The Blue Plaque Program piques fresh curiosity about Santa Cruz County’s ever-present past
On Saturday, May 7, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) will be holding the 38th Annual Blue Plaque Program (BPP) awards to honor local sites of architectural and historical significance. The plaques themselves, though, are just a hint—a tip-of-the-iceberg insinuation—of the surprising, entertaining, and sometimes shocking stories about these sites that would otherwise stay obscured by the opacity of time.
“It’s really meant to highlight historical structures in town both for architectural and historic reasons,” says Amy Dunning, archivist at the MAH, as she walks slowly between the graves and mausoleums of the Old Holy Cross Cemetery. “It’s the story of our community, it’s beginnings, [and] an understanding of our own neighborhoods and downtown areas throughout the county.”
The BPP has awarded 230 plaques since its inaugural year in 1973. This year they plan to add 10 to that number, awarding plaques to Salz Tannery (The Beam House and The Tanyard), Old Holy Cross Cemetery, The Kunitz House, The Ralph/Willy House, The Johnston Home, The Appleton Hotel, the house at 748 Eureka Canyon (Lemon family), The Lost Weekend/Beauregard Tasting Room, and the Model Electric Home at 145 Miles St.
“We’re trying to pique people’s curiosity,” says Dunning. “There’s only so much information you can fit onto a plaque, but if we can make people notice a building or inquire more about it they can then come to the museum or another source in town and find out more information.”
Old Holy Cross Cemetery is a good example of a local landmark with a very turbulent past that is receiving a Blue Plaque this year. The fairly idyllic setting of the cemetery—green grass dotted with old oaks, perched above Arana Gulch—belies its uniqueness as well as the chaos of its creation.
“This is a very important cemetery because it [had] the first Christian burials in the county,” says Dunning. “Anything that happened from the mission period forward, you’ll find [those] burials here.”
Indeed, the majority of headstones bear birth dates from the mid-1800s. Local road signs share several of the names borne by these tombstones as well. However, the names that are not to be found are equally as intriguing as the ones that are. The original site of the Holy Cross Cemetery was on Mission Hill, where the Holy Cross Church now sits. In 1885, the site was excavated in the process of building the church, exhuming hundreds of graves of Native Americans, immigrants and pioneers in the process.
“In a lot of cases they were put into mass graves [at Old Holy Cross Cemetery] because there were so many unidentified gravesites at the time,” says Dunning.
An excerpt from the “Holy Cross Cemetery General Tour” by local historians Phil Reader and Norman Poitevin paints a more colorful account of the event: “Newspaper accounts reported that wagon load after wagon load was hauled out to the new cemetery and dumped unceremoniously into a large common grave—with no thought given to identification. This common grave is located in the center of Block L, in a large empty area where the grass is always green.”
This also means the Holy Cross Church could be, not unlike the hotel in The Shining, built upon Indian burial grounds (though Dunning suspects the indigenous graves were probably in the area that is now the parking lot).
Taken into account with the fact that Old Holy Cross Cemetery houses a corner for Irish bartenders, a block for nuns and orphans, and is rumored to be haunted by the Arana Gulch Ghost (Jack Sloan, who was gunned down in Arana Gulch by the outlaw Jose Rodriguez on Feb. 11, 1865), suddenly it’s easy to see why the place’s history is due some recognition. Upon closer inspection this is the case with all of the recipients of the Blue Plaque.
The house at 145 Miles St., once known as the Electric Model Home, was the first house west of the Mississippi (yes, really) to receive a Red Seal of Certificate from the New York City Society for Electrical Development.
“It wasn’t until post-World War I in the 1920s that you start seeing the movement toward fully electrified homes,” says Dunning. “So to go see a model home that had all of these electrical appliances in it was really quite an experience for people in the community and they were very proud of it. It sounds silly but it was a big deal—a very big deal.”
The memories of a young woman growing up in another of this year’s recognized sites, the Johnston Home, also tell of the bucolic lifestyle of yore:
“A great family treat was an all day outing to Larkin Valley and my father would rent a horse in Surry from the Livery Sable on Main Street located approximately where the mansion house now stands…”
Then there’s the Appleton Hotel, constructed to withstand the influx of 40,000 people (into a town then of only 4,000) during the Apple Annual in Watsonville, or the ravages of the Diphtheria Epidemic in the 1870s—far too much to cover in an article, or, for that matter, on a small plaque.
However, there are several resources available for the local history buff in the making (like the MAH, for example), and those little blue plaques posted inconspicuously on buildings and sites all over town are a great place to get started.
The Blue Plaque ceremony will take place at the McPherson Center at 1 p.m., Saturday, May 7 at the Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. Learn more at santacruzmah.org. Photo caption: RIP The Blue Plaque awards shed light on the interesting history buried at Old Holy Cross Cemetery.