Cemetery Tour: Veterans Home of California
Guest article by Robert Yocum (edited), Photography by Anna Mehrer
It was the Society of Mexican War Veterans (1845-48) that first proposed a veterans home in California and in 1870, the California legislature passed a bill providing a plot of land in San Francisco for a veterans home. The Mexican War Veterans were not organized well enough to raise the funds necessary to build a home. (Meanwhile, gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California.) Veterans of the G. A. R. (Grand Army of the Republic – the Union Army in the Civil War), were one of the most powerful political groups in the country at the time. Many veterans were amputees, disabled, suffering from the effects of war-time diseases, and indigent. It was customary for local governments to sell the bodies of indigents for medical research or to bury them in paupers’ graves. The G. A. R. got congress to pass legislation making those customs illegal. It became a legal requirement to treat veterans with respect and honor even in death.
In 1880, Colonel James J. Lyon, a Union Army Veteran of the Civil War, proposed that the Lincoln Post of the G. A. R. take title to the San Francisco site and build a veterans home. A major fundraising effort began on Thanksgiving weekend in 1881.
Eagle Scouts Project, May 2017
During the next two years, $60,000 was raised for construction. The San Francisco site was sold when it was determined that it was an inappropriate site for the home, and a search committee chose the site in Yountville. On October 24, 1882 the group paid $17,500 for 910 acres of land – a working farm – that was part of Salvador Vallejo’s Napa Rancho. The first building was completed in 1883, but a lack of funding delayed the opening until April 1, 1884. The opening was to have been on April 16th, the anniversary of the signing at Appomattox that ended the Civil War, but was moved up to accommodate the first 13 veterans who showed up early.
One of those 13 veterans, John C. Wood, was the first to be buried at the home on July 18, 1884. The site of the first cemetery was below the current site of the chapel. There were 138 burials in that first cemetery, but the ground was swampy in winter and a new cemetery was established at the current location in 1892. In 1896, the remains of those 138 early burials were re-interred in the new cemetery.
Though privately owned by “The Veterans Home Association, a non-profit corporation”, the home received funding from both the state and federal government. In 1896, the federal government ended funding to privately-operated soldiers homes. To avoid losing badly needed federal funds, the Association sold the home to the State of California for a single $20 gold piece. The name was changed to “The Veterans Home of California”.
When the state took control, there were 800 members at the home. The home had 55 buildings, was a successful farm with a dairy herd, hog farm, chicken ranch, fruit orchards and crop land. The members of the home worked the farm which provided food for the home and an income to help offset some of the home expenses.
April 25 – August 12, 1898 Spanish-American War
Nearly all of the original organizational documents of the home were lost when the San Francisco office of the Veterans Home Association was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire. During the next two decades, under state ownership, the home deteriorated. Buildings were crowded, poorly heated, lacked adequate sanitation, and suffered from deferred maintenance. Change was badly needed.
1914-1918 World War l
In 1919, Colonel Nelson M. Holderman was appointed Commandant of the home. Holderman was the most highly decorated veteran of World War l, having been awarded the Medal of Honor, Silver Star, three Purple Hearts, and national honors from France, Italy and Belgium. During his first two years he proposed major changes, new programs and buildings. Civil War veterans still controlled the home and resisted change. Rather than a confrontation with the old-timers, Holderman resigned, but promised to return. Colonel Holderman returned in 1926 and was reappointed Commandant, a position he held until his death in 1953. He and his Chief Engineer, Cleve Borman, created a master plan for the home. His success at lobbying the state
for funds owed much to his personal prestige. Magazines, newspapers and radio found Colonel Holderman a good story and he used his fame as a national hero to get what he needed for the home. One of his crowning achievements was the 500-bed hospital which was named in his honor.
During the excavation for the foundation of the hospital in the 1930s, the remains of five individuals, in different stages of decomposition, were uncovered. Four of the remains were described as “mostly bones”, but one set of remains was described as being mostly intact and dressed in a uniform that resembles a Civil War uniform. The remains of these vets were re-interred in the cemetery with a monument honoring all unknown soldiers – “whose final resting place is known but to God”. This “Tomb of Unknown Soldiers” is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.
