“Grave Matters and Untimely Departures” is a program that takes place every October to raise money for the Fortuna Cemetery District. It may be the best treat of the Halloween season, but there is nothing creepy or spooky about this event that gives visitors to the Sunrise Cemetery a look at permanent Fortuna residents. Founding members of the Fortuna area and those that met untimely deaths are featured on this annual tour through the cemetery that was established in 1871.
Formerly known as the Kenmar Cemetery and Fortuna Cemetery, Sunrise Cemetery is on Newburg Road and overlooks the Eel River Valley. One of the six cemeteries that make up the Fortuna Cemetery District, it is maintained and operated on a limited budget. “Grave Matters and Untimely Departures” raises money for the daily operations and maintenance required to keep the cemeteries a place of dignity and respect for those that are no longer living. On Sunday, October 28, this Examiner was part of the first group that visited with nine members of Sunrise Cemetery.
The first resident of the cemetery to greet visitors was former Fortuna hay salesman “Big Ed” Whitchurch. Arriving in California with his parents and ten siblings in 1936 from Oklahoma, Big Ed was asked to leave several communities (he had a penchant for stopping by one too many watering holes) before he and his wife landed in Fortuna. Portrayed by Don Brown, insurance salesman in Fortuna, Big Ed came to life as he told of being only one of two boats to get across the Eel River into Ferndale during the 1964 flood that isolated that community. The only other vessel able to cross the river was the U.S. Postal Service.
The tour then stopped by the site of America Jane Moore Elliot Burge Cameron’s grave where the thrice-divorced seamstress told tales of being present for the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, divorcing three times and dying at the young age of 54 from cancer. America was portrayed by Kathleen Marshall.
One of the saddest tales was that of Vera Linser. Never knowing her birth parents, Vera was adopted by the Linser family as an infant. When she was a sophomore in high school, her father died, an event that devastated her. She then became involved in several clubs and began taking part in school plays. During her senior year, on the eve of her theater performance opposite a boy she truly loved, she became ill with spinal meningitis and subsequently died. Vera was portrayed, hauntingly, by Megan Johnson.
Silas Beezley regaled visitors with his accounts of the Black Hawk War, delivering much needed medicine to cholera sufferers and living out his days with family in Humboldt County. Silas was portrayed by Rigel Schmitt.
Alfred Payne, portrayed by Jim Willits, was a butcher who met a grizzly end in the Dyerville area at the hands of a butcher knife, ironically. His traveling partner, also a butcher, seemed to be quite convincing on the witness stand. He was convicted of manslaughter even though Payne was nearly unrecognizable, having had his head bashed in by his killer.
One of the most charming residents of the cemetery was Martha Gould, portrayed by Shannon Daily. Martha Gould died an unfortunate death in Shively as the result of a fire. She had finally found happiness in a second marriage and had an infant daughter. She was a laundress who could get the stain out of just about any garment. Unfortunately, she tried to re-light her fire by dousing it with kerosene. She died the next day of her burns.
A. Ivanoff was a veteran of the Russian army and took part in World War I before coming to America. He worked for a time at Pacific Lumber Company before committing suicide with his belt in a house of ill repute in Wildwood, now known as Rio Dell. Ivanoff was portrayed by Brian Walker.
Former music teacher and Scotia Band conductor Michael McClimon portrayed former music teacher and Scotia Band conductor Sewell Lufkin. Lufkin was also a WWII POW who was taken captive by the Japanese on Guam shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He remained a POW for four years.
Per Nelson, portrayed by Bill Ryder, was a Swedish rancher and head trimmerman for one of the local sawmills who not only followed his dreams but also got what he wished for. He was an inventor that had patents in America, Great Britain and Canada for a combination bread box, bread slicer. He also had several other patents before meeting a quick death when he fell through a hole in his hay barn and broke his neck, dying instantly.
“Grave Matters and Untimely Deaths” has taken place for the last three years and, at only $15 per person, is a great way to learn more about the Fortuna area and support a great cause. The production has grown each year and could easily expand to more than one day for those wishing to find out more about local history. Make sure to mark your calendars for the 2013 return of the program; you won’t be disappointed.
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