oak forest. Here can be found the grave of Yorkville founder Richard York. The earliest graves date from the 1870s. Apparently Native Americans were buried alongside settlers, though their graves appear unmarked. Here also are the only wood grave markers that remain in Anderson Valley, though the names of those buried have long since weathered away.
Situated a few miles up Fish Rock Road west of Highway 128, Ornbaun Springs Cemetery is a small, essentially family graveyard. It is located in the high meadow just west of the former site of Ornbaun Springs Resort. Ringed by oaks, the graves – not surprisingly – are primarily Ornbaun family members. This was the one cemetery I did not visit during my research. Many internet sources call this location Ornbaun Hot Springs, but that appears inaccurate; the resort’s attraction was effervescent mineral water.
On a knoll near Mountain View Road roughly a mile west of Boonville, and hard to find, the Rawles-Babcock Cemetery has an intimate ambiance. As with the Yorkville Cemetery, the graves are shaded by oak trees. The back boundary of the cemetery offers a lovely view of the valley. This is a compact cemetery and a surprisingly full one, with little room for additional interments. There are some old markers here, including one that may be (for some reason, the stone bears no name) that of William Anderson, for whom Anderson Valley is named. Also buried here is Henry Beeson, one of Anderson Valley’s pioneers and the last survivor of 1846’s Bear Flag Revolt that gained California independence from Mexico, as well as his brother Isaac. Anderson Valley pioneer families with markers here include Babcock, McGimsey and Tarwater. Also here is the saddest marker I saw during my research – a marble headstone that reads “Baby Boy.” One interesting element here is the abundance of small stone markers: some blank, others etched only with initials. I originally thought they marked children’s graves. They still may, but the large number suggests many could be adults. With the passage of time and generations, it is unlikely anyone knows who they were.
Evergreen Cemetery, about a mile northwest of Boonville, is – by far — Anderson Valley’s largest graveyard. When I was a youngster, the front gate was located next to Highway 128 just a bit southeast of the grammar school. Now, though the gate remains in the same place, the cemetery is sandwiched between Anderson Valley Way (the old Highway 128) and Highway 128, which was straightened in the 1970s. For the cemetery, it was a change for the worse; it is now hemmed-in by the two roads and the noise of fast moving vehicles on the “new” highway is a sharp contrast to the relative quiet of slower traffic on the original highway during the 1950s and 1960s.
Sloping uphill from Anderson Valley Way before gradually flattening out, Evergreen Cemetery is a mix of oak woodlands and meadow. This cemetery dates from the early 1860s, so old that the tiny intermittent stream on its northern edge is named Graveyard Creek. The names of many Anderson Valley pioneer families can be found on the markers here: McGimsey (yes, there were a lot of McGimseys), Brown, Clow, Rawles, Dutro, Hiatt, Ingram, Ornbaun (yes, lots of Ornbauns, too), Prather, Reilly and Witherell. Here too are the names of people – neighbors, teachers, classmates and friends – I knew during my time in the valley: more than 30 now rest here, plus a host of others whose names were familiar to me from those not-so-long-ago days.
Near the now-vanished town of Christine, approximately three miles northwest of Philo and just south of the junction with Greenwood Road, the Shield-Studebaker Cemetery is definitely off the beaten path. To get there requires one navigate a couple of forks in the road and open (and close) a gate on the way. The graveyard encompasses a small knoll of wild grasses, shaded by planted redwood and pine trees. Like the Rawles-Babcock and Evergreen Cemetery, the Shield-Studebaker Cemetery dates from the 1860s and like the previous two, some of Anderson Valley’s pioneering families are interred here: Whipple, Studebaker, Nunn, Guntly, Gschwend, Gowan, Frati, Day and Bloyd. Well away from the highway, this is a quiet, contemplative spot, with fine views of Anderson Valley and Hendy Grove from the back fence.
The four major Anderson Valley cemeteries are administered by the Anderson Valley Cemetery District. On one of my visits I met Clyde Doggett, who maintains all four (his mother was one of my grammar school teachers). I am glad the cemeteries are cared for by someone with strong ties to the region; they represent Anderson Valley heritage and whisper the names of people who deserve to be remembered.