by Jim Bulls
My forefathers arrived in Jamestown in 1608 when King James granted them land for financing passage to tradesmen that were badly needed in the New World. This land was on the outer banks of Virginia and that is where my family started burying their dead. Part of Diana’s family arrived on the Mayflower. All 12 of them survived the ocean journey, but only four survived that first winter. The Dutcher side of her family came into Dutchess County, New York, by 1640 or so. There are Dutchers spread all over that part of New York and in northeast Connecticut. Between our two families, we have added to cemetery populations from coast to coast, and we have visited most of them.
Diana is also signed up with findagrave.com, a website dedicated to transcribing cemetery monuments and photographing grave sites. She is one of the volunteer photographers, so we spend a lot of time visiting local cemeteries. We have been to the elegant, private, abandoned, military, and even a “potter’s field.” Regardless of fame or fortune, those occupying a cemetery plot have a common bond: someone cares enough to inquire about them.
The story of the Reedley Cemetery begins, more or less, with the arrival of James Smith and his family. In 1839, Smith began operating a ferry across the Kings River, a bit downriver from where the Olsen Avenue bridge is today. There was an earlier ferry crossing in existence, that of Mr. Poole. Poole’s Ferry was located about a mile upriver from the present day Manning Avenue bridge.
The site of Smith’s Ferry was advantageous because of the higher river bluff. Other ferries along the Kings River had to cease operations during the flood season because the high water would wash out their equipment. Another advantage Smith had was that his ferry was built of pine, with a 16-foot beam and about 60 feet long. The length made it capable of hauling a freight rig across the river without having to unhitch the team of horses or mules.
Smith built a hotel on the hill above the river bluff where Mrs. Smith kept rooms and cooked. She served no alcohol. If you wanted a drink, there was plenty of liquor upriver at Poole’s.
In 1850, California became the thirty-first state to enter the Union, and the area along the Kings River that would eventually become known as Reedley, was part of Mariposa County. By 1852, that had all changed, and that same part of the country became part of Tulare County.
A historical side bar
Jim Savage, the man credited with discovering Yosemite Valley, was also a well-known trader up and down the Kings River and well liked by the Indians. He was somewhat outspoken about his views on the treatment of the Indians and wasn’t on good terms with many of the white settlers along the river. In the summer of 1852, white squatters on the Kings River Indian Reservation land massacred several Indians. Savage purportedly had derogatory words regarding newly elected Tulare County Judge Walter Harvey and his lack of sympathy for the plight of the Indians. The two met up at Poole’s Ferry where an argument ensued; Savage refused to retract his words and ended up striking Harvey on the chin. At that moment, Savage’s gun fell from his shirt and Harvey shot him dead. Harvey was tried and acquitted for the murder, perhaps because the sitting judge was one he, himself, had placed on the bench.
1852 was no kinder at Smith’s Ferry. At Christmas, James Smith came down with pneumonia and died. He was laid to rest beneath the large Ailanthus (Tree-of-Heaven) tree near the hotel. In February of 1853, Smith’s three-year-old son succumbed to burns and was laid to rest next to his father. After several years, Mrs. Smith sold the hotel and ferry to the 76 Land & Water Company. The old hotel was used by T.L. Reed as temporary headquarters for his wheat business. A bridge was built across the river in 1885. The railroad crossed the river in 1888, and Reedley was born. In 1889, the Reedley Cemetery Association was formed and purchased the former Smith property, making James Smith and his son William the first residents of the cemetery.
By 1905, the Smiths had 12 neighbors. The town was acting “citified” and required a death certificate in order for the deceased to be buried in the cemetery. In 1910, the Cemetery Board added an amendment to the bylaws stating that death certificates from Chinese, Japanese, Negro, or American Indians would not be accepted, meaning that people of those ethnic groups could not be buried in the cemetery. With the exception of the Negros, this affected a large portion of the local population. In 1911 the board members were voted out, a new board was elected, and the amendment was rescinded.
In 1911, Reedley’s most famous funeral took place. In April of that year, T.L. Reed had surgery at the Fresno Sanitarium. He never quite recovered and finally passed away in September of 1911. Hundreds of mourners were at the gravesite.In 1941, The Fresno County Board of Supervisors drew up cemetery districts, and the Reedley Cemetery became the Reedley Cemetery District. They immediately started buying land for expansion. In 1947, the Veterans of Foreign Wars installed the granite pillars at the main entrance to the cemetery as a memorial to the fallen veterans of World War I and II.
My uncle Cecil Emery died in 1947, and that is the first funeral I ever went to at the cemetery. In high school, the cemetery was located outside of the Reedley City Limits, so the local police had no jurisdiction. On Reed, from Olson Avenue to the granite pillars was one-quarter mile—an unofficial drag strip. There were strangers showing up in town every weekend, looking for a race and a chance to drag the Reedley Cemetery. Sometime in the 1880s, the VFW moved their artillery cannon to the veterans square. It stands as a memorial to all vets who gave their lives or who served fighting for our freedom.
Of course I have a humorous story about the cemetery. When my Dad passed away, we had an internment service the day before his memorial service at church. It was somewhat late in the day, and all of us, including the pastor, were standing around the open grave. About the time we were wondering why there was no casket, one of the grounds men came over to see why we were still there. They didn’t want to work overtime. “We’re waiting for my father,” I said. The guy sped off to the office. It wasn’t long before Cairn’s hearse came speeding down Reed Avenue, taking Dad on the fastest ride he‘d had in years! My cousin La Danta said it best, “Aunt Minnie always said Uncle Howard was slow. It’s just like him to be late to his own funeral.”
Today, the cemetery has added a pavilion where outdoor services can be held. The outer walls have small vaults to hold cremains, since cremation is becoming a popular alternative to the traditional burial. Loved ones have placed benches along the tree-lined avenues of the cemetery. The benches have to comply to cemetery specifications. They cost about $1000 each, and then there is an additional fee of $400 to place them. Families can also ‘adopt’ a tree for about $325, where they can place decorations or plants following cemetery guidelines.
Cemeteries tell a story. You can see the monuments of the prosperous and not so prosperous. Those that proudly proclaim membership in various fraternal organizations. Graves of our veterans. The touching little memorials in “Babyland.”
Cemeteries are peaceful. The Reedley Cemetery sits high on the bluff overlooking the Kings River. It is a beautiful site. You often see people walking or sometimes just sitting quietly at the grave of a loved one. When the time comes, I think it will be a pretty nice place to be.
For more local and California history articles, including more Reedley history articles by Jim, be sure and check out our Hometown History section.