On a long flat stretch of Liberty Road, drivers speed past a piece of local history every day.
It doesn’t look like much. A rolling hill covered in wildflowers, bright fireweed, sticky foxtails and natural grasses is all passersby notice until they see a tall black wrought iron gate. Faded white letters spell out “1859 Elliott Cemetery.”
Still, until Saturday morning, visitors had to tramp through the weeds, looking out for rattlesnakes and squirrel holes, to even see one of about 20 grave markers set among towering oak trees and an Italian cypress.
Volunteer firefighter Eric Schneider arrived at 8 a.m. with a weed-whacker, extra lines and enough fuel to last the morning with a determined aim to change that.
The game plan was simple: Clear the tall grasses from around each marker, plot and hidden tree stump. Then use a tractor borrowed from Tony Toledo, who runs a dairy down Elliott Road, to attack the broad swaths of weeds so the grave markers could be seen from the street.
Schneider had a few friends come out to help. Ron Lind of Lodi came out with a weed cutter, a pair of rakes and his stepson Jake. Tim O’Hare, a fellow volunteer with the Liberty Rural County Fire Protection District, turned up, too.
“Anytime I need help on my ranch, Eric’s there helping. When he asked for it in return, it was time to pay it back,” said Lind.
Schneider was pleased to see people out working in the breeze. There was a sense of peaceful renewal in the air, and all the volunteers sensed it as they cut down weeds, raked grass and examined the old headstones.
Local rancher Bill Ward has taken care of the place for 25 years, clearing the weeds each spring, trying to keep the headstones in one piece, and guarding the gates from troublemakers on Halloween.
The habit started when Ward’s brother and father were concerned about the shape the cemetery was in. Old trees were cut, new fences were installed, and locals knew they could find Ward in the cemetery every spring fighting back the weeds.
To Ward, Schneider and Gary Bereth, president of the Galt Historical Society, the cemetery is a place worth fighting for.
“Elliott Cemetery, established in 1859, is the final resting place for area pioneer families. It was once the site of a Methodist church and included a section for the Elliott IOOF Lodge No. 288. This cemetery is the last vestige of the town of Elliott, located 1⁄4 mile to the west,” reads the stone resting at the end of a short path carved out of waist high weeds. It marks the entrance to the 2-acre grounds.
The stone was placed by the families and friends of Elliott Cemetery in the early ’90s. The cemetery is all that remains of a tiny pioneer town. The intersection of Liberty and Elliott Roads is the closest landmark, about a quarter of a mile from the cemetery.
According to an online history of California’s ghost towns, Elliott was originally known as Hawk’s Corners. It was renamed Elliott in 1863 in honor of a pioneer rancher by the same name.
The Methodist Church at the cemetery was built by 1858.
By the 1890s, the town had grown to include several shops, including two saloons, a pair of blacksmith’s shops, a flour mill, a wagon maker and a post office. There was also a schoolroom with three teachers, and an International Order of Odd Fellows Hall.
But in 1902, only the schoolhouse and one store, along with the cemetery, remained active. Members of Ward’s family are buried there.
Today there are no residents, and the local dairy and trucking company are considered part of Galt.
“The saddest thing is that we’re not teaching local California history. Kids today are missing out,” said Bereth.
The cemetery is inactive, because it’s not possible to identify every location that may hold a grave.
“I’m sure there’s a lot more here than they have stones for,” said Ward.
Some graves are unmarked, because the wooden headstones fell prey to wind and weather in the 100 years since they were placed. The best visitors can do is walk softly and quietly.
Of the marble markers that remain, the oldest dates back to 1822. The most recent was added in 1927, according to etchings in the worn stone.
Ward and his wife Victoria are getting on in years, and it’s harder every spring to get the job done.
Bereth knew Schneider had been putting in hours at Glen View Cemetery in Clements.
“If we don’t take care of these, we lose the history,” Bereth said.
He asked the younger volunteer firefighter to help out. Schneider was glad to step up.
“I like to give back to the citizens, give back to my community. That’s the main reason. It’s standard code for firemen,” Schneider said.
Saturday went well. Markers and stumps were cleared of weeds, and about a third of the grasses were mowed down by the end of the day.
Schneider has ideas for more projects. Several worn marble markers have fallen to the ground or broken in pieces due to weather or disrespectful visitors. He wants to have them repaired and supports added to hold them up.
“We want to get these up so people can see them, can read them,” he said.
A few of the aged oak trees have fallen and been reduced to stumps, so those need to be cleared out.
The ground is littered with squirrel and gopher holes. Schneider wants to deter the squirrels and fill in the holes.
In years past, locals would have picnics. But too many people have twisted an ankle in the holes.
“I’m hoping we can bring those back on our clean up days,” he said. “It would be rewarding.”
The final touch? Replacing the daffodil bulbs that were stolen or eaten by gophers.
“My goal is to get a bunch of California wild poppy seeds, and broadcast them all across the front here,” he said, gesturing at the front fence line. “It’s against the law to take those out.”
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.