Free Chico Cemetery tour a hidden local gem

Anyone who has spent time in Chico has probably driven past the cemetery on Mangrove Avenue. There’s a giant, real WWII-era torpedo marking its entrance, with majestic, ancient-looking trees spread throughout the grounds and unique headstones speckling the meticulously-maintained grass. However, few are aware of the free historical tours the cemetery has offered monthly for years.

Clark Majors, Chico Cemetery employee, lead the tour with a great mix of humor and respect for the cemetery’s eternal residents. His love for the grounds’ beauty and rich history was palpable as he excitedly pointed out Masonic symbolism on various tombstones and some famous names laid to rest in the cemetery such as Chico High student Thaddeus Kerns, Chico’s first aviator, and of course, the Bidwell family.

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The main purpose of the tour, Majors said, is to inform the public that the Chico Cemetery has vacancies and will have vacancies for at least 70 more years. It is a common misbelief that the cemetery is at capacity. Since most history-buffs available to meander around a graveyard in the middle of the day on a Thursday are retirement age, the tour is a prime way to stoke interest in the cemetery. Majors encouraged our group to talk to him after the tour if anybody was interested in more burial information. He promised to hook anybody up with their “eternal neighbors.”

Majors started the tour with basic cemetery etiquette: “Don’t step on headstones, don’t fall in holes, don’t fall behind ogling the more than 100-year-old grave markers.”

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He explained the segregated organization of the cemetery with the same matter-of-fact attitude one would expect of a good historian, but swore to us emphatically that only Union soldiers were buried in the cemetery’s Civil War veteran section.

There are over 34,000 bodies buried in the cemetery, many in unmarked graves. Majors said that when the Brusie funeral home goes to dig a new gravesite and finds another person’s bones, they rebury the remains, mark the plot and move on to try a new site.

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The first burial that occurred in the Chico Cemetery predates the Lincoln assassination by 18 years. Majors explained that the man, Amos Fry, was part of a party trying to reclaim stolen cattle for John Bidwell from Native Americans.

Majors ushered us around the graveyard like a child trying to herd kittens into a basket, but never lost his patience. To him, this was not a place of death, this was a place of remembering our town’s heritage. It was over 100 years of growth, preserved.

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Just as I was thinking about which friends I wanted to bring on the next tour I attended, Majors tearfully informed the group that, as of the end of that exact tour, he was officially retired. He announced that he’d still be giving historical tours, but every three months instead of once a month.

The next tour is scheduled for Dec. 19 and reservations are encouraged. You can reserve a spot on the tour or schedule a free, private tour for groups of five or more by calling the number listed on their website. For any fan of history, graveyards, or idyllic strolls through beautiful scenery, the Chico Cemetery’s historical tour is a must.

Christina Cahill can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @ChristinaCahi11