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The tragic story behind Sylvan Cemetery’s first grave

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James Horton grave
Jim Monteton stands next to the grave marker for James Horton, the first person buried at Sylvan Cemetery. // M. Hazlip

By Mike Hazlip—
No one knows when he was born, but James Horton died Sept. 4, 1862, and was the first burial on the property that would later become Auburn Boulevard and the Sylvan Cemetery.

The few records available for Horton indicate he came to California from Tennessee in 1860, presumably looking for gold. Too late to cash in on the Gold Rush, he worked as a ranch hand at the Cross Ranch, a large property owned by John and Sarah Cross, who settled in the area in 1859.

It is likely Horton was still a young man in his prime, when he contracted an eye infection that left him blind and he subsequently took his own life by swallowing poison.

He was buried under a giant oak tree according to his wishes, but as fate would have it, a wind storm felled the tree in 1938. A short time later, Horton was once again disturbed when plans for Auburn Boulevard forced his remains to be relocated to his present-day, and hopefully final, resting place at Sylvan Cemetery.

Horton’s is just one of many stories Jim Monteton meticulously searches out and details in his authored book The Sylvan Cemetery, A Living History. The project spanned a few years of research to compile, and tells the history of many of the people buried at the cemetery.

“This was not a cemetery then,” Monteton told The Sentinel in a recent interview, reflecting on the time period when Horton died. “This was part of the John Cross Ranch, and the Daniel Lewis Ranch where they came together. So when this guy died, he wanted to be buried here because he worked on the ranch.”

Monteton said he often wonders about the stories from some of the families laid to rest at the cemetery, particularly in the old section where dates in the 1800s are common on headstones.

There is one plot where a husband and wife are laid to rest together. The wife has what Monteton describes as a beautiful headstone, while the husband has none. Another grave is marked with a stone quarried from Rocklin with a hitching ring for horses embedded on top.

One grave is marked with what appears to be a hap-hazard concrete slab, and letters from a hardware store appear to have been embedded when the concrete was still wet. It marks the grave of a six-month-old who died in 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression.

“It’s interesting stories when you look at them,” Monteton says. “Some of them have writing on them that’s kind of like a puzzle to try to figure out what it means.”

Many of the family plots at Sylvan Cemetery have names locals will recognize from streets and parks in the city such as Van Maren, Rusch, and Lauppe.

The cemetery is also the final resting place to over 1,400 veterans, Monteton says. There are several graves dating back to the Civil War, and Monteton is working to restore some markers that have been damaged in the century since the North fought the South.

While known for its annual Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies, the cemetery declines to hold Halloween events out of respect for the families of those who are buried there. Monteton said most families prefer a quiet place to reflect rather than the party atmosphere that a Halloween event might bring.

“There used to be a young woman, I don’t know who she was, but she used to come here all the time,” Monteton said. “She would just sit, she would find one of these little benches that are out there and she would just go out there and sit. Her family is buried here and she would just sit and stare into the cemetery.”

He said it is not unusual to find a half-bottle of whiskey, or two beers left at grave sites. One person leaves birthday presents each year.

While Monteton doesn’t have any true ghost stories to tell, there was one incident he can’t explain.

Jim Van Maren was an early land owner in Citrus Heights, and the Van Maren family plot is marked with a tall monolith. Van Maren spent considerable money and effort to move the Sylvan Schoolhouse out of the path of development in an effort to preserve the historic building. The effort became a contentious issue with the Van Maren family as Jim refused to sell the last plot of land where the schoolhouse stands. After his death, the Van Maren’s eventually sold the land, and the schoolhouse is now a veteran’s hall.

“We were out there walking one day, I looked up at the stone monument above the family plot, and the top was moved,” Monteton said, noting that crews had to use heavy equipment to lift the stone top, sand the base, and re-position it on the monument. “This thing weights a couple hundred pounds, there’s no way someone could just push it and move it over. I told everybody, ‘That’s Jim. He’s pissed that they sold his building.’ “

Editor’s note: Those interested in obtaining a copy of Monteton’s book, “Sylvan Cemetery: A living history,” can purchase it online through Amazon. The Sentinel is also offering free copies of the book to new subscribers, who sign up for a supporter-level subscription.

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