Ask Me: Small cemetery recalls Madera County history

The Fresno BeeSeptember 21, 2013 

Question: I occasionally drive by a small cemetery on Avenue 12 in Madera County that has only a few headstones. What is its history?

-- Carolyn Nixon, Fresno

Answer: The 1-acre private cemetery at Avenue 12 and Road 28 1/4 is the Borden Chinese Cemetery, created in 1872 for Chinese laborers who built the Central Pacific Railroad through Madera County.

About 2,500 Chinese workers lived in a tent city near the town of Borden, named for Dr. Joseph Borden, a prominent citizen in the surrounding Alabama Colony.

About 200 men were buried in the cemetery between 1902 and 1933, according to a list compiled from death certificates, newspaper articles and funeral records.

Chinese immigrants often wanted their bodies to be returned to China after they died, and many of those originally buried in the Borden cemetery were sent home.

At least 20 bodies are believed to remain in the cemetery; one source lists as many as 34. Their occupations included merchants, laundrymen, gardeners, laborers, cooks, and at least one student. The men died from a variety of illnesses, but cook Yeng Sing Wah died in a fire that destroyed his restaurant. Wo Yuen, born around 1823, died simply of "old age" in 1908.

Most original grave markers were made of wood and deteriorated over the years. Only about seven graves are marked today. A granite historical marker was placed at the cemetery in 1966.

Question: What is the history of the Melody Diner at Divisadero and H streets that was half streetcar and half diner?

-- Doreen Phillips, Fresno

Answer: A café called The Diner opened in a former streetcar at Divisadero and H streets in about 1926, serving motorists along Highway 99, which in those days ran in front of the café.

In 1940, owner Robert W. Upright built a tavern attached to the streetcar. In 1953 owner Al Bremer sold the restaurant to Grant Koolcanian and Paul Hagopian, who renamed it the Melody Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge.

In 1959, Koolcanian and Hagopian built a new restaurant. The streetcar went to a ranch in Madera County and the tavern addition was torn down, according to a Fresno Bee story.

The Melody served lunch and dinner, including its specialty, lamb shish kebab. In 1971, dinner prices ranged from $2.50 to $5.25. Hagopian said at the time that the lamb, which was locally farmed, was marinated in olive oil, burgundy wine and "some other things we like to keep to ourselves."

Question: There is an old stagecoach stop halfway between Raymond and Mariposa named Ben Hur. How did it get its name?

-- Ron Kerner, Fresno

Answer: The small town was named Ben Hur in 1890 when a post office was opened, and there are two explanations for the origins of the name.

A 1922 Fresno Morning Republican story said the town was named "quite a while ago when the book 'Ben Hur' was one of the six best sellers." But a 1975 Fresno Bee story said Ben Hur was not inspired by Lew Wallace's novel but was the name of a powerful and legendary stallion used in teams that pulled stagecoaches between Raymond and Mariposa.

About 1912, the Ben Hur post office was moved to the 3,000-acre Quick Ranch. The post office closed in the 1950s.

More about: After the answer about William J. Biehle's grocery store ran on Sept. 8, Beihle's grandson, Steve Biehle of Visalia, and his cousin, Vallorie Biehle Borchardt of Fresno, sent emails with memories of the store.

Biehle bought North Fresno Grocery in 1915 from George Van Buskirk, Borchardt said.

In 1921, Biehle bought the Bullard Land School building next door, she said, building on bedrooms and a kitchen before he married his wife, Mary, in 1922. The new Bullard Elementary School was built at Shaw and Palm avenues.

Borchardt said Biehle went to work for the Fresno County Water District after the store burned down in the 1940s.

Steve Biehle said that when the store was burning, "the only thing my grandfather carried out was the National Cash Register, which I still have."

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to askpaulalloyd@yahoo.com or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.

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