Walking the past in Santa Rosa

  • Guests walk past a theatrical reenactment of the murder of Luella May Butts played by Amy Lovato, center, sitting on her lap is her daughter Helen Butts played by Maisy Gibson during The Dark Side of the Cemetery tour at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Friday, June 13, 2014. Butts was murdered by her husband Claude Butts in 1913 who was sentenced to five years in prison for the murder. He then moved to the Yreka area and remarried. He died in 1968 at the age of 81. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

The Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery provides a final resting place for more than 5,200 people, from famous figures such as its founding father Julio Carrillo (died, 1889) to forgotten folks like Harry Barkas, Jr. (died, 1933), a baby whose grave is topped with a crude, handmade marker.

After going bankrupt during the Depression, the cluster of four private cemeteries fell into a moribund state, as vandalism and neglect slowly took its toll on the 17-acre plot of land bordering Franklin avenue in northeast Santa Rosa.

When the City of Santa Rosa took it over in 1979, however, things started looking up. In 1994, an ambitious group of volunteers began cutting back the overgrown weeds, adopting grave sites and giving tours as a way to raise funds for its restoration and preservation. It's a story of redemption, from rags to relative riches.

"We are celebrating our 20th year," said Bill Montgomery, volunteer coordinator for the cemetery. "Over the years, we have put over $400,000 in our endowment fund for the upkeep of the cemetery into the next generation."

Nowadays, there are upwards of 200 volunteers devoted to the care and feeding of the cemetery, which also boasts a Habitat Garden focused on native, drought-tolerant plants, and a Memorial Rose Grove dedicated to the victims of the 1906 Earthquake.

This summer and fall, the cemetery comes alive with a series of walking tours, offering history buffs a chance to learn about the pioneers of Sonoma County, get up close and personal with its headstones and watch its long-dead occupants come to life in original, theatrical skits, complete with costumes, lighting and props.

History buffs with a taste for the macabre snatched up tickets to the ever-popular Darkside Tours on June 13, which incorporated four, theatrical reenactments from Santa Rosa's grisly past.

"The emphasis is on the suicides, murders and deaths" Montgomery said. "These are the saddest parts about the cemetery."

One skit, dating back to the early 1900s, involved a tale of infidelity. A man who suspected his wife was seeing another gentlemen stormed to her parents' house to find her and got into an argument with his wife's father, who threw him out.

"He went home, got his rifle, then shot his wife dead through the window," Montgomery said. "Her little girl was on her lap."

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