Marty Simpson
and the Full Moon Cemetary Tours

Story by Margi Gomez

When Kelley House docent and board member Marty Simpson decided to check out a historical tour to be given in a Santa Rosa cemetery, he didn’t know that it would lead to a new way to interpret Mendocino history. Having long worked at the Kelley House as a docent and board member, he was helping to develop Mendocino Heritage Days, a month-long living history presentation celebrating the early history of Mendocino, in collaboration with the Ford House Visitor Center, Guest House Museum, Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden, Mendocino Presbyterian Church, Mendocino Study Club, Point Cabrillo Light Station California State Historic Park, and the Skunk Train.

Having been instrumental in popularizing the early Mendocino walking tours, Simpson and the Kelley House envisioned the Full Moon Cemetery Tour as a novel and fun way to bring Mendocino history to residents and visitors alike. After diligent research into some of the town’s most important and most colorful figures, Simpson began the process of writing scripts for the characters that would both illuminate local history and entertain curious viewers. He set off into the Evergreen Cemetery for the first time in 2005, by kerosene light and the ghostly glow of a full moon, accompanied by a small group of visitors and local history buffs. In subsequent years he would enlist a group of intrepid and talented local actors and actresses, who became known as the “Under the Hill Players,” to help him interpret the dramatic stories that the spirits of Mendocino’s past have to tell. This will be the fourth year of Simpson’s Full Moon Cemetery Tours, and though the cast of characters continues to change and evolve, the popularity of the unique program continues to grow. Simpson recalls his early efforts in organizing historical research for the new venture, “I had done very little writing, and had certainly never written a script for a live performance. I remember the first year we used actors, hearing the actress speak the words I had written. They came to life! It was a real ‘wow’ moment for me.”

The Full Moon Cemetery Tours have been supported over the years by PAPA, [Mendocino Coast Performing Arts Production Alliance—a cooperative] that provides costumes for Mendocino Coast theater groups including the Gloriana Opera Company and the Mendocino Theatre Company. The group has loaned many of the resplendent period costumes used in the cemetery tours to the Kelley House. “PAPA has been a great community support for this project,” Marty Simpson notes.

One of the first characters that Simpson wrote into his presentations is J. D. Johnson, an enterprising settler who came to Mendocino from England as a master builder, building what now houses the Gallery Bookshop, along with the MacCallum House, the Blair House, and many others. He also became Mendocino’s undertaker, and as Simpson explains through Johnson’s character, “In my time I could fit you in a full-sized coffin for eight dollars and give you a free hearse ride to your final resting place. The hearse I stored in my barn next to the house on Ukiah Street that now houses some fancy restaurant called the Café Beaujolais. You might say that I housed you in this life and the next!” Johnson worked as Mendocino’s undertaker for forty years, and as leader of the Full Moon Cemetery Tours, acts as a knowledgeable guide to an intimate view of olden times and the people who shaped them.

One of the most central characters in the cemetery tours over the years has been that of Jerome Ford, who first came to Mendocino in a search for the salvaged treasure that he had heard might be found as the result of the wreck of the schooner Frolic, off the shores of the Caspar headlands. Instead he found the towering redwoods, and immediately realized the potential of the giant trees for the building materials needed for the population explosion taking place in San Francisco as the result of the Gold Rush. As the Ford character relates in Simpson’s script, “Took me eight days by horseback to reach the wreck site. When I got there most of the cargo was lost to the sea. What was not lost had already been salvaged by the Indians. In fact, I saw their women in Chinese silks. Quite a sight, but what I did find was the largest trees I’d ever seen reaching to the sky and some with a base of twenty feet in diameter, ripe for the taking. I rushed to San Francisco with news of my discovery.”

