April 27, 2016

Photo Essay: A Fake Cemetery (with Real Headstones) (Updated for 2023)

[Last updated 2/20/23 9:51 AM PT—Info from Whittier Historical Society added at bottom.]

Most really old cemeteries in Southern California are off the beaten path—because the roads have been re-routed or the towns have been vacated or they generally just creep people out.

So imagine the surprise of stumbling upon a cemetery with historic headstones right off the Sierra Highway in Canyon Country, just north of LA.

Especially if you're from the area and you don't quite remember those headstones being there before.

If you're not an Acton local, the cemetery at Sierra Highway and Red Rover Mine Road is still a bit odd...

...its grave markers nestled into the brush...

...arranged somewhat haphazardly...

...and spaced out with a lot of room between them, compared to the local pioneer cemeteries of the same era.

It was so strange that it attracted the attention of local media, who asked the property owner, Dale Bybee, if it was real.

"Yeah, they're all real stones," he said. And he wasn't lying.

But he fibbed about where they came from.

He said they'd been in this spot for "a while" (still not exactly a lie) and that he'd uncovered them when he'd recently been clearing some brush.

That would be some story if it were true, but it's not.

The headstones may be real, but the cemetery is a fake.

There are no bodies buried here (that anyone knows of).

This plot of land hasn't been consecrated.

It isn't holy, but it is valuable—not only to its owner, but also as it's adjacent to the "high speed rail" line that's being routed from LA to San Francisco, right through the Antelope Valley.

Whether you call this pop-up cemetery a stunt or a protest, either way it drew attention to the matter.

And, it gave a home to a bunch of tombstones that had been displaced from an abandoned cemetery in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1950s...

...and had been sitting in the backyard of the Whittier Historical Society. [Ed: See bottom of post for more info]

Screenshot: Google Satellite View 

In the days before modern technology, Bybee might have gotten away with his fake cemetery. His land is zoned for agriculture, which would've allowed burials on site.

Screenshot: Google Street View (May 2015)

But thanks to Google Satellite View and Street View, there's a public visual record of the property dating back to 2007 that shows no brush overgrowth and no headstones.

To me, it's art. It has the feeling of Stonehenge or yarn-bombing or street murals—something that just appears one day, without anyone taking credit.

When it comes down to it, though, it's just a bunch of headstones clustered on an empty lot. If Bybee had buried some bodies there, now that would've really been something.

Update 2/20/23: The Whittier Historical Society & Museum recently posted the backstory of how these headstones came to reside with them and be relocated in Acton on their Facebook page:

The history of the Whittier’s first cemetery has often been a hot topic around town. No doubt many have heard the stories of Founder’s Memorial Park, locally known as “Dead Man’s Park,” from family members or seen social media videos about this former cemetery site, including the bodies that remain interred without headstones to mark their locations. 
What happened to the cemetery? Why were some of the graves relocated? What happened to the headstones? These are the most common questions that we get asked at the museum. Fortunately, the “mystery” is not as dark and sinister as some of us imagine.
Whittier’s first cemetery was founded in 1888 and was referred to simply as the Whittier Cemetery. It was officially named Mount Olive when the adjacent cemetery, Broadway Cemetery, was built in 1902. Both were located on Broadway, with Mount Olive Cemetery on the west side of Citrus Avenue and Broadway Cemetery on the east side of Citrus. Mount Olive was recorded to have 365 burials and Broadway Cemetery an estimated 926 burials. By the late 1950s, burials were prohibited in both cemeteries due to visual blight and health hazards as a result of neglect from proper ownership. It’s because of these circumstances that Mount Olive and Broadway Cemetery were “removed” in 1968 by a decision of the City Council.  
A year later, Founder’s Memorial Park was developed to replace the abandoned cemetery with a clean, publicly accessible memorial park. The City made every effort to contact descendants of those buried at the two cemeteries. As a result, some bodies and headstones were relocated to other cemeteries, but most bodies remained in their original plots. All of the headstones were removed from the park. In recognition of those buried in their original plots, two memorial monuments were erected in 1977 to mark the sites of both cemeteries. 
The person who founded the Whittier Cemetery was a Chicago Quaker, Willet Dorland. He and his family, along with his brother Henry Dorland and his family, arrived in Whittier in late July 1887, two months after the official founding of Whittier. Willet Dorland donated a portion of land adjacent to his house for the cemetery. He and his brother then founded the Whittier Cemetery Association in order to maintain the cemetery for the residents of the new town. The Dorlands added walkways and planted gardens to enhance the atmosphere. The first mention of the cemetery and announcements of burials appears in the 1888 "Whittier Graphic" newspaper.  
From the 1920s to the 40s both cemeteries began to suffer from neglect and vandalism. Because the cemeteries were privately owned, only communal cleaning was permitted. The most the city could legally do was build a fence to conceal the problem, but it did little to stop the build up of garbage and vandalism: headstones were knocked over or broken, some stolen, weeds were overgrown and consumed the entire property, and the amount of trash only continued to pileup around the markers. Some of the graves were disturbed; one of the more notorious incidents occurred in 1948 when two boys found a human skull from the cemetery exposed in the grounds.  
After the removal of the headstones from their original locations, they were stored at the Pio Pico Mansion. At this point, some headstones were claimed by family members and some were sold to the general public. The City also considered reuse of the headstones in a public art installation, but no such project ever came to fruition. In 2001, the remaining headstones were relocated to the Whittier Museum’s backyard due to inappropriate storage conditions at the Pico Mansion. 
Unfortunately, when the headstones were brought to the museum, they were not properly inventoried. They were so large and immensely heavy, that moving them for any kind of identification or research was impossible without special machinery. The Historical Society was also unable to find a suitable place to exhibit the headstones, and it was eventually decided that it was best to remove the headstones from the museum.  
In September of 2016, the headstones were transferred to Dale Bybee, an electrical contractor from Acton. He is an admirer of 19th century craftsmanship, machinery and art history. “Someone spent time carving these and crafting them-they’re a piece of art,” Bybee said in an interview. Bybee explained that he wanted to incorporate the headstones into a replica of a western cemetery on his property. “I feel it was a good investment in case they (television and movie productions) want to use it as props.” Acton has been the spot for dozens of television and movie productions, including "The Green Mile," "Titanic" and dozens of westerns.  
To start off the new year, board members Sean Thomsen and Tracy Wittman, Tracy’s husband Dave, and I decided to take an overdue trip to Acton to see how Bybee had constructed his makeshift cemetery. When we arrived, the display was beyond what we had expected. Bybee had done a careful job in matching many headstones to their original bases and grouping family members together. Even the various types of native plants were carefully selected to grow around the headstones in order to enhance their security and aesthetics. See page three for photos of the Whittier headstones on Bybee’s property.
We were finally able to walk among the headstones of these early Whittier residents and observe the names and conditions of their grave markers. It was a surreal experience seeing these markers upright and together for the first time since they were removed from their original homes at Mount Olive and Broadway cemeteries.  
Our website will soon be updated with an inventory of the headstones located in Acton.


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