At the Academy Cemetery east of Clovis, there are no manicured, green lawns. Golden brown grass encircles the grave-covered knoll, and tough oaks take root in the hard ground. Chimes twinkle in the hot morning sun.
Saturday morning, a new memorial will join the rugged landscape amid the foothills. Descendants of the original families will come to see the dedication of the slab of unpolished Academy granite that honors the pioneer grit that formed the backbone of the nearby community and the Valley.
Anna Herrera, Clovis Cemetery District manager, said that 10 or 15 years ago, someone vandalized the cemetery, so the Academy community raised money for repairs. After deliberating on a worthy use for the remaining money, the district decided to create the memorial.
I don’t know any place where the dead people would have a better view than those buried in Academy.
Charles W. Baley, 94
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Herrera gushes about the cemetery’s history and the legacy of those whose remains are there.
Her favorite story is of Gillum Baley, a judge at the Millerton Courthouse. His son, Leach (named after a famous Fresno County doctor) died in an epidemic. Leach was buried in his family’s plot, and Gillum laid brick by hand around the grave. It remains today, relatively undisturbed.
“Where can you go and look at that brick? … I can know that Leach’s father, by his own hands, did that, and it’s still there, it’s relatively undisturbed” Herrera says. “That’s amazing. And to know that the hands that put that brick there came out on a wagon train. And like I said, they did not ride in the wagon train, they walked.”
She’s amazed by the pioneers’ toughness and their lasting contributions to the Valley.
“When you think, my gosh, everything they endured, their toughness, you can understand why we ended up with the greatest generation. You can look to law enforcement, education, agriculture – they were all a part of the early foundations of what we have today.”
The pioneers, such as Charles W. Baley’s great-grandparents, William Right and Nancy Funderburk Baley, were sturdy like the nearby oaks and rugged like the ground in which they are interred.
Family history says the Baleys, who hailed from northwestern Missouri, journeyed on foot using the trail that would someday be part of Route 66 as they headed to California with the Rose-Baley wagon train in 1859. Along the way, three of their children died and were buried, and Mojave Indians attacked and killed their cattle. When their daughter, Sarah Margaret, married John Simpson, a man with some land in the foothills, they decided to move nearby.
At the time, the Academy Colony had no cemetery. When their 10-year-old son, Benjamin Baxter Baley, died, the nearest burial options – Fort Millerton and Centerville cemeteries – were a day’s carriage ride away. They couldn’t stand another faraway, lonely, unattended grave, so they buried young Benjamin on an oak-studded knoll on the Simpsons’ property, which became the Academy Cemetery.
As the years passed, the oaks witnessed the burials of Academy colonists, judges, constables, county assessors, prominent businessmen and cattlemen. Familiar names like Baird, Sample, Simpson, Armstrong, Musick, Cole and Bacon were hand-chiseled into marble and Academy granite headstones.
Charles W. Baley, 94, wrote a book about his family’s perilous trip, titled “Disaster at the Colorado.” He has studied his family’s history and the Academy Colony extensively. He says the population of the colony was always in flux because of gold mining and eventually the railroad. But even when colonists moved away, they asked to be buried at the beloved Academy Cemetery.
“I think it had historical connotations. It’s sort of unique,” Baley says, offering an explanation. “It’s on this little oak-studded knoll there that stands out. You get a wonderful view there. I don’t know any place where the dead people would have a better view than those buried in Academy. Most cemeteries have lawns and are watered and so forth. This one is in a wild state.”
The cemetery isn’t organized by modern standards. Herrera says her records are only as good as the records kept before her, and she continues to find unmarked graves (many families couldn’t afford marble or granite, and marked their loved ones with wood markers, which burned away during wildfires).
One comes for answers to a place like this and finds even in the darkness, even in the sudden flooding of the headlights, that in time one comes to be a stranger to nothing.
Philip Levine, former Fresno State professor, “The Cemetery at Academy, California”
But the cemetery follows an older order rooted in Western tradition.
▪ All the dead face east: According to the Bible, Jesus Christ will come from the east during the second coming, so family members want the dead to rise and see him first.
▪ Women are buried at their husbands’ left sides: During the wedding ceremony, from the minister’s angle, the groom is to the left of the bride.
Jodie Simpson Everett, 82, is the great-granddaughter of Sarah and John Simpson. She and her daughter, Cammy Varazani, 52, have driven 200 miles from Sherman Oaks in Southern California for the memorial dedication.
She loves the simple, sweet, peaceful cemetery because her family’s roots are there and that’s where most of her family is buried.
“It’s always been a wonderful, peaceful cemetery with oak trees – rustic,” Everett said. “It’s perfect for Academy, and I hope it stays that way.”
If you go
- What: Memorial dedication
- Where: Academy Cemetery on Mendocino Avenue, east of Clovis off of Highway 168
- When: 10 a.m. Saturday, July 16