Mr. Ford shared his news with entrepreneur Henry Meiggs, who already owned San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf (called Meiggs’ Wharf at the time), and most of the North Beach area surrounding the bustling docks. Meiggs arranged for a ship called the Ontario to carry a large sawmill, along with a workforce to run the mill, to the mouth of Big River and the Mendocino Bay. Ford himself, who traveled overland bringing the livestock needed to support the settlement, would go on to become superintendent of the Meiggs’ Lumber Company. Jerome Ford built the grand house on the Mendocino headland that now serves as the Ford House Museum and visitor center for Mendocino Headlands State Park.

David Lansing captained the ship Ontario that brought the Meiggs’ mill to Mendocino, along with forty men, northward along the Pacific Coast from its berth in San Francisco, and continuing up to the rocky shores of the Mendocino headlands. Meiggs’ business grew and flourished, as more men arrived on shore to work the woods eager to make their fortunes. Lansing later became the head of shipping and receiving for the company, and built the large house that faces the sea, across from what is now Schlafer’s Inc. [D.B.A. Schlafer’s Chevron, Schlafer’s Auto Body, Schlafer’s Auto Repair] on Main Street.

Marty Simpson has included early settler Cinderella Wallace, who, he says, is thought to have been one of Mendocino’s “Working Girls,” back in the rough and tumble days of early white settlement, when there were few other options open to women. Although there is no hard evidence to support this view, Simpson says that everything in his research points in that direction. “It was a very paternalistic society,” he explains. “What you typically find in the history is Joe Blow did this that and the other, all kinds of wonderful things, and his wife was a teacher. It’s relatively easy to find great stories about men, but there is next to nothing about the women. So when I research these female characters, I’m basically looking for whatever I can find to hang a script on.”

Searching for a “new start” in life after misadventures in the San Francisco area, Cinderella Gilbert arrived on the shores of the thriving logging town in 1866, at the tender age of twenty-two. Rooming at one of the many boarding houses springing up for the burgeoning workforce, Cinderella began to work as a maid, and two years later became a member of the Presbyterian Church and married Julius Reukhert Wallace. They built the red house on the east end of Main Street that is now home to Mendo Realty, and despite the death of her husband less than five years later, Cinderella lived there for more than thirty years. Through Simpson’s script for Cinderella Wallace, we learn of a story that Cinderella often told about her life across from the Mendocino’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Cinderella’s character tells the tale: “Well I remember that old Swede Mr. Hallings who lived up in Fury Town. For those of you who don’t know Mendocino, Fury Town was up the hill across the big road east of town. (Hallings) was, let’s just say, a man about the saloons. Well every blessed night in the wee hours he would stagger up Main Street…singing with great volume and verve the songs of his native land and cut through the cemetery on his way home. It was driving me crazy.

“…a grave had been dug near the path that Mr. Hallings would take on the way home, for the funeral that was to be held the next day. So I took one of my white sheets. Six feet down in the grave I waited and waited. I cold hear him coming. Just as he was walking by I rose up with the sheet over my head. Booo! His cries could be heard all the way up Little Lake Road…It was so funny. He never took that way home again.”

Another “Founding Mother” of Mendocino whose story captivated Simpson was Hattie Blair, born Hattie Philbrick in 1840. At [age] twenty-two, Hattie braved the hazards of the long journey by ship around the Isthmus of Panama, and married her betrothed Levi Taylor, only to lose him to consumption five years later. In 1870 she married Elisha Blair, who in 1888 built the well-known Blair House for his new family at the corner of Ford Street and Little Lake Street, on the block of stately homes that came to be known as “Banker’s Row.” Elisha had become the loan officer for the Meiggs’ Lumber Company, and also ran the ferry service that brought stagecoaches across Big River. Shortly after he and Hattie moved into their new home, Elisha was injured by a team of runaway horses. As the character of Hattie Blair relates, “Drs. Milliken and Gallison were there to attend his injuries and he seemed to recover, but…he never fully recovered and sadly my dear Elisha died on May 4, 1892.” Hattie Blair took over and ran the Big River ferry service for several years after the death of her husband.

