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Love lives on in Calistoga's Pioneer Cemetery

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Tales told in cemeteries conjure up thoughts of Halloween or ghost stories, but on Valentine’s Day this year a walk through Pioneer Cemetery was all about love, not spooks.

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Rachel Melick shares 'Great Love Stories of Calistoga' in Pioneer Cemetery

Rachel Melick, center, pointing, points out the headstone of John and Lovina Cyrus who are buried together in Pioneer Cemetery.

“For some reason I thought it would be neat to highlight some of the ‘Love Stories’ in the Pioneer Cemetery and what better day to do this than Valentine’s Day,” said Calistoga Recreation Manager Rachel Melick, who led the “Great Love Stories of Calistoga” walk on Wednesday. About 20 people traversed the uneven cemetery to hear the stories.

“I’ve always thought it would be neat to do a cemetery walk, my grandmother took me to a bunch when I was little and have liked them ever since. I have also always been very interested in history and throughout my childhood and teen years studied the Donner-Reed Party and California history quite a bit,” Melick said.

And when she heard that there were Donner-Reed Party descendants buried in the cemetery, she pursued the history and the Valentine’s Day concept by working with Kathy Bazzoli, board member of Sharpsteen Museum and local historian who did the research and provided the background for the stories Melick told in the cemetery on Wednesday.

“Calistoga history is alive and well at Pioneer,” Bazzoli said. “Many of the Cyrus family are there (Lovina Graves Cyrus was a survivor of the Donner-Reed Party), as well as Civil War veterans.”

The Cyrus family love story was just one of the stories Melick shared.

“The coolest thing I’ve learned through this process is how rich and varied Calistoga’s history is. From pioneers that traveled in one of the most iconic group of pioneers, to Europeans that relocated and were involved in the early days of winemaking, to finally a woman who was proposed marriage by Abraham Lincoln,” Melick said. “It’s been awesome to read their stories and have a glimpse of what early life was like in Calistoga and how they essentially started this quirky little town.”

The woman who turned down Lincoln’s marriage proposal was Susan Reid, the subject of Melick’s first story. With the group gathered around the gravesite, Melick read the story about how Reid was born in Mason County, Kentucky to a well-to-do farmer and his wife. Her father befriended a young man with whom he felt a political kinship and who would later propose marriage. But Reid did not love this man, Abraham Lincoln, and turned down his proposal.

She later married William Putnam Boyce, with whom she had three children. They moved to Calistoga after living in Texas, Placerville and Knights Valley. William was elected to the office of Constable and also held the office of Deputy Sheriff for three consecutive terms.

Susan was known for her quilt work, and while living in Calistoga she made a prize quilt made in the “Touching Star” pattern. By way of passing this quilt through descendants, it was donated in 2015 to the Sharpsteen Museum, where it is now on permanent display.

There was also the story of a Danish couple who survived an enemy occupation of their homeland and an ocean-wide separation before they would again be together.

In Denmark, Lorenz Petersen, born on Feb. 15, 1843, grew up with Maria Catherina Ipsen, who was born Feb. 17, 1846, and they fell in love. But in 1864 when the Allied German and Austrian forces advanced into their lives in Schleswig, their lives changed.

Petersen fled to avoid conscription into the German Army and wound up sailing for several years in and out of ports all around the world, navigating Cape Horn five times. He never gave up on Ipsen writing to her regularly.

Petersen, by July 1870, had finally saved enough money to send for Ipsen – it cost him $128.48 in gold – to come to America and become his wife. They were married in October that year and through a series of financial and personal hardships found their way to Calistoga and purchased a 160-acre ranch in the foothills three miles west of Calistoga.

Here they planted, apples, peaches, cherries and apricots, pears, figs, olives, and grapes. Acres were cleared and vineyards of Zinfandel, Carignon, Alicante, Burgher and Malvasia were planted.

Perhaps one of the more famous names associated with historic Calistoga is that of the Cyrus family and their trek across the country with the ill-fated Donner-Reed Party.

John Cyrus, born March 20, 1831 and died Dec. 5, 1891, and his wife Lovina Graves Cyrus, born July 3, 1834 and died July 27, 1906, are buried together in Pioneer Cemetery. Lovina — “Lovina is pronounced with a long ‘I’ sound. Close friends and family called her ‘Vine,’” Bazzoli said – now has a restaurant named after her; the former Calistoga Kitchen at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Cedar Street.

“The family homestead is located at the bottom of the Petrified Forest turnoff. Cyrus Creek runs through that property to this day. Descendants of John and Lovina can still be found in Napa and Sonoma counties,” Bazzoli said. “The Sharpsteen Museum displays the large cast iron pot carried over the Sierras by Lovina’s family as well as the bookcase, books and spectacles of John Cyrus which he brought west in 1846.”

It was in 1846 that the Cyrus and Graves families headed west from Illinois with John, then 15, known to have already taken a liking to Lovina, 12. Each traveled with their respective families, though due to the slow-moving nature of wagon train travel of the day, crossing rivers and mountains, they were not always in close proximity. They were able to see each other from time to time, and when Lovina’s family was among those trapped in the Sierra Mountains during a harsh winter storm, John volunteered in the first relief party. He would find Lovina alive and they would marry in June of 1856.

They lived and raised their children in Calistoga; six children born, “one died, sadly,” Melick said.

“I hope others are able to enjoy learning about the varied and rich past as well. I think it is unique to live in a town where the roots run this deep and you still have descendants that are directly linked to some of these families. I also hope they gain an appreciation for these types of cemeteries, because they are truly special,” Melick said.

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The Weekly Calistogan Editor