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Auburn Cemetery teeming with little-known stories of the past

Cemetery sleuth helps put thousands of stories large and small on the Web
By: By Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - For cemetery sleuths like Auburn’s Glenda Ragan, a graveyard is teeming with stories of the past.

Ragan is part of a loosely woven consortium of researchers who shun fees to help families make a connection with their pasts. Much of that information ends up being posted on the free site Findagrave.com and, many times, added to by others, including family members.

With nearly 10,000 burials in the Auburn Cemetery on Fulweiler Avenue, Ragan started work to identify as many graves as possible online. She began with about 300 that had already been listed and methodically increased the number over the past three years to more than 8,000.

Cataloguing cemeteries like Auburn’s has become a labor of love for Ragan and, on a recent visit to the 120-year-old burial ground, she shared some of her favorite grave sites and stories.

While memorials to famous 19th century outlaw Richard “Rattlesnake Dick” Barter and Gold Rush poetess Eulalie Lee Shannon combine with the oversized monument to Penryn quarry owner Griffith Griffith to garner the most attention, Ragan knows the stories that tend to have been overshadowed or forgotten over the veil of years.

One of her favorites is of flamboyant pioneer aviatrix Opal Kunz, whose 1929 biplane crash was splashed in headline-grabbing glory over the New York Times and Daily News. Kunz competed in the inaugural Women’s Air Derby, taking flight and finishing the Santa Monica to Cleveland race against 20 others, including Amelia Earhart. Wealthy from her marriage to a Tiffany & Co. executive, she died alone in Auburn in 1967 and is buried in what was then known as Old Auburn Cemetery.

During her three years of research, Ragan has encountered her share of mysteries and some she has managed to shine more light on. One that has perplexed cemetery researchers for decades has been the story – or lack thereof – of Caroline. A mystery lady known only by her first name, with a large, ornate tombstone erected by her friend and employer Col. Clayton Hale in 1889, nothing  more had turned up about her past.

But Ragan has been able to find a Lieut. Col. Clayton Hale stationed at Fort Reilly, Kan. during the time of the 1880 census. And a Caroline Hall is listed as a mulatto servant on the same page of the census. Hale would die in the 1930s in Wisconsin, having lost his first wife in his early years and apparently depending on Caroline to help raise his children. He would later remarry but a monument serves as a testament to the esteem he held for his “faithful servant.”

Robin Yonash is another one of a handful of cemetery researchers in Placer County helping to reveal some of the mysteries of local graveyards and sharing their discoveries online.

“Glenda is an incredible researcher,” Yonash said. “We’ve worked together and are happy to help people find a grave. The site is free and people can put up as much information as they want.”

With one mystery more or less solved, Ragan said there are several more – including locations for what she has heard are unmarked graves for notorious killer Adolph Weber and the celebrated Alma Bell, who was acquitted on a murder charge for shooting an ex-fiancé who had spurned her.

But Ragan can point to the grave sites for many of the principal players in both cases – and some of the lesser known characters. That list includes the grave marker for Ralph McKinstry, who, as a boy, found the pistol used in the robbery of the Placer County Bank attributed to Weber.

When Ragan finds a grave like McKinstry’s she references the connection but also brushes it off  with well-worn bristles – and takes a digital photo to add to the Auburn Cemetery site at Findagrave.com.

Sometimes, Ragan will find a unique piece of vanishing graveyard history – like the marker for Lester, who died as an infant in 1926 of pneumonia, the same year he was born.  His grieving parents marked his grave with a wooden tombstone and today, it’s the last one known to exist in a cemetery that dates back to the 1890s.

For Ragan, an Auburn resident since 1994, the cemetery is a place of discovery and joy, as she works to help others to discover family history. Within her own family, she gets tech help and support from her sister June Schmidt in Reno and Brenda Adams in Oklahoma.

“Cemeteries are a place of mystery,” Ragan said. “It’s like a job that you just have to follow through. And there’s so much history here.”