Marty Simpson also introduces us to the influential character of William Heeser, through the voice of his son Auggie Heeser, himself an important figure in the town’s evolution. Auggie relates that his father William, born in Germany in 1822, moved from Maryland to San Francisco, arriving on these shores by ship in 1857. It was five years after Jerome Ford and Captain Lansing brought the ship Ontario and the Meiggs’ sawmill north to what would be the town of Mendocino, and Auggie recalls that the elder Heeser found a busy scene on the headland. “At that time…all the land south of Main Street…was owned by the lumber company, and on that land was a railroad track, plus a number of company owned buildings…All the rest of the headland, from [what is now] Lansing Street to the ocean, was owned by Mr. Kelly.”

The same Mr. Kelly, who as it happens has also been a passenger on the Ontario voyage, built and lived in the Victorian home that has now become the Kelley House Museum. (The name Kelly was changed to Kelley by William Kelley’s daughter Daisy Kelley MacCallum.) The “voice” of Auggie Heeser goes on to explain that in 1858 his father William Heeser, having brought with him a substantial savings from earlier ventures, purchased the entire swath of land to the north of Main Street, from Mr. Kelly. With this purchase his father William became owner of the over two hundred acres surrounding Mendocino’s emerging Main Street.

William Heeser surveyed his new holding, laying out and naming the streets we use today, including those that run north/south such as Ford, Kelly, and Lansing, along with those that run east/west, Little Lake, Ukiah, Albion, Calpella, and Covelo. He divided his land into parcels and began selling them, and farmed the western edge of his holding, setting up a store on Main Street to sell his produce. His son Auggie goes on to tell more of this Mendocino story, “My father became involved in so many things it’s hard for me to remember them all…He was appointed a county deputy surveyor and overseer, he became a county supervisor, was an elder and Sunday School teacher in the Presbyterian Church, and he started the Bank of Mendocino in 1870. As a Mason, he donated a parcel of land for the Masonic Lodge…The very year that I was born, 1877, my dad started the Mendocino Beacon, which he ran for nearly thirty years, until he passed on in 1906.”

William’s son Auggie inherited the Heeser farm, and took over the ownership of the Mendocino Beacon, which he ran for another sixty years, and which lives on as Mendocino’s hometown newspaper. His earnest character recalls, “I tried my best to carry on his practices and to make sure it was always run in an honest, forthright manner, while keeping everyone abreast of every newsworthy happening. I loved every minute of it, and consider that job as my life’s work.”

Highlighting one of the most important decisions taken by Auggie Heeser, his character goes on to recall, “Both my father and I were…enamored of the rocky coastline…As a boy I loved walking along, seeing the crashing waves, the birds, the spouting whales…So in my later years I worked out an agreement with the California Wildlife Service. I allowed them to build a road around the headland…and sold them all the land between the road and the ocean for a very reasonable amount.” On October 1, 1960, when Auggie Heeser was eighty-three years old, a formal dedication took place which included the words, “…the area will forever remain open to the public without charge.” This is perhaps the most important legacy that was left to those of us who treasure Mendocino’s open space.

Marty Simpson continues to research new characters for his Full Moon Cemetery Tours, looking into a wide range of characters, from Frank Faria and Nathaniel Smith, who worked as hunters and ranch hands in the emerging frontier, to Jenny and Bill Zacha, who pioneered the Mendocino of today, founding the Mendocino Art Center and bringing a new wave of settlers to the area in the 1960s. Having focused in past years mainly on the Evergreen Cemetery, affiliated with the historic Presbyterian Church on Main Street, Simpson also looks forward to leading tours through the Hillcrest Cemetery, maintained by Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church on Lansing Street.

Join this year’s Full Moon Cemetery Tour on the evening of May 9 as part of Mendocino Heritage Days, and learn more about the colorful and influential people who lived and died in the early days of Mendocino.

For more information, visit the Kelley House Museum, at 45007 Albion Street, which is open during the summer from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. daily, excepting Wednesdays. Museum staff can also be reached during office hours from Tuesday through Friday 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and by phone at 707-937-5791. You can also visit their extensive Website at www.mendocinohistory.org and learn more about the people who made Mendocino.

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