Tours of Chico Cemetery offer insight into the town’s past

Tours of Chico Cemetery offer insight into the town’s past

Clark Masters addresses a crowd of about 30 people on a sunny but nippy December afternoon at the cemetery.

Clark Masters addresses a crowd of about 30 people on a sunny but nippy December afternoon at the cemetery.

Photo By Meredith J. Graham

Take the tour
Tours are scheduled for the third Thursday of each month and registration is required. To sign up, or to request a special guided tour, call Chico Cemetery at 345-7243. Tours are free and last an hour and a half.

Did you know that the first documented burial in Chico Cemetery was that of Amos Fry, a friend of John Bidwell’s who in 1852 was killed while trying to recover cattle stolen by the Mill Creek Indians?

Have you heard the story of Ira Weatherbee, who notoriously found a 54-pound gold nugget worth more than $10,000 in 1859? (Actually, the story goes that he owned the mine where the nugget was found and was therefore able to reap some of the profits.) Weatherbee, who used his newfound riches to build a hotel, which burned, and then rebuild, only to burn again, was penniless when he was buried in Chico Cemetery in 1910.

And what about Major Ted Lawson, who during World War II figured out how to launch B-25 bombers off aircraft carriers and trained other pilots to do just that, leading to the Doolittle Raid over Japan? Lawson, who later penned the novel Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, also was laid to rest right here in Chico.

These were just a few of the historical tidbits offered by Clark Masters last week during his first guided tour of Chico Cemetery. Masters, a relative newbie to town (he’s been here less than a year), works as a family-service counselor at Brusie Funeral Homes and Cemeteries, which runs the Chico Cemetery on Mangrove Avenue. But in his short time here, he’s done his research, learning about not only the layout of the graveyard, but also the stories of those laid to rest there.

“It’s fun to dispel the mystery of the cemetery,” he said.

As he led the group of about 30 people through the 58 acres of winding paths, he told some of those stories, also pausing to point out historical facts about how the cemetery was originally laid out—there are sections designated for people of different races, for instance—and why people might choose certain types of grave markers.

At the tour’s outset, Masters pointed to a large plot of land just south of the main office. Aside from a few stones, the area looked empty.

“This is what’s known as a potter’s field,” Masters said. Historically, when people didn’t have enough money for a proper burial—or a headstone—they would be buried in a potter’s field. There is no way of knowing how many people are buried in this section, Masters said, and it is not available for burial now.

As the group, many of whom introduced themselves as “history buffs,” followed Masters’ lead, he explained the various sections for Masons, Oddfellows, veterans, Catholics and others. In the Chinese section, Masters stopped to tell a story about a bone priest coming from China in the late 1800s to exhume more than 100 bodies, whose bones were then cleaned, catalogued and brought back to China. In the Catholic section, he pointed to the headstones of three priests, one of them Michael Paul Gualco, who Masters said was moved to Chico Cemetery from a crypt underneath St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.

Masters answered questions and encouraged those in attendance to add to the information he was offering, joking that he’s “the new guy.” Douglas Keister, who’s written several books about cemeteries, piped up a few times, offering insight into some of the symbols found on tombstones.

“This is the symbol for a Rainbow Girl,” Keister said at one point, stopping to show off a marker for a teenage girl in the Masonic section. “It’s the only one in the whole world I’ve ever seen [on a tombstone].”

Masters came to Chico from Yuba County, where he worked as a funeral director for several years. Prior to that, he was a police officer for more than two decades in Nebraska. So, not surprisingly, one grave he gravitated toward during the tour was that of Carleton Bruce, the only police officer in Chico to be killed in the line of duty.

Others, he said, he researched because they were important to Chico history—John and Annie Bidwell, for instance. And some came from stories he’s been told since taking the job at Brusie. For many years, there was a guide who offered tours of the cemetery, though Masters was unsure of exactly how long ago that was. When he was asked if he wanted to start tours again, he jumped at the opportunity.

“Being connected to the cemetery through funeral services, it begins to surround you,” he said after the tour. “I started to hear stories. Then I sought to educate myself, and started digging.”

The first tour attracted a lot of interested locals, and January’s group is already full, Masters said. His hope is to offer the walks monthly, and as he gets feedback he’ll tweak the tours, adding stories and maybe even creating themed tours—like one dedicated just to veterans, for instance.

“As people give me names and information, there’s no doubt it will expand,” Masters said. “I’ve just scratched the surface.”