By LANCE ARMSTRONG, Valley Community Newspapers writer
Last summer, this paper published a two-part series regarding the history of the New Helvetia Cemetery, which was formerly located at the northeast corner of Alhambra Boulevard and J Street (these articles can be read at www.valcomnews.com). And since that time, news about the cemetery continues to find its way into this publication.
In February, for instance, an article appeared in this paper regarding three missing New Helvetia Cemetery markers that were recently discovered in the backyard of an East Sacramento home.
During the 1950s, the old cemetery property was sold and these flat markers were removed from the site in preparation for the construction of Sutter Junior High School – now Sutter Middle School – which had previously operated at 1816 K St.
The whereabouts of many of these markers became unknown during this transition.
In an even earlier moment in the cemetery’s history, the historic tombstones of the cemetery were removed and replaced with the aforementioned flat markers as the cemetery site became known as Helvetia Park.
Until somewhat recently, only one of the original headstones from the cemetery – that of Switzerland native Ersiglio Bonetti (1865-1885) – was known to exist.
That status changed with the February 2010 discovery of an original New Helvetia Cemetery tombstone with the names of four members of the Asch or Ash family.
The journey of the discovery of this tombstone began with Susie (Hofmeister) O’Brien, who is a resident of Oceanside, N.Y.
O’Brien, who was born in Fresno and moved with her family to New York when she was one year of age, said that she had taken an interest in her family’s history through her father’s sister, Ruth (Hofmeister) Maysonaze, who O’Brien described as a “huge genealogy buff.”
“She got me started on this,” O’Brien said. “In (the spring of) 2009, my sisters [Barbara (Hofmeister) Caporaso and Cathy (Hofmeister) Mulqueen] and I came to California for a wedding and in that time, I said, ‘As long as we are there, we have to do a little genealogy trip of Northern California, because both sides of the family are from Northern California.’”
As part of this genealogy trip, O’Brien, who was unaware that the New Helvetia Cemetery no longer existed, attempted to locate the old cemetery in hopes of finding the gravesite of her third great-great-grandparents, John and Barbara Asch.
Because she was unable to locate the cemetery, O’Brien contacted the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery to inquire about the New Helvetia Cemetery.
During her telephone conversation with Lois Dove of the Old City Cemetery Committee, O’Brien was informed by Dove that the cemetery had been closed down and that the remains of her ancestors were moved to the city cemetery in the 1950s.
O’Brien was later sent a brochure about the New Helvetia Cemetery, a copy of an historical photograph of her ancestors’ tombstone and a map of the city cemetery that showed where her ancestors were buried.
Furthermore, the brochure featured the same photograph of the Asch family tombstone on its cover.
The stone includes the names of Baden, Germany immigrants John Asch (1816-1895) and Barbara Asch (1816-1901) and two of their children, the Pennsylvania-born Franz Louis, who died in 1877 at the age of 22, and the Sacramento-born Augusta, who passed away in 1860, when she was two years old.
Although the stone recognizes the spelling of the family’s surname as “Asch,” O’Brien said that all of the other references to this name that she has seen have been spelled, “Ash.”
After uploading a digital copy of the “Asch” tombstone photograph on her family’s ancestry page on the Web site www.ancestry.com, O’Brien received an e-mail message from an Auburn (Placer County) resident, named Louise Pipher, who inquired about her relationship to the Asch family.
O’Brien explained that Pipher eventually told her that she believed that her ancestors’ tombstone was located in Auburn.
“(Pipher) had lived in Auburn for 20 years and she and her husband were going out for dinner on Valentine’s night in 2010,” O’Brien said. “They were driving past this little rock garden circular driveway, right across the street from their house. She tells her husband to back up. She had never noticed in this rock garden this tombstone. She took a picture and sent it to me and it was the middle base (of the tombstone) with the names of the Asch family.”
When asked what her reaction was to finding out about the discovery, O’Brien said, “Wow! They’re talking to me. They wanted to be found.”
O’Brien said that the house on the property with the tombstone was a rental and after attempting for some time to contact the home’s owner, Barbara Clark, in 2011, she sent a letter to the Auburn Police Department and Auburn City Hall stating that she was a benefactor of the headstone.
As a result, Clark, as O’Brien explained, called her and agreed for her to have the stone removed from the property.
O’Brien said that she learned that the stone had been brought to the Auburn property from Sacramento in 1956 by Clark’s stepfather, the late Victor Nation, who was a mason by trade and had a love for antiques. O’Brien added that Clark had no idea how her stepfather acquired the tombstone.
In preparation for the Asch tombstone’s return to Sacramento, Ray Young, manager of the Fair Oaks Cemetery, and Ron Clark, manager of the Sylvan Cemetery in Citrus Heights, dug up the stone free of charge in June 2011.
The stone was then delivered to Ruhkala Monument Co. at 1001 Broadway, where it was restored.
Assisting with the payment of the restoration were O’Brien and a few of her cousins in California, the Old City Cemetery Committee, the Sacramento County Cemetery Advisory Commission and the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Emigrant Trail Chapter (of Auburn), in which Pipher is a member.
O’Brien, who contributed the majority of the funds to have the stone restored, said, “To me, (having the Asch tombstone restored and rededicated) is the least that I could do to pay respect to this couple and their journey to California. And if you look at the stone, you see how important these monuments were. I would like to think they would be proud of me and my persistence to make this happen.”
And in showing his own enthusiasm for the discovery of the Ash tombstone, Dr. Bob LaPerriere, co-chair of the Sacramento County Cemetery Advisory Commission, said, “It was very rewarding, after two decades of being involved with the history of New Helvetia Cemetery, to locate the Asch monument and have relatives from the East Coast involved in its restoration and dedication. This certainly demonstrates what the significance of these memorials can be to the families.”
The rededication of the Asch tombstone will be a significant part of an even larger event at the cemetery.
The June 2 event will begin at noon at the front of the cemetery at 1000 Broadway, where two memorials, which were recently placed at the site through the efforts of the Old City Cemetery Committee, will be dedicated.
These memorials pay tribute to the Reeves and Jurgens families.
Among these family members was John Wesley Reeves (1845-1926), a former coroner and proprietor and superintendent of the New Helvetia Cemetery.
Following the dedication of these family memorials, those in attendance will then proceed to the second of three New Helvetia areas at the city cemetery for the rededications of the Asch and Bonetti monuments, as well as a rededication of the Jane Hall marker.
As presented in the April 5 edition of the East Sacramento News, Hall’s marker was one of three flat gravestones recently discovered in an East Sacramento backyard.
This event will conclude with a short ceremony to remember the other 100-plus people whose remains were relocated to the old city cemetery from the New Helvetia Cemetery.
A granite memorial recognizing these people is intended to be placed at the site in the near future.