Mary Bullwinkel, Beacon Correspondent

Grave Matters and Untimely Departures this weekend in Fortuna will bring to life untold stories of historic characters who once called the Eel River Valley and southern Humboldt County their homes.

The event is the brainchild of Erin Dunn, executive director of the Fortuna Chamber of Commerce, and Ross Rowley, interim chair of the Fortuna Cemetery District, and this year is the third annual ghostly gathering at Sunrise Cemetery in Fortuna.

The public can participate in a 50-minute trip into the past this coming Sunday by visiting the Fortuna Sunrise Cemetery and learning about nine local residents who lived decades ago and are buried at the Cemetery. Local actors will play the parts of the characters.

There's Per Nelson (played by actor Bill Ryder), an immigrant from Sweden who worked at the Eel River Valley Lumber Company's mill in Newburg. He retired from the mill when he was approximately 50 years old, purchased a small farm near Fortuna, and then died about five years later from a broken neck in a fall from his own hayloft. That was in September 1917. Per was an inventor who held several patents including one for a combination bread-slicer and breadbox.

The public will also have an opportunity to meet A. Ivanov, a character played by local actor Brian Walker. Ivanov was a 40-something-year-old man who worked for the Pacific Lumber Company, but no one seemed to know him personally.


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He had a foreign accent and there was a rumor he once had been an officer in the Russian army. He took his own life in July 1927 at the Dante Hotel in Wildwood (Rio Dell).

Yet another resident at the Sunrise Cemetery in Fortuna who will come to life this weekend is Alfred Payne, played by actor Jim Willits. In May 1926 the Humboldt Standard newspaper reported that Alfred Payne was the victim of “one of the bloodiest murders in Humboldt County's history.” His body was found hidden behind a redwood log in the forest just north of Dyerville. During his life Payne was fascinated by the paranormal and apparently made regular attempts to contact the spirits of the dead. Grave Matters attendees will find out what really happened that sunny spring morning near Dyerville.

Fortuna resident Don Brown will play the part of Ed Whitchurch and will greet guests and tell them of his role in Fortuna history. Other cast members for the 2012 Grave Matters event will include:

-- America Jane Moore Elliott Burge Cameron, played by actor Kathleen Marshall. As a child she was part of one of the earliest wagon trains to California. She was also a businesswoman, and divorced not once but three times. During the breakup with her third husband, she chased him off the farm at gunpoint.

-- Silas Beezley, played by actor Rigel Schmitt. In 1832 when he was 21 years old, he fought in the Black Hawk War, a conflict between Native Americans and settlers on the Illinois Frontier. He was a farmer in the Blocksburg area.

-- Vera Linser, played by actor Megan Johnson. She was 18 when she died of spinal meningitis, the night before she was to perform the leading role in the high school musical.

-- Martha Gould, played by actor Shannon Daily. She worked as a laundress in her Shively home to support her family.

-- Sewell Lufkin, played by actor Michael McClimon. He was an early member of the Scotia Band and was in the Fortuna High School band that performed at the grand opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937.

Rowley said the proceeds from this unique fundraising event will benefit the Fortuna Cemetery District, which manages seven cemetery properties.

”This is such a great fund-raiser for Fortuna's Cemetery District because it not only raises money, it also raises awareness of our area history,” Rowley said. “Grave Matters has become valuable in countless ways to our community and it gives residents the chance to visit the cemetery and experience it as a memorial garden,” he added. 

Tickets to the event are $15 per person and may be purchased in advance at the Fortuna Chamber of Commerce or the day of the event at the Newburg Park parking lot. Parking is available at Newburg Park where shuttles will transport patrons to and from the Cemetery beginning at 1:30 p.m. No vehicles are allowed in the Cemetery during the performance.

The first tour begins at 2 p.m. and the final “flashlight” tour will leave at 5:30 p.m. Each tour runs approximately 50 minutes and participants are encouraged to wear comfortable shoes. The event will take place rain or shine, and if it does rain, Rowley added with a smile, “We won't let it dampen our spirits.”

photo caption:

Photo by Mary Bullwinkel/Beacon

Actor Kathleen Marshall portrays America Jane Moore Elliott Burge Cameron during a dress rehearsal for the 2012 Grave Matters and Untimely Departures event taking place Oct. 28 at the Fortuna Sunrise Cemetery