1929 – 1941 The Great Depression
1941 – 1945 World War II (US involvement)
1950 – 1953 Korean War
1950 – 1961 US Military advisors serving in Vietnam
In the early 1950s it became more difficult to dig graves in the cemetery as the soil contained a layer of granite, near the surface, which had to be dynamited. The last burial was John Caldwell in 1953. In 1955 the cemetery was officially closed. Lack of funding for maintenance left the cemetery overgrown with weeds. Trees in the cemetery fell or lost limbs, knocking down grave monuments under them. Other grave monuments leaned or fell from settling soil. A chaplain of the time refused to hold Memorial Day services at the cemetery because he felt that it was inappropriate, as the veterans buried there had not died in war, but as residents of the home.
1961 – 1975 Vietnam War
In the 1970s the home faced another financial crisis. Decreased funding was having a degrading effect on facilities and staff to the point that the future of the home was questioned. The California Department of Health Services and federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare were both threatening to withdraw certification from the home. The California legislature approved a $100 million renovation master plan.
1990 – 1991 Persian Gulf War – Desert Storm
In 1997 efforts were made to restore and reactivate the cemetery for interment of the cremated remains of home members. California Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Administration in Washington provide a death benefit for veterans and those funds were used to partially maintain the cemetery. The cemetery became active again. The first recent burial was for John Carter, former Allied Council Chairman, whose cremated remains were interred on Memorial Day of 1997. AMVETS, VFW, DAV, The American Legion, California Conservation Corps, CDF, and many other groups including Boy Scout troops, and local service clubs such as Rotary and Kiwanis have volunteered to help maintain the cemetery. The weeds were cut, an irrigation system was installed and grass was seeded. Grave markers have been pressure washed and straightened, or, in some cases, replaced.
The roads and parking lot were paved. A local Vietnam Veterans group holds a watch fire at the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend and Boy Scouts place flags next to each headstone. There are more than 6,000 graves in the cemetery. It has the largest group of Spanish American War veterans in the nation. It has never been racially segregated, which is very unusual for a cemetery dating to this period. I have been unable to ascertain with certainty that there are Confederate veterans buried in the cemetery.
2001 – today War in Iraq & Afghanistan
Retired Navy Commander Marcella McCormack became Administrator of the home in late 1999. She has been a tireless champion of the home as it entered the 21st century. Under her administration, the home opened a $16 million memory care center which houses 75 veterans suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in a refurbished F. D. Roosevelt Annex. The 7,000-square-foot hospital recreation area received a $2 Million restoration. McKinley Hall and Eisenhower Hall have been rebuilt as “Assisted Care” facilities. The kitchens and Dining Room areas and the Lincoln Member Services Building have been rebuilt as modern facilities. The Lincoln Theater was completely restored. The baseball diamond, swimming pool and the golf course, which are also used by the public, have been built or refurbished. Much more has been done to the mechanical plant with water treatment, sewage, the reservoir and grounds receiving attention. Recycled water is being used for irrigation and to water the golf course. More needs to be done, but Commander Marcella McCormack ranks with Colonel Nelson Holderman in preparing the Veterans Home for the future.
In 2008, The Pathway Home opened as a first-of-its-kind program to help treat mental health conditions – including post-trauma c stress and trauma c mental injuries – for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan combat zones to readjust to civilian life. The home allows the use of facilities to the Pathway Home, which is privately funded, no federal or State funds are available. Today – There is a nationwide shortage of qualified nurses. Facilities that do not offer the highest pay or best conditions (or are located in areas where the cost of living is high) are going to have trouble attracting and retaining the most qualified workers, including nurses and doctors. These conditions affect the Veterans Home.
In its 133-year history, this has been the home of approximately 64,000 veterans. Today, around 200 of the 1,100 members of the home are women – 75% veterans and the balance being spouses of veterans. Member veterans from World War ll, Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Storm, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are currently living at the home. This has been a place of sanctuary for veterans of every American conflict except the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. There are four Medal of Honor veterans buried in the cemetery. Medal of Honor Master Sgt. Alejandro Ruiz of WWll is the most recent burial in 2009.
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The beginning of Idlewilde Fraternal Cemetery Association, located at the corner of Brookside Drive and Tucker Road was officially organized March 26, 1895. We have burials that occurred prior to its organization that date back to 1877. This small sacred area of land was a community burial place on the outskirts of Hood River prior to the cemetery’s beginning.
