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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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