Mountain Cemetery: Where Sonoma history comes alive
A meander through Mountain Cemetery is a way to honor those who’ve gone before us, learn local history and see names familiar to anyone who’s spent more than a lunar cycle in the Valley of the Moon.
There’s the large Familia Maria headstone, chiseled on it, “Mary ‘Pizza’ Fazio, Dec. 8, 1913 to May 18, 1999. “ Three gravesites down is “William Montini Sr., Sept. 27 1889 to Feb. 24, 1964,” the namesake of the Montini Preserve, whose Overlook Trail brings you near to his final resting place.
Also at Mountain Cemetery lies Gen. Mariano Vallejo, founder of Sonoma, with a massive family headstone that even includes a correction – the original inscription says he lived from July 7, 1808 until July 18, 1890, but an additional line changes his birth date to July 4, 1807.
And who in Sonoma hasn’t heard the name Sebastiani? Their family crypt is here, too. As is the grave of Henry Ernest Boyes, who, while drilling a well in 1888 hit 112-degree water at 70 feet, built a hotel and started a bathhouse in what is now called Boyes Hot Springs.
Established in 1841, Mountain Cemetery is one of the oldest operating cemeteries in the western United States, and is anything but deserted. It sees significant foot traffic, as it adjoins the Overlook Trail and is accessible from the trail parking lot on First Street West. Visited by tourists and everyday exercisers, it’s a true local treasure and a window into the past.
Two years ago, Overlook Trail steward Fred Allebach took on what he calls “a labor of love,” researching and writing the Mountain Cemetery Walking Tour brochure, available free at the kiosk in the parking lot. The brochure includes a map (and design by volunteer Scott Summers) and gives details about 42 gravesites, some with brief information like “Murial Joy Cassidy, 1901-1907, nice little headstone with a bird,” to much longer grave details delving into family histories.
Allebach did not limit his walking tour to the headstones of the most well known, but includes sites fascinating enough to make visitors want to investigate. One gravesite he pinpoints says only “Indian Child, buried in the early days of Sonoma,” and notes that 900 Native Americans are buried near Mission Sonoma.
“I wanted to get people to walk through the whole cemetery,” Allebach said, and so he included gravesites in the far reaches of the 60-acre site. “I picked a wide spectrum. There’re everyday people in there, too. The entire cemetery is cool.”
His introduction sums it up: “In this self-guided tour you will meet cowboys, Indians, ranchers, agriculturists, martial art instructors, murderers, builders, bakers, real-estate tycoons, quarrymen, map-makers, accountants, leaders, pipefitters, blacksmiths, bootleggers, bankers, grocers, hoteliers, and stone masons.”
Allebach sites several sources for his information, including the Index-Tribune archives. He also used the Bates and Evans funeral records and other files stored at the Sonoma Valley Historical Society’s Depot Park Museum, the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation’s Cochran Binders at Maysonnave House, and U. S. census records on ancestry.com, which he notes can be accessed free at the Sonoma Valley Public Library. He also used a 1935 map of the cemetery available on the City of Sonoma website in the Public Works section.
Allebach, who moved to Sonoma in 2006, is a member of the Historical Society board of director’s and is a cheerleader for the idea of residents learning more about Sonoma’s history – he encourages others to delve into the sources he used to learn more about Sonoma.
Allebach first became interested in Sonoma history when he decided to research the origins of the building he lives in, the old Schuhmann Hotel. Next he did extensive research on Frank Atsuo Matsuyama, a Japanese immigrant who married Georgiana Wallman, a woman with deep Sonoma roots. Matsuyama, who Allebach’s guide says is the only person of Japanese decent buried in the old section of the cemetery, receives one of the longest descriptions in the walking brochure and is a fascinating read.
The brochure includes straightforward historical information - like gravesite description number 38 which notes Capt. William Smith, 1768-1846, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War – but can also be quite folksy in parts.
Allebach, a self-described Deadhead, includes in his summary on Ercole Chiodi the ancient myth upon which the iconic band based its name. The myth says that when someone pays for the burial and unpaid debts of a stranger, that spirit becomes the “grateful dead,” and will one day return to do a favor for the person who provided the burial.
“I am the last person without a cell phone, I’m not on Facebook and I don’t have a TV,” Allebach said, noting the phone he has at home has a dial. He holds degrees in anthropology and history, and came upon his dedication to local history by researching the roots of his home, the former Schuhmann Hotel.
Allebach said that the Historical Society has a deep interest in the cemetery and is applying for an Impact100 grant that, if received, will be used to help with restoration. “There’s a clear preservation need there to keep the cemetery in good shape, now and in the future,” he said.
In gravesite description number 29, Allebach merely poses a historian’s challenge, “Gibilello Cartaine. 1844-1933, Who was he?”
Whether you are up to the Cartaine challenge or not, if you take a walk through Mountain Cemetery you are sure to able to answer the question “Who was he/she?” at least once and, with the help of Allebach’s brochure, many times more on your next meander.