In the beginning, three lodges represented Idlewilde Cemetery Association. They were Hood River Masonic Lodge #105 A.F. & A.M., Idlewilde Lodge I.O.O.F. Odd Fellows and Woodman of the World Lodge #68 A.O.U.W. The Odd Fellows and Woodman Lodges relinquished their rights and the Masonic Lodge became sole proprietor of Idlewilde Cemetery and the Lodge supplies four board members to oversee the everyday happening and operations of Idlewilde Cemetery.
We started off as five acres and over the years have grown to over 18 acres with five acres still in orchard production to financially help with the ongoing operation expenses of the cemetery. We have removed the Bosc pears, which have up-and-down market prices and now grow only Bartlett pears, which have a steady market price.
As of today, we have over 8,000 body burials at Idlewilde and over 2,000 ash placements. Our mausoleum and niches are at 60% capacity. At Idlewilde, we still hand dig the graves. It helps when you have straight sand for soil. If our digger, Agustin Lara finds a rock, we are charged extra. (No rocks.) Agustin is a 25-year employee with Idlewilde and can still dig a grave in a little over an hour’s time. We operate here at Idlewilde with only the one part-time employee, three hours a day, and myself.
We are 100% irrigated, with a pressurized system furnished by the Irrigation District. We irrigate 24/7 when the irrigation season stars and we pump over 100 gallons a minute. Our two outstanding programs each year are Memorial Day and then in September we have Cemetery Tales, which is a large fundraiser for the local Historical Museum Society’s educational programs. Cemetery Tales has become so popular that the tickets have to be purchased early, and then sometimes they’re already sold out.
We have over 2,700 vacant graves in the new portion of the cemetery and over 1,000 graves in the old section at this time. The orchard portion of the cemetery was plotted back in 1973, which will be to our advantage when the time comes to remove the orchard and sell graves. We enjoy the beauty of the Hood River Valley on a daily basis. When you’re at our facility, look south and you can see Mt. Hood before you look north and see Mt. Adams in the state of Washington. Come to Hood River and visit us; enjoy our views, our wine, our fruits, our clean, fresh air, lots of summer and fall activities, and oh, did I mention we border Indian Creek Golf Course?
–Bob Huskey, Sexton/Manager, Idlewilde Cemetery
980 Tucker Road, Hood River, Oregon
Posted December 17, 2016
If you’re ever in the St. Helens, Oregon neighborhood, take a little jaunt up Pittsburg Rd. You’ll find a small green square tucked into the side of the road, across the street from Yankton Community Fellowship church, formerly Yankton Baptist Church. I got the tip from the owner of the bowling alley on Highway 30. She was a firecracker delight to talk to, and if I had time, I would have stayed and bowled a couple games. But I had a mission.
Yankton Cemetery, also known as Old Yankton Cemetery or Yankton Hillcrest Cemetery, wasn’t too far off Highway 30. There’s not much parking right at the cemetery, so if you visit, you could probably park across the street. (Note the old church in the photos – it was demolished in August 2016.) The first thing you’ll notice is a very nice carved wooden sign, noting the cemetery was established in 1888 (the church in 1893). It seems the latest helpers were an Eagle Scout troop and Benjamin Herendeen. Unfortunately, no other information is available about their efforts. The earliest-born resident was born in 1830.
Of note were several World War Veteran medallions. They reminded me of the Confederate markers found in the South Carolina cemeteries we featured in the last newsletter. Other memorials reflected the logging industry of the area by using branches to create the lettering on the headstones. The area is very quiet and peaceful, nestled alongside a rural road with the sounds of nature as the soundtrack. I hope you enjoy the photos and this video:
‘O ye, all ye that walk in Willow-wood,
That walk with hollow faces burning white;
What fathom-depth of soul-struck widowhood,
What long, what longer hours, one lifelong night,
Ere ye again, who so in vain have wooed
Your last hope lost, who so in vain invite
Your lips to that their unforgotten food,
Ere ye, ere ye again shall see the light!’
– Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
In May 2013 the CAO was a part of a joint conference with the Oregon Funeral Directors Association. During the conference board members Kim Morley, Bob Huskey and Rachel Fox went on a “short 3 mile walk” from the Eugene Hilton to Eugene Masonic Cemetery. Ok we were a bit off in the miles, it was a hot, sunny day complete with blistered feet but we had a great time. Please enjoy some of the photographs: