By Pat O’Neill
Copyright Independent Coast Observer
Once buried under heavy brush and fallen tree limbs, Gualala cemetery Mill Bend is being restored by volunteers from Redwood Coast Land Conservancy who are, in the process, unveiling the history of early settlers in Gualala.
Numerous attempts since 1950 were made by descendant families and community groups to maintain the cemetery, but the challenge exceeded the public’s efforts, and interest began to wane as descendants moved out of the area.
However, since Redwood Coast Land Conservancy purchased and began work on the Mill Bend site, in 2021 amid the pandemic, volunteers worked to clear the service road, trails, and the cemetery itself from years of overgrowth and invasive plants.
Open houses have been scheduled each Saturday in March to reintroduce the community to the cemetery. Volunteer coordinator Cheryl Harris is eager to show the “native shrubs which bloom in the spring“ in a place that was once a “neglected and devastated industrial” site. Visitors can expect a guided tour of the cemetery and surrounding trails, with information on vegetation, wildlife, and local history by trained docents from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Self-guided tours are also possible with the help of a kiosk plot map showing the known grave locations, and posted QR codes link people to the family histories of persons buried there. Amenities such as a doggie bag dispenser, along with milled and local driftwood benches, have been conveniently placed for the comfort of two and four-legged visitors.
As part of RCLC’s Mill Bend Preservation Project, reverence of the cemetery’s condition has been safeguarded with the addition of Mill Bend caretaker Joaquin Jacobs, who lives on-site to deter vandalism, unauthorized camping and vehicle abandonment.
In fact, the plot of the Byrne family had been the target of vandalism over the years for its distinctive hand-forged iron post border connected by a chain, likely constructed by family blacksmiths. Family lore says the original chain to the plot was removed some years ago to tow a car and was never returned. Descendants also report that the original wooden grave marker was stolen in the 1940s, replaced, and then stolen again in recent years.
Local cultural anthropologist and vice president of RCLC Kay Martin is managing the cemetery restoration project. She reveres the site, she said, which has been documented as the final resting place of pioneer families that settled along the Mendonoma Coast to work in the lumber mills since 1877. “It’s been a rewarding experience,” she said, overseeing the transition of the cemetery, conducting the research, contacting descendants, identifying unknown graves, and piecing together family narratives.
To help bring the past forward, Gualala descendants of William Thomas Hitchcock contributed a large volume of historic documents. Stories confirm records revealing his fatal injury as the master reinsman of the stagecoach driven between Cazadero and Point Area, during an accidental rollover of his carriage in 1911.
This story and the story of two infant children of Gualala ferry boat operator Rufus Niles, also interred there, are on RCLC’s website. www.rclc.org/gualala-cemetery. Niles operated the ferry until the first wooden bridge was installed over the river in 1892.
After 1948 the cemetery was no longer an active burial site, although three burials did occur between 1966 and 1995. There are 77 documented records of persons buried at the cemetery, and a memorial plot was erected to honor all people buried without a current known grave location.
Martin said to replicate and restore missing or damaged plot perimeter borders can cost up to $1,500 just for materials. Volunteers Perk Perkins restored all the stone and metalwork, and Eric Agnew is responsible for onsite landscape and carpentry restoration.
Community members and families have helped defer costs, which Martin estimates at $20,000 to date. For volunteer opportunities call 707-294- 6423.