The Spirit of Tehachapi
April 10, 2021
We all, on occasion, make a visit to a cemetery and in this time period we find most of them well maintained and lovely. In generations past Tehachapi had no perpetual care and both the Eastside and Westside Cemetery locations were in a sad state with weeds overgrown and a real danger of snakes. Because of this situation many of the older Tehachapi pioneers are buried in Bakersfield; the families having been unwilling to place their loved ones in such a state of disrepair.
There are several small graveyards in the surrounding valleys but through the years the two most prominent burial places for Tehachapi were the "Catholic Cemetery," on the west end of town and the "Protestant Cemetery" to the east. They were both "religiously" segregated (pun intended) and the denominations strictly observed. This tradition was common in small town America well up into the first part of the 20th Century. In 1949 the Tehachapi Public Cemetery District was formed with both areas being renamed Eastside and Westside Cemeteries with religious barriers eliminated. I visited the Westside and, of course, made my usual visits but picked up the dates I needed for this article.
It's been a few years, perhaps 25, that I got a call from the secretary at St. Malachy Church. They wanted me to talk to a man who was searching for a baptismal record or death notice of his baby sister, Nina Elvira Felix, who died as an infant in Tehachapi during the approximate years 1929 to perhaps 1933. The church baptismal and death records showed nothing. Our local cemetery had no burial records for that time period due to a fire in a home where the information had been kept and no gravestone had been put on the baby's grave to help identify her. Because of the fire there were some 200 graves not accounted for; just little markers saying "unknown" if there was no tombstone to identify who lay beneath. Relying on people's memories, some graves were identified but not many.
I checked the old Tehachapi News at Beale Library; nothing about a baby dying. The Bakersfield Hall of Records did record the baby's birthdate as 1933 but I found no death record at all. I guess as a detective I would definitely not make the grade for Elvira's brother. Later he did find a death record; also,1933. Still, the problem of the location of the grave was to be solved.
Felix, the infant's brother, was a high school teacher in Delano. He told me on the phone that his baby sister had died in her first year and the family, living in Tehachapi, had been too poor to provide a gravestone. The little girl, he said, had starved, not from neglect but from what is now known as lactose intolerance; something that can be handled today but not so much in 1933. Years later, when the aged mother died at age 82, her last wish was for her son to place a stone on the baby's grave in the Tehachapi cemetery.
He was at a loss as how to fulfill her last wish not knowing the location of the grave. I told him I would call around to the vintage citizens of the community to see if anyone remembered anything about the baby dying and where the grave might be located. No luck.
Finally, a friend suggested I call Margie Owens (of Kelcy's Restaurant fame) with whom I had gone to school and who had been raised by her grandmother, Ernestina Leiva Yorba. Margie said, "Oh yes, I know where that baby's grave is. My grandmother used to tell me about a little baby who was buried there."
The elated brother made arrangements to meet Margie and I in the Westside Cemetery. We three arrived just minutes apart and chatted briefly then walked to an area where the older graves are located. Alas! Margie had the correct spot, over by the north fence, but there were two little unknown grave markers side by side. Margie said, "Well, this is definitely the spot but I cannot say which grave is your baby sister's."
Felix, in a moment of decision, said that not knowing which of the two was the correct grave, he would have a stone bench erected on that spot by the two graves with Elvira's name engraved on it. I visited the cemetery after the bench was in place to get the birth and death dates: May 18 – Oct. 19, 1933. She lived only five months. His mother's last wish had been granted thanks to Margie Owens' recollection and to the actions of a loving son who kept his promise.
Rest in peace, little Elvira!
(The late Margie Owens grew up in Tehachapi and was a member of the old Yorba and Leiva families.)