Local historians have a tough job of researching Tehachapi's earliest cemeteries. The who, what and whens are often elusive, and buried six feet under along with the dearly departed.
When early settlers made the journey west and began homesteading in the Tehachapi hills in 1854, how they disposed of the dead was an informal ritual, technically speaking. After the tears of grief found on the faces of loved ones left behind had dried, little evidence remained of Tehachapi's first residents, as many were buried in unmarked graves.
In an effort to preserve these early remains, the Tehachapi Heritage League has taken on the task of gathering documentation of early life in Tehachapi.
Del Troy is a founding member of the Heritage League, which was officially formed on July 4, 1973. Searching for the truth has been about as easy as catching a feather in the wind, but the 93-year-old historian has a memory so sharp, she can play back conversations spoken 50 years ago.
Troy first arrived to the area with her husband, Vincent, in October 1958, when she was "around 32" years of age.
"The Tehachapi League took on restoring the old cemetery as one of our first projects," Troy said. "Our mission was to preserve and restore."
According to Charles White, a longtime volunteer for the museum and member of the Heritage League, efforts continue to document the evidence collected over the years of Tehachapi's history, including the 19 cemeteries found locally and in surrounding areas.
"We try to get as much as we can in the computer because then it is easy to find," White said. "We have all these photos inside scrapbooks as well as stacks of other photos."
Along with the help of other volunteers, including local scouts and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Heritage League began cleaning up the cemetery in Golden Hills at the corner of Violette Court and Lilac. The sign that hangs above the entrance today reads "Old Tehachapi Cemetery." Depending on who you talk to around town, and how long they have resided in the area, the cemetery has many names.
In the book "The Long Road to Tehachapi," second edition, written by Judy Barras and printed by Sierra Printers, the cemetery was first called the Public Cemetery. According to Barras, the first person to be buried in the cemetery was Narcissa Prewett, wife to Alex Prewett, who died in 1858 "just a short time after giving birth to what oral tradition says was the first white child born." Barras wrote that Mrs. Prewett was buried by her family on a small plot of ground on their land. As the years passed, other families followed suit by burying their loved ones next to her.
Later, the property was sold to Jeremiah Shields, and the final resting place became known as the Shields Cemetery. In a May 12, 2017, Heritage League report, John Codd stated that Shields was a former Kern County supervisor and county treasurer who lived nearby.
"It was called the Shields Cemetery because, in 1888, he (Shields) acquired the land the cemetery was on," said Troy. "But before that, it had been used because the first burial was in 1858. We aren't sure who owned it then, but it could have been a Mr. Tyler because they had a ranch in that area."
An old newspaper clipping that was found dating back to July 1877 reported the public cemetery was on a land claim of Mr. A. Tyler and within two miles of the original town of Williamsburg. It was described as being "unenclosed like a potter's field and roamed over by stock at large."
By the time the Heritage League took over caring for the one-acre parcel of land that lies on top of a small hill, town folk called it Pioneer Cemetery after the early settlers.
Said Troy, "We cleaned it up and made markers where sources told us there were burials."
The Heritage League obtained a copy of the burial plots from a descendant of an early settler, Ola Mae Boden, who married Herb Force. After Force died, Ola married Brick Jones.
According to Troy, a few cribs remained surrounding stones when the Heritage League took over caring for the cemetery. Troy said she could see where other people had been buried, but the century-old graves had either lost their wooden crosses to the passage of time, or their stones were stolen by uncaring thieves.
"Years ago, there was a story that someone had stolen one of the headstones to use as a coffee table," Troy said in disbelief. "Ever since 1975, we have tried to go out twice a year, usually in the spring and fall, and clean it up."
Today the Old Tehachapi Cemetery is surround by a chain-link fence. The actual number of souls buried in the cemetery from 1858 to 1928 when it was last used is a rough estimate. In addition to the 28 known graves, some believe up to 83 more people are buried in unmarked graves inside the fence.
"But we knew there were people buried outside of the fence," Troy said.
The few markers that remain tell a story about how hard life was for the pioneers, as most of the people died before they were 30 years old, and many were just infants.
In more recent years, the Tehachapi Heritage League began the Adopt a Grave program.
Said Troy, "Some people did, and they would come and keep it clean of the weeds, and some would put artificial flowers on the graves or whatever they wanted to make it look nice."
In 1949, the Tehachapi Public Cemetery District was formed as a publicly-funded agency that is responsible for four local burial sites. In the first part of the 1900s, local residents had two cemeteries to chose from: the Eastside Cemetery and the Westside Cemetery, also known by old-timers as the Protestant and Catholic cemeteries, respectively.
Funeral arrangements then were quite simple: People would pick out where they wanted the grave to be and pay 50 cents for the plot, or pick out a family plot and pay a dollar. Over a thousand graves can now be found in the cemeteries, but countless others will forever go unmarked, unremembered and long forgotten.
The Tehachapi Heritage League welcomes shared documentation of Tehachapi's history, and can be reached at the Tehachapi Museum, located at 310 S. Green St., and by calling 822-8152.
A previous version of this story was published in Tehachapi News on Dec. 8, 2017.