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Graveyard trials and tribulations

Madera County Historical Society

This photograph shows the grave of Madera teacher Katie Bailey in Arbor Vitae Cemetery in 1906.


Madera County has some of the most beautiful cemeteries in the country. I was reminded of this the other day when I paid a visit to Belva Bare, the director of the Cemetery District. We were talking about Arbor Vitae, and she shared an old article from the Tribune that I just have to pass on to you. It was published in 1922.

It seems that one of our pioneer ladies had just observed Memorial Day and wanted to make sure the community knew the history of Arbor Vitae Cemetery. What follows is her account verbatim.

“Yesterday a great many of our citizens visited our cemetery, some to pay tribute to the memory of departed loved ones, some to observe the sentiment of the day. A few may be inclined to criticize and blame the management for what may look like to them indifference or mismanagement on the part of those having the cemetery in charge.

“I have thought it might be of interest to all concerned, especially to those who have come to settle in our midst of late years, to know something of the history and especially the hardships and difficulties our organization has had to contend with since its conception.

“I would take you with me away back to the year of 1884, when a few of us ladies decided — after several vain attempts to interest the men — to go ahead ourselves and secure a suitable place in which to lay away the departed. We accordingly organized ourselves into an incorporate body solely for the benefit of the public, purchased 15 acres of land — there has since been seven acres added to it — had it surveyed, a deep well bored, a windmill and tank erected, a good fence enclosing the entire 15 acres put up, and ornamental shade trees put out, expending about $1,000 the first three years.

“To be sure, our progress was slow. We had to raise the money for these improvements by giving entertainments, ice cream and strawberry festivals, home talent theatricals, and lawn socials. We spared neither pains, time, or energy to carry out our purpose, while a small number to do the work and a small community to draw from made progress necessarily slow.

“To give an idea of the conditions that had to be met and a better idea of our undertaking, I will explain that the little plot of ground loaned by the Madera Flume and Trading Company was for a burying ground situated about halfway between the Avenue (Yosemite) and the Fresno River on F Street on what is now known as the Floto tract. A copy from an article printed at that time will help.

"The old burying ground in this village, as everybody knows who has been there, were in a shameful condition — no order or system in the arranging of the graves.

"The M.F. & T. company would not give deeds to the plots but requested that the bodies be taken up and removed. The ladies immediately put their heads to work — women can accomplish anything when interested. They soon purchased the grounds for the new cemetery, had them nicely laid out by an expert surveyor, and now anyone wishing to remove the bodies of their friends can do so.’

“From that time to the present, the same. The very few faithful members have endeavored to carry on the work in patient devotion to the cause. Though it has not always been possible to secure the best service there, we have endeavored to keep the cemetery in the best possible condition under all the discouraging circumstances.

“We know that many have criticized us because of the general untidy appearance of lots not kept in grass instead of weeds, but I am sure if they had stopped to realize that those lots belong to individuals who do not have them cared for, hence the unsightly appearance of lots thus neglected.

“Surely it cannot be expected of us, because we have organized to carry on this public work, to assume the expense of their upkeep, since the income does not justify such expenditures, nor do we wish to incur debt but endeavor to use such funds as come into our hands as judiciously as possible for the accomplishment of needed improvements.

“I fear but few if any realize the difficulty encountered in trying to accomplish the task in caring for and making this sacred spot beautiful, as the ladies so much wish to see it. Furthermore, if any have helpful suggestions to offer us, we will be pleased to act upon them if possible. We want the place to look as attractive as possible, and to that end, we will endeavor to serve you.

Someone has written the name, Julia Williams, on the original article. I don’t know who that was, but she could have been one of those ladies who sacrificed so much to create what became Arbor Vitae Cemetery. We owe them a huge debt just as we do the staff and board of the Madera Cemetery District.

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