BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Contributing writer
Traipsing around Union Cemetery might not be your idea of a hot time, but if you're interested in local history, the final resting place on Potomac Avenue could be your ultimate destination.
Bakersfield. Jewetta Avenue. Brundage Lane. Chester Avenue. Jastro Park. Those names weren't just picked out of thin air; they belong to real people, the founders and pioneers of Kern County. And they are all buried at Union Cemetery, along with veterans of the Civil War, lawmen and gunslingers, farmers and business owners, grandparents and infants who settled, lived and died in what would become Bakersfield.
Union Cemetery guided tour
When: 9 to 10 a.m. Saturday
Where: Union Cemetery, 730 E. Potomac Ave.
Information: 324-9648, or email info@UC1872.com
Genealogist John Codd will be taking visitors through the "pioneer sections" of Union Cemetery from 9 to 10 a.m. Saturday in what is the first publicized guided tour of the park.
"There's a lot more history (in Bakersfield) than people realize," Codd said. "This was the 'Old West.'"
Codd, who is associated with the Kern County Genealogical Society and Kern County Historical Society, has focused his research on the old, often forgotten burial sites that dot the county.
"The small stuff that gets lost, the small sites, the lone graves," Codd said. "You get into these people's lives."
Codd said this first tour will include the grave of city namesake Colonel Thomas Baker, the first person buried at Union Cemetery in 1872. Visitors will also see the grave of Captain Elisha Stephens, who led the first immigrant wagon train over the Sierra Nevadas (ahead of the ill-fated Donner party), and eventually settled in Bakersfield, where he died in 1887. Other famous graves include those of deputy sheriff William Tibbet (father of world-famous opera baritone Lawrence Tibbet), and outlaw James McKinney, both killed in the 1903 shootout at the Joss House at L and 22nd streets.
Codd said visitors will view the gravesite of George Chester, Bakersfield's first postmaster, and the section of the cemetery dedicated to Civil War veterans -- Union and Confederate soldiers.
Codd said his study of the graves showed that many residents died not only from violence but also epidemics, train wrecks and accidents -- all sorts of events that impacted the life of Bakersfield.
"It's like notes left behind," Codd said.
Union Cemetery is a nonprofit memorial park and has been managed by the Union Cemetery Association since 1904. Operations manager Jose Leyva said the park has almost become a forgotten site over the decades, overshadowed by the advertising of the newer parks.
"We have a lot of heritage," Leyva said. "Of course, our pioneers are here, and we just want to let the town know we're still here."
Leyva said Union Cemetery has been conducting tours for some years, primarily for schools, but is experimenting with publicized tours, a revamped website, even recruiting volunteers to act as docents to establish the park as a historical site.
"That's one thing that separates us from the other cemeteries," said Leyva, who noted that the association is applying for status as a federal, state and county historical landmark.
The association has even hired a marketing and public relations company, for what is described as a "rebranding" of the Union Cemetery name.
"Union Cemetery has been around for 140 years," said Dan Katz of LA Ads: A Marketing Company, located in Northridge. "We are positioning the cemetery as a historical treasure of Bakersfield."
"Union Cemetery felt it was important to express the value of the cemetery, not only for burials but also as a historic destination for people to visit," Katz said.
"When you think of the builders and founders who are there, you think of (the cemetery) very differently," Katz said.
Codd, Leyva and Katz all said they hope to see a series of guided tours for the general public, dependent on the success of this one. One of the things to work out is how many visitors can be handled in a single tour.
"People have to be able to see the gravesite," Codd said.