Phyllis Butcher Wainwright
At Rest in the Alhambra Cemetery She Helped Preserve
By Harriett Burt
Editor’s Note: The recent passing of Phyllis Butcher Wainwright at the age of 94 draws attention to her unflagging work in the last three decades of her life to preserve and restore Alhambra Cemetery – just one of many achievements of the granddaughter of pioneer resident and businessman James Rankin. This edition of the Newsletter features a short review of the Cemetery and those who brought it back from neglect and degradation. It is based mainly on a brief history of the rise, decline and restoration of the Cemetery written in 1979 by Martinez City Historian, the late Charlene McRae Perry. Future issues will focus on the history of the Rankin/Butcher/Wainwright family’s life in Martinez and their contributions to our town.
Martinez owes the late Phyllis Wainwright a great deal. The granddaughter of prominent businessman James Rankin after whom Rankin Park is named, Phyllis was in the first class to graduate from Martinez Junior High School and was a member of Alhambra High School class of 1934. She was the first woman to be elected to the local school board and a charter member of Martinez Branch of AAUW, as well as the mother of four, an elementary teacher and an ardent supporter of Martinez and the preservation of its history. But for the last three decades of her life, she dedicated her time and energy to saving and restoring a community treasure that had been nearly lost by neglect and indifference.
Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery was the first official burial site to be established in Contra Costa County. In 1854 William B. Holliday and John Livingston bought five acres of the Juana Martinez Estudillo property at a Sheriff’s tax sale. Among the first to be buried on the hillside site was Holliday’s brother who died of tuberculosis. His interment was followed in October, 1854 by that of the city’s founder and Juana Estudillo’s brother-in-law, Col. William Smith who took his own life in a spell of depression caused in part by a dispute with the Martinez family. Succeeding generations of Contra Costa community founders and business and government leaders made their last journey up the hill to the cemetery overlooking the beautiful Carquinez Strait/Suisun Bay.
From 1869 to 1969, the Cemetery was managed by an Association which sold the plots and arranged for maintenance. Ladies of the town held bake sales and other fundraisers to pay for fencing the five acres and building a water supply by drilling a well and erecting a windmill. The large round horse trough cistern is still intact although no longer used for storing water.
When the last Association member died in 1969, the cemetery, which by that time had been supplemented by larger sites around central county, was more or less abandoned and ignored by all but vandals. Without any maintenance, undergrowth had made the paths between family plots all but impassable. It was hard to imagine what Phyllis remembered vividly from her childhood --- that each Memorial Day in the 1920s the site became the center of Martinez as veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War I were cheered by local residents who gathered to honor them.
The wake up call came in 1976 when the State of California informed the City of Martinez that the land would be seized for back taxes. By coincidence, at the same time a heightened interest in preserving what remained of the City’s early history was occurring. Al and Charlene Perry were petitioning the City, the County and the Community College District to save the Borland home downtown and organizing the Martinez Historical Society which attracted dozens of volunteers to help with the restoration when the City and the Community College District reached an agreement over the site thanks in part of then Mayor John Sparacino and the City Council.
The threat to the cemetery roused Phyllis and like-minded preservationists Harriet Jones Greene, Charlene Perry, Salvador Bellecci, and Anna Maderos Olson to prevail upon the City to acquire the property and create a cemetery commission to explore ways to save the property from total destruction.
The five persuasive citizens became the first members of the Commission and they wasted no time in launching ‘resuscitation’ efforts. Although there was some City funding and later money from trust funds left by two citizens, a lot of the maintenance and restoration had to be done by volunteers. A novel and very effective “Adopt a Pioneer Gravesite” program was established awarding a short history and certificate to anyone who agreed to visit the cemetery twice a year to care for their adopted pioneer gravesite.
Also faithful attendees at the semi-annual ‘clean ups’ are members of Joaquin Murietta Chapter #13 of E Clampus Vitus, the dedicated and enthusiastic society of Gold Rush history preservationists. Member John Wilson told the Martinez News-Gazette after her death that he first met Phyllis when she put a notice in the newspaper seeking gravesite adoptors. “We said that’s a good idea and we joined Phyllis for work parties. She was the one that got us all started working at the Alhambra Cemetery – we’d call her up and say, ok, what do you want done?’ She was very friendly and good-natured. I knew Phyllis in her later life. She was passionate about the Pioneer Cemetery and quite a pillar in the community. She served the community in many ways and Martinez will miss her.”
Among the projects undertaken by the Clampers over the years are road and path repair, graveling walkways, laying water pipe and repairing gravestones. They also take care of their own adopted pioneer site. Their work has been supplemented by a series of Eagle Scout projects from local Boy Scout troops.
Phyllis served as chairperson of the Commission from 1980 to 2009. In 1989, she received the Individual Preservationist of the Year award from the state Council of California Historical Societies – the highest honor in California for local history work. Her colleague, Charlene McRae Perry, had received the award a few years earlier for her work not only on the cemetery but on Martinez history in general.
The Rankin family plot, much easier to find today than it would have been when Phyllis and her colleagues took on a task that must have seemed herculean 30 plus years ago, will be opened briefly to receive her remains for a rest well-deserved. And city residents, more conscious in the past 40 years of our unique heritage in Contra Costa County, have visible proof of that in Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery because of Phyllis and her Cemetery Commission colleagues past and present.