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Sylvan Cemetery celebrates its 160th birthday

File photo, Sylvan Cemetery. // M. Hazlip

By Mike Hazlip—
September marks 160 years since the first burial took place at Sylvan Cemetery on Sept. 4, 1862, hailing back to a time when early settlers were establishing farms in the area.

“It’s something people have to think about when you establish a new community,” said cemetery chairman Jim Monteton. “Two things that they needed: they needed a cemetery and they needed a school house.”

Those early families planned to stay in the area long-term, he said, and had the forethought to set aside land for a cemetery. Monteton’s book “Sylvan Cemetery, A Living History” records the stories of many of those early settlers laid to rest there.

The first burial 160 years ago was a man from Tennessee named James Horton who worked as a farm hand. Horton worked for the Cross family until an unknown illness caused him to lose his eyesight.

Unable to continue working, Horton drank poison to end his life, Monteton said. The Cross family donated the land for a grave site in what was then known as Sylvan District.

The family donated more land over the years, eventually expanding into what is now Sylvan Cemetery in the incorporated City of Citrus Heights. Horton’s grave site can still be seen in the old district of the cemetery.

Related: The tragic story behind Sylvan Cemetery’s first grave

Following the first burial, more grave markers appeared over the years, and by the end of the decade, Civil War soldiers began to move west to escape what Monteton calls “the smell of war.” There are nine Civil War soldiers buried at Sylvan Cemetery, and the organization has worked to restore those grave markers that are nothing more than a metal pipe embedded into the ground with a metal name plate on top.

About 1,400 veterans from all wars are buried at the cemetery, Monteton says. He said more service members are opting for a free burial as more national cemeteries open up, although Sylvan Cemetery still offers a free headstone to veterans.

James Horton grave
Jim Monteton stands next to the grave marker for James Horton, the first person buried at Sylvan Cemetery. // M. Hazlip

In addition to veterans, Monteton said the cemetery is the final resting place for all types of people.

“We try to keep the cemetery a place for people to come to to remember,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of people in the neighborhood who have moved here, and different ethnic groups have moved to town. So it has grown.”

While the organization keeps records of those laid to rest on its grounds, Monteton says some graves leave lingering questions.

“There was a book written one time that says that your life is in the dash,” he said. “That’s the dash between your birth date and death date. Everything you did, everything you enjoyed is all right there on that little short piece of line.”

Monteton recalled a woman who has a Raider helmet cut into her headstone, a husband and wife buried together but only the wife has a headstone, and a six-month-old baby who died during the Great Depression.

“There’s one out there that I always find is the saddest because they died during the Depression and she was only, I think she was about six months old,” he said describing the troubles the family might have had.

The cemetery is a way to preserve the stories of past generations for Monteton, who says he finds consolation in the idea that these people will be remembered by their community.

“It’s sad, but at the same time, it’s part of life, it’s part of the community,” he said. “And I don’t know, I just like the idea that somebody will remember some of these people.”

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