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Help the bells toll at historic cemetery

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Along Auburn Boulevard stretches the unassuming Sylvan Cemetery. A modest sign indicates the entrance to the cemetery, but the sign only hints at the rich history just inside the gate.

Sylvan Cemetery is the burial site of 1,300 veterans from the Civil War, Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam Conflict and the Gulf War. It is also home to founding families and early settlers of Citrus Heights and Fair Oaks, including the Van Maren, Rusch and Ose families. In addition to the veterans, more than 6,000 Sacramento County sons and daughters are buried at Sylvan.

Before being a cemetery, the land was a Gold Country freight stop and a ranch. Ranch worker James Horton was aware that his death was near and asked to be buried on the property under his favorite oak tree. His request was granted. His tombstone recorded these facts of his life: “James Horton of Tennessee died September 4, 1862 at the home of J.F. Cross. The first burial in Sylvan Cemetery.”

Tombstones may contain basic facts, but according to poet Linda Ellis, it’s the dash mark between a person’s birth and death dates that tells the real tale: “what matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash” (The Dash). Cemetery trustee Jim Monteton is driven to fill in the “dash” for those buried in the cemetery, and he deserves much of the credit for researching and faithfully chronicling their stories.

He explains why so many Civil War soldiers are buried at Sylvan. He says that after the war, 100,000 former Union and Confederate soldiers went west to start new lives, and a good number ended up in Sacramento. Civil War headstones were always marked with the soldiers’ home state, which usually indicated whether they were from north or south of the Mason-Dixon line in the war between the states.

Jim’s research on a Civil War captain enabled him to fill a gap in one family’s history. After the war, the captain headed to California where he grew oranges. His family never knew where he had gone, and they were grateful to Jim for solving the puzzle.

One corner of the cemetery has rows of white headstones for veterans of the Spanish-American War, but a space in one row caught Jim’s attention. He checked the cemetery map to get the soldier’s name and since then has been on a mission to fill in the row space with a replacement stone. However, before the Veterans Administration will provide the stone, Jim has to locate the living relatives of a veteran who died over 100 years ago. Solving the mystery of the family’s whereabouts continues to elude him.

Another unsolved mystery is what happened to the five little babes of the Ingals (Ingols) family. The tombstone marking their final resting place is inscribed with “He loved these little tender ones and would have wished their stay…”

The stories behind Sylvan’s tombstones weave a rich tapestry of individual, county, state and national history. In September, the cemetery will celebrate its 150th anniversary. The event will include active duty military personnel, re-enactors from past wars in full military dress, presentations and tours.

The board of trustees plans to install a bell tower to commemorate the anniversary. The concept of a tower was proposed by former trustee John Seekins. A bell tower will allow chimes, hymns and anthems to be played at graveside services and cemetery events. It will offer a simple and dignified backdrop for ceremonies and serve as a fitting tribute to the rich history of those buried within Sylvan Cemetery walls.

Approximately 70 percent of the funds for the bell tower have already been raised, but more donations are needed to make the tower a reality. Donations are tax-deductible and can be made by contacting board member Jean Duncan at 916-725-3934, or by sending a check with “bell tower” noted on it to Sylvan Cemetery, 7401 Auburn Blvd., Citrus Heights, CA 95610.

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