Breathing new life

Chico Cemetery unveils century-old hearses

The horse-drawn hearse at left likely was built sometime between 1876 and 1906. The Ford Model T was built in 1921 and still runs.

The horse-drawn hearse at left likely was built sometime between 1876 and 1906. The Ford Model T was built in 1921 and still runs.

Photo by Meredith J. Graham

When Pat Lehane started working at Chico Cemetery 24 years ago, he noticed a mysterious garage door and wondered what could be inside. But the door was always locked and when he asked, his co-workers were just as clueless as he was. Then one day about a year later, while building tool hangers inside the warehouse that abuts the garage, he came across a key. He tried it on a second door to the garage and, sure enough, it worked.

“There was a blast of warmth and we thought, ‘What’s this?’” Lehane recalled. Underneath a thick layer of dust, he saw two treasures of cemetery history: The first, a 1921 Model T hearse, and the second, a turn-of-the-20th-century horse-drawn hearse.

The garage had been built specifically for these vehicles, Lehane said, and as such it was temperature-controlled. But no one seemed to know anything about them. He approached his supervisor, who called then-owner of the cemetery Victor Van Hook to see if they could go ahead and clean them up. Van Hook gave the OK and for a few years in the early ’90s they wheeled out the old hearses for Memorial Day services. In 1993 the Brusie family bought the cemetery and with it the hearses and the tradition appeared to have been forgotten.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when a family burying a relative at Glen Oaks Memorial Park noticed a miniature Model T hearse at Brusie Funeral Home while arranging the ceremony. They mentioned how much their loved one would have enjoyed the thought of being carried to the gravesite in such a vehicle. In response, the Brusies’ hearse was brought out to Glen Oaks for use in that ceremony.

“The family just loved it—they said, ‘This is exactly what he would have wanted,’” Lehane said.

Pat Lehane shows off the interior of the Model T.

Photo by Meredith J. Graham

That funeral sparked a renewed interest among the cemetery staff to resume the tradition of bringing the vehicles out for Memorial Day. They’ll be stationed in the southwest corner, near where John and Annie Bidwell are buried. And Clark Masters, who leads the monthly historical tours of the Chico Cemetery, said he’d like to bring them out for those tours as well.

“They’re magnificent—people might as well see them,” he said.

Lehane, grounds manager at Chico Cemetery and Glen Oaks Memorial Park, is one of the few who’ve had the pleasure of driving the Model T. Because the mechanism is so different from today’s cars, he had to get a lesson first, but once he got the hang of it, he said it ran like a charm, smooth and quiet. To look at it, the car is like a piece of art. The wheels, which have been painted gray to resemble metal, are actually wood-spoked.

During a recent interview at the cemetery, Lehane and Masters marveled over the beauty of the two historical hearses. When asked where they came from, both were a little fuzzy on the details. A search inside the main office revealed a file on the Model T that included the title and the sales advertisement, from 1965, when Van Hook bought it. For $300. (Put in perspective, miniaturized versions on eBay today go for about $350.)

The history of the horse-drawn hearse is still very much a mystery. It was built by the Sayers & Scovill Coach Co., which has been in business since 1876 and still manufactures hearses. The company website says that in 1906, combustion engines revolutionized its trade—so it’s safe to say this one was built before then. But just how long before, and whether it’s been in Chico since then, is unknown.

“The rumor is that this is what brought Annie Bidwell to her final resting place right here in this cemetery,” Masters said. He’s in the process of trying to determine whether there’s any truth to that rumor. He has not had any luck tracking down photographs of Bidwell’s funeral that might include the hearse.

“It’s such a cool piece of history,” Masters said. “I’m still trying to unravel some of its mysteries.”

In the meantime, visitors to the Chico Cemetery will be able to view both hearses during the Memorial Day service and subsequent cemetery tours, which are held the third Thursday of each month (call ahead to reserve a spot).