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Feature Stories

History Remembered at Local Cemeteries

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 22
11/1/2013


by Kirt Ramirez


Kirt Ramirez

Over 1,000 people turned out for the 18th Annual Historical Cemetery Tour last Saturday (Oct. 26), where selected lives of the past were reenacted.

The Historical Society of Long Beach puts on the event each year at Sunnyside and Municipal Cemeteries – two old graveyards on Willow Street between Orange and California Avenues – with the help of local actors and volunteers.

Actors stand at grave sites of whomever they represent and educate the public on the life of that person. They speak as if being that person and dress in clothing the deceased would have worn in their era. Actors’ scripts are based on historical record.

Eight plays ran continuously between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. The lives of Ethel and Charles Haynes, Elizabeth and Donald Wallace, The Harnetts, William and Betty Seal, Yaye Takeshita, Valentine and Maybell Leal, the Coseboom family and Dora Czerny were celebrated this year.

The Haynes were an African-American couple who came to Long Beach in 1945. Ethel was an elementary school teacher and Charles was the first African-American member of the Long Beach Association of Realtors. They saw the city wrestle with integration issues and helped black families find homes in all neighborhoods.

Yaye Kurayama Takeshita was a “picture bride.” Two sons were WWII heroes and son Mas Takeshita became a respected Japanese-American leader in Long Beach. The actress who portrayed Takeshita – Jennifer Jung – discussed trials the Japanese in Long Beach went through during the war.

Bill and Betty Seal were born in Long Beach, and were both teachers, following in the footsteps of their families. Bill helped returning Vietnam Vets get into college. Betty worked with Cambodian refugees to help them succeed in their new home town.
They were born in the early 1920s and both died within the past few years, Bill dying in March of this year. Bill would invite veterans to dinner and to stay at the house. The family never knew who would be at the dinner table.

Sunnyside Cemetery and Municipal Cemetery used to be one in the same but today are two old-style graveyards side-by-side, where many tombstones stand upright. Together, the two cemeteries hold 20,000 bodies of people who were part of society at one time.
The oldest tombstone dates to 1878 and can be found in Municipal Cemetery.

“But, some say that land was used by the Bixby ranch as its burial grounds and that’s how it was that land became designated as a burial ground,” said Cemetery Tour Project Manager and Historical Society of Long Beach Co-President Roxanne Patmor. “Also, the earliest markers were wooden crosses and things that fell apart and rotted years ago. So it’s not certain when the first burial was there.”

A few prominent names found at Sunnyside or Muni include Wardlow, Stearns, Rhea, Heartwell, Shrewsbury, Munholland, Denni, Walker and Workman.

“Shrewsbury is not a name you’d know now, but he was the city’s first fire chief and so beloved that every business in the city closed for his funeral and Earl Daugherty flew his plane over, throwing out rose petals on the grave – so ‘well-known’ is relative,” Patmor said in an e-mail. “I can’t think of anyone today who would have that kind of public mourning. The streets from downtown to Sunnyside were lined with people paying their respects as his body was brought up the hill.”

Denni was a cattle farmer who got rich when oil was discovered on his land. A street in Cypress is named after him.

Glenn Clark (not for which the street is named) was on the harbor commission when oil was discovered in Long Beach Harbor.

Workman had a huge ranch.

Rhea was a prominent land developer and has a street named after him near Poly High School.

Walker founded F&M Bank.

In the old days, Long Beach consisted of two ranches – Rancho Los Cerritos and Rancho Los Alamitos – which are on opposite sides of what is today a bustling metropolis with a half-million population.

“All of Long Beach was ranch land between the two ranches,” said retired LBCC professor of history, Craig Hendricks, Ph.D., who gives tours for the Historical Society. “That’s why they find cattle bones everywhere.”

Hendricks added in an e-mail, “The two ranches divided at Signal Hill, but there was a third, Rancho Los Coyotes which just edges into Long Beach at the corner of Los Coyotes and Carson Street. People lived on the ranches and died there, so there are undoubtedly grave sites all over Long Beach from those days.”

Humans native to the area were the Tongva people. They used to communicate with other natives on Catalina Island through smoke signals from atop Signal Hill. This is how Signal Hill got its name. Their largest village, Puvungna, was located on what is today Cal State Long Beach, Hendricks said.

“The Tongvas, or Gabrielinos (as the Spanish called them, after the mission San Gabriel) probably arrived between 9,000 and 10,000 years ago (that is, 7,000 to 8,000 years BC) in Southern California and they built around 50 villages with a population of about 6,000 - 7,000 by 1769, the year the Spanish arrived in California to stay. There were earlier explorations in 1542 and 1603, but the Spanish did not stay.

“The Tongvas are here today, several thousand of them, living in Southern California and they are trying to qualify as a federally recognized band, which would entitle them to a tribal area, provided by the federal government,” Hendricks said in an e-mail.

“When the railroad (Southern Pacific RR) came to Long Beach in the 1880s, and the harbor began to develop in the early 1900s, and Col. Charles Drake got the Pike set up and running, then people were attracted to the growing city.” (Population in 1910 = 17,000; 1920 = 55,000.)

“Many came from the Mid-west, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and Kansas, hence Long Beach’s nickname by 1920 – ‘Iowa By the Sea;’ there was a small Mexican-American community from the rancho days and newcomers fleeing the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921) as well as a Japanese-American community (mostly small farmers) and a tiny African-American community – all are represented in the Long Beach cemetery.”

kirt@longbeachcomber.com