Tuesday, September 12

Secrets of the Santa Barbara Cemetery

Santa Barbara Cemetery is a serene place, but how quiet would it be if former President Ronald Reagan were buried there, as planned? The tour bus traffic alone would threaten to wake the dead.

Starting in 1982, arrangements were discussed in secret with cemetery officials, as recounted in the excellent new illustrated history of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, The Best Last Place, a coffee table book written by David Petry, the cemetery’s historian who leads tours there. One of the many fascinating stories Petry tells is how Santa Barbara might have become The Gipper’s last resting place.

In 1983, the President and Nancy Reagan signed an agreement to buy a site in the Sunset Section, paid $18,690 down, and ordered stonework to be prepared and held for their deaths. Cemetery officials, wondering what they’d have to contend with at the funeral of the past president, and how to deal with the hordes of visitors who’d surely flock there in the years to come, began asking how other cemeteries handled celebrity funerals.

Walt Disney was interred even before the press was notified of his death, they learned. John Wayne’s interment took place at 6 a.m. and the gravesite kept secret. “Five different graves were opened with ornate flower arrangements on each as decoys, and the cemetery remained locked to all bus employees during the service,” Petry said. “Following the burial, the site was identified to visitors only within 100 yards.”

As for the Reagans’ arrangements, “All this took place during Reagan’s presidency, and the board and cemetery staff braced themselves for the anticipated onslaught should Reagan ever be buried there,” Petry said. Then, in April, 1987, an article appeared in The Stanford Daily reporting that “President Reagan has requested a Stanford burial site for himself and his wife.” A month later, a Reagan representative confirmed the article’s substance and said the Reagans wanted to sell the Sunset Section back to the cemetery. It would take two years for the Reagans’ attorney to get back to the board.

“In the meantime,” Petry writes, “Richard Cavalier (the cemetery manager) was only somewhat accurate when he reported to News-Press columnist Barney Brantingham a year later that ‘there is nothing to the rumor that the Reagans have purchased a lot at the Santa Barbara Cemetery.’“ Not until March 1989 did the papers get signed and the Reagan era end. The cemetery ended up making a profit on the deal, including interest and sale of the stonework. “Even better,” Petry said, “the cemetery was glad to have dodged the impact that could have been expected of maintaining the grave site of a revered president of the United States.”

When Ronald Reagan died in 2004 his last resting place was the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

Petry’s book also discusses other parts of the cemetery. Probably the most asked-about monument is the stone pyramid known as the Sahlberg Mausoleum. Many stories have been spun over the years about Mexican gold hunters who had it built to house their bones. But even as they slept there, a controversy raged.

Petry tells how two partners, August Sahlberg and Thomas Quirk, shared operations of the Esperanzo Gold Mine in El Oro, in mountainous Mexico north of Puerto Vallarta. Even though they had no apparent connection with Santa Barbara, they bought lots in the cemetery’s Islands section in 1902.

But nearly a year before the eight-crypt mausoleum was finished, Sahlberg died at 34. On his interment, his mother, who had died in 1897 at age 81, was also placed inside. A close friend, Emma Rigby, and one of Sahlberg’s brothers joined them soon after.

When Quirk died in 1912, he was also interred there. The eight crypts were filling up fast. Then, his wife Nellie, their daughter, and a man “who was perhaps to be her future spouse,” spoke for the remaining three.

All was well until 1931, when a Mary E. Hindry arrived with the casket of her husband, Willis, said to be a limo driver. She demanded that he be interred. Cemetery officials allowed it for a year, pending Mary Hindry’s coming up with proof that he belonged there.

Soon a protest arrived from Nellie Quirk. “Really, I think it is preposterous that this woman should have put her husband’s body in the tomb! There was no basis to such “greedy claims,” she argued. Mary Hindry replied that, “I expect to receive in the very near future certified copies of documents” recorded in Mexico which would provide “beyond any reason of doubt” her husband’s right to the mausoleum. Which, if true, would mean that Nellie, her daughter, or the other man could be squeezed out. But when the deadline came and no proof arrived, Willis Hindry’s remains were removed to a storage vault.

“Finally,” Petry writes, “seven and a half years after the initial interment, on Mary Hindry’s authority,” Willis E. Hindry’s remains were cremated. “Some 30 years after the battle,” Petry continues, “in 1962, Nellie Quirk died and was interred in the Sahlberg Mausoleum.”

(The Best Last Place, a history of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, was published by Olympus Press, PO Box 2397, Santa Barbara, 93120.)

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