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Old Tehachapi Cemetery is a place of quiet history and faded grief

Land of Four Seasons

A small knoll overlooking Meadowbrook Park in Golden Hills has long been home to about 30 Tehachapi pioneers. They don't live there, but rather their earthly remains were laid to rest there in hand-dug graves in the Tehachapi soil more than 100 years ago.

After each death, a wagon pulled by a team of horses would slowly carry the casket up the rutted dirt track to the little cemetery on the hill, followed by grieving survivors in buggies, on horseback or on foot. Once at the cemetery, a preacher or an elder said some comforting words to the gathered mourners, and then grim-faced men gently lowered the wooden coffin down into the pre-dug hole.

Picking up tools brought from home, they quietly began shoveling dirt into the hole, each scoop thudding on the wooden casket lid until the coffin itself disappeared from view. The shoveling continued as the rectangular hole slowly filled. The only sounds on the lonely knoll were the men working, mingled with muffled sobs, murmured condolences and the Tehachapi wind.

Within two hours the sad work was completed, the mourners had turned their backs and gone, leaving behind a mound of fresh dirt and carrying their sorrow with them. Only the breeze remained as those interred there welcomed the newest arrival. . .

The earliest burial took place in the cemetery in 1858 when Mrs. Alex Prewitt was laid to rest, and most of the others took place in the 1870s and 1880s. The last known addition was in 1927 with the burial of Tommy Hart, one of only four interred in the 1900s.

The cemetery remained a mostly-forgotten site in the 20th century, surrounded by rangeland and rarely visited except by local children like the Pedigo kids whose grandfather Evard Dickerson owned the Meadow Brook Dairy below the cemetery hill. When Bosie Cascade purchased the property from Otto and Betty Lamb in the late 1960s to incorporate it into their Golden Hills development, it was with the understanding that the cemetery would not be disturbed.

The cemetery wasn't removed or graded over, but neither was it protected. Dirt bikers rode their motorcycles near the graves and the marble headstones were vandalized - a couple of them were even stolen by a thief with no dignity or respect and incorporated into a coffee table with the blank sides facing up. I've often hoped that the thief received some well-earned karmic justice. In 1975, the newly-formed Tehachapi Heritage League worked to rehabilitate the cemetery. I was 11 years old and involved from the first day we went to work out there. Cemeteries gave me the creeps at that age, but not that one - which we usually called "the Pioneer Cemetery," though it had also been called "Shields Cemetery" and "the Old Tehachapi Cemetery."

Weedy and overgrown with crypt boards scattered and rotting on the ground and a few of the graves marked, it was a place that had been badly neglected. I felt that the spirits of those lying there would welcome friendly, respectful attention and I never felt uneasy working there. Heritage League members obtained a hand-drawn plot map from Herb and Ola Mae Force, and we made new wooden grave markers to replace the original wooden ones that had weathered away or the marble ones that had been taken. We worked in Harry and Jerrie Cowan's garage, stenciling, painting and varnishing new redwood markers. These were installed in the cemetery and a re-dedication ceremony was held in the cleaned-up burial ground.

Since then different community members have contributed to maintaining the old cemetery. Neighbor Curtis delRio long looked after the place, as has Patrick O'Donnell, and the Tehachapi Rose and Garden Club has done plantings there.

The Golden Hills Community Services District brought a water line to provide irrigation to trees and shrubs, and Boy Scout Jonathon Harper's Eagle Scout project involved installing a commemorative plaque and helping with some maintenance. A resting bench in memory of Robert Hedlund was added several years ago. The cemetery is open to the public and is reached by driving on Westwood Drive to Iris Way, then turning east on Iris to Lilac Street.

It is a peaceful place to visit, but even a century later I can still sense the grief that mourners once felt. Few elderly people are there, and most of the graves contain people who died fairly young, but it is the children and babies whose loss must have put permanent holes in their families' hearts. One Tehachapi baby boy died on Aug. 17, 1890, age nine months and three days, and the final inscription on his small marble headstone reads "This first born offering of a father's love."

It is for him and the others that this small cemetery is lovingly maintained.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at [email protected].