Sonoma Stories: New life comes to the Sonoma County potter’s field

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There’s a graveyard still in use near the heart of Santa Rosa that most people have never viewed. Truth is, it hasn’t been all that much to see.

Tucked into the southeastern corner of the row of cemeteries along Franklin Avenue, the approximately 3-acre burial ground is best known by its generic label, the potter’s field.

Officially designated Sonoma County’s Indigent Burial Site, it is where, since 1967, the county has laid to rest people who die without resources to cover the costs of interment and, often, without known family. The field was designed for a maximum of 450 plots.

“There are 351 people buried there,” said Sandy Frary, an archivist and lover of local history. Most of the graves are unmarked.

The most recent interment occurred this past July 23, Frary said, when the county buried the remains of a man listed as John Doe because his true identity wasn’t known.

As of late, there’s been quite a lot going on at what has long been a scruffy, largely unknown and undignified graveyard. The changes followed the discovery that among the people who lie in the potter’s field are 17 U.S. military veterans.

The discovery came after Frary, a retired administrative assistant in the sheriff’s office, returned to work to help the coroner’s office upgrade its records on who is buried in the indigent field.

Frary, an active volunteer with the group that maintains the adjacent, city-owned Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, conducted research for two full years. She documented the names and burial dates of every one of the 351 people interred in the potter’s field.

Her work drew the attention of Ron Collier, a retired Windsor fire chief and a man passionate about seeing that American military vets are honored the way he believes they deserve to be.

Collier is active in the Missing in America Project. It seeks to locate, identify and inter at national cemeteries what are estimated to be tens of thousands of cremated remains of veterans that lie unclaimed on shelves and floors at mortuaries and churches, in government warehouses and elsewhere across the country. Just last month, volunteers with the MIA Project conducted a memorial service for 75 veterans whose ashes were left off at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Collier wanted to know if any of the 351 people buried in the county cemetery were vets. Frary located the Social Security numbers of all 351 and gave them to Collier, who submitted them to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA found that among the indigents buried in the potter’s field were 17 veterans: three who’d served during or shortly after World War I, nine during or shortly after World War II, one during the Korean War, one during the Cold War and three during the Vietnam War. One of the World War II vets also served during the Korean War. The veterans died in Sonoma County between 1968 and 1998.

Collier and the missing vets project hoped to disinter the remains of all 17 and bury them with honors at the National Cemetery in Dixon. But the cost and logistics proved insurmountable.

The VA instead paid for the creation of markers for each of the veteran’s graves. The bronze markers list the deceased vet’s name, rank, armed services branch, date of birth and death, and the words, “Never Forgotten.”

Bill Northcroft, also a volunteer of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Committee, surveyed the indigent field, locating the precise location of each veterans’ graves.

In October, members of the National Guard and the American Legion leveled the ground and installed the grave markers.

Other improvements, including a service road realignment and construction of a fence and kiosk, were made by Boy Scouts earning their Eagle rank, Rural Cemetery volunteer John Dennison and others.

Another Rural Cemetery volunteer, Gary Greenough, a Vietnam veteran, proposed honoring the buried vets by rededicating the potter’s field as the Fiddler’s Green. He found references to mythical place where deceased warriors rest midway between heaven and hell.

Greenough said it’s a lovely place, filled with the music from a single fiddler. As the story goes, he said, the souls of former warriors can’t proceed from there “until they finish all the water in their canteens.

“The problem is,” he said, “their canteens are fed by a never-ending stream.”

Greenough will speak Saturday during a ceremony dedicating the veterans’ new grave markers at what’s now the Fiddler's Green. It starts at 10 a.m.

To find the field, walk into the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery at the main gate at McDonald Avenue and Terrace Way, turn right and follow the fence line down past the row of eucalyptus trees.

Editor’s Note: This version of the story corrects the time of Saturday’s ceremony at the cemetery.

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