Historical Society’s Cemetery Tour: Where the dead tell their tales

Don’t be afraid.

That’s a big part of the message put out by the Historical Society of Long Beach regarding its 23rd edition of its annual Historical Cemetery Tour, which emerges from its mausoleum, with its creaky doors swinging open to the public at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27.

It’s a lot to ask, to not be afraid when you see someone your great-grandparent’s age virtually tunnel up from the grave to tell you what life was like back during the Depression. Again. Do you accept that with interest, or do you sprint up Signal Hill screaming in terror?

The Historical Society insists you keep your calm and listen to the yarns springing up from beneath the daisies.

The key part of the tour are the graveside presentations by professional and volunteer actors dressed in period costumes and giving first-person accounts of the lives of the no-longer-living. Some were kingmakers who shaped the city’s politics, some are regular folks who nevertheless have interesting stories to tell about their unheralded lives. Some were rich, some poor; some famous, some forgotten. Each with a story to tell.

Among those called back from the grave for a encore performance in this year’s tour are:

  • Amanda and Abram Cleag, who were born into slavery on a Tennessee plantation, share-cropped in Texas after emancipation and eventually settled in Long Beach to avoid the wild town of L.A.
  • Arthur Branson, who left Kansas for Long Beach in 1891 and became one of the first employees of the city’s water department, where he witnessed the developments that led to the discovery of oil on Signal Hill.
  • Cora Morgan, a political activist and advocate of women’s rights in the early 1900s and who knew every dirty secret of city politicians — enough, according to the Los Angeles Times, to “rock the boat hard enough to cause it to capsize.”
  • Otis and Agnes Hoyt, who were about to sit down to dinner in their Naples home when the March 10, 1933 earthquake hit. Within an hour, Otis, a Long Beach police officer, was patrolling Pine Avenue stopping looters and protecting the citizenry from falling debris.
  • Capt. Alberto de Ruiz, the first Latino graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He helped Long Beach get its port in the location it wanted it.
  • Ethel Broadwick who, in 1913 became a wing-walker on planes that flew over the Pike.
  • Harold Wildman, an architect who, from 1923 through the 1960s designed several homes, schools, and commercial buildings in the mid-century style. He’ll be joined by his wife Christine, who worked at the Long Beach Dairy for more than 30 years.
  • Newell Stearns, who married Olive, his high-school sweetheart in 1914. Olive’s mother disapproved of the marriage and kidnapped her daughter and Newell went on to a series of careers and wives.

The Historical Society of Long Beach can’t stress this enough: There is nothing scary about the vignettes or the location.

Well, there’s the matter of location: the twin, side-by-side boneyards of the Long Beach Municipal Cemetery and the Sunnyside Cemetery. While some may find a cemetery a calm space suitable for quiet reflection, others may find it macabre and, OK, scary.

But, again, don’t be afraid. There’s plenty of additional fun around the resting grounds: lots of historical presentations, memorabilia, books, food and snacks, crafts and more. You can have a good time without even listening to one dead politician talk about how many men he crushed on his way to the top.

The Cemetery Tour is the Historical Society of Long Beach’s main fundraising event, and every year it draws more than 1,000 people.

While the gates open at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, the performances begin at 9 a.m. and run through 2:40 p.m.

Pre-sale ticket prices at the society are $20; $15 for society members; $8 for youths 5-18; and $1 for kids 4 and younger and can be purchased here. Tickets at the gate are $25. You’ll find the cemeteries at 1095 E. Willow St. in Long Beach.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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