John Schubert Among Old Graves
Bob Jones remembers a cemetery walk in Guerneville led by Russian River historian John C. Schubert, who passed away on June 6th.
Born in San Francisco in 1938, John C. Schubert, the historian of Guerneville and the Russian River, died on June 6th. He wrote a column “Stumptown Stories” in local papers and published five books including “Guerneville Early Days” and “Tales of the Russian River. Here is his obituary on Legacy.com. Chris Smith wrote the Press Democrat’s obituary: “John Schubert, Sonoma County historian and court bailiff, dies at 83,” which captures the many roles Schubert played in the community. Below, Bob Jones shares a story about John Schubert leading a cemetery tour in Guerneville, which is adapted from Bob’s forthcoming book, “Proud to be a River Rat, Vol II.”
The death of John Schubert last week leaves Guerneville without its beloved historian-in-residence. Nobody cared for a place more than John cared for Guerneville and its people, past and present. For decades, he spent his spare hours setting down the history of this rough and ready lumber town that evolved into a lively resort community over the course of a century or so. His several books, all well researched and full of old pictures, are available in shops throughout the town.
And John could be something of a showman. Dressed formally in top hat and tails in the manner of an old time undertaker, he took us on annual walking tours of the Guerneville Pioneer Cemetery. On a gray Saturday morning a few years ago, I was among those who followed John on a long circling stroll among the graves of our forebears who lie in peace beneath the redwoods on that sacred hillside.
The first grave John stopped to tell us about was the one in which Sam Varner lies. He was Roadmaster of the Redwood District, and died in 1890. We learned that in those days, since all roads were dirt roads, citizens were obliged to volunteer a required number of hours toward their upkeep. That is to say, the law said they had to do it, but they weren’t going to get paid. They either kept up their part of the road, hired someone to do it for them, or paid the county a fee to have it done. The Roadmaster made sure of all this, so it was a big job. There were those who felt their government had gotten too big and intrusive even then, John told us.
Moving on, we were directed to Robert Gorski’s headstone that tells us he died in 1906, the year of the Great San Francisco Earthquake. Records show that the shaking was even worse in Sonoma County than in San Francisco. Gorski was a miner at the quicksilver mine north of Guerneville, and he was in the large bucket by which men were set down into the mine and lifted up out of it. The bucket was being hoisted up the shaft right when the earthquake hit. It dislodged a boulder from a nearby cliff, and that big rock made a perfect shot into the mineshaft where Gorski was standing in the lift bucket. It killed Gorski and another miner on the spot. “Talk about being in the wrong place and the wrong time,” John said.
In a far corner by a huge redwood tree, there’s the grave of Lieutenant Albert Bierce who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. He died in 1914, and was buried in a two-grave plot, the other one reserved for his brother Ambrose, the famous San Francisco writer of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ambrose Bierce was known for a caustic wit often directed against cherished notions. His most famous book, The Devil’s Dictionary, is still widely read, and a new edition is soon to be published. Many of Bierce’s definitions still apply. A typical one goes like this: “Politics: Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”
Ambrose Bierce’s grave in the Guerneville cemetery still awaits him. He became a war correspondent assigned to cover the Mexican Revolution, an assignment that put him with Poncho Villa’s army through many battles. So far as anyone knows, Ambrose Bierce lost his life on that assignment and is buried in Mexico.
Among Schubert’s favorite Guerneville pioneers was David Hetzel. He came to America from Germany about 1860, enlisted in the U. S. Army and was sent off to the Civil War. In the course of his duties, it turns out that Hetzel was assigned to the honor guard for President Lincoln at Gettysburg. Live and in person, he heard the famous address Lincoln delivered there. Schubert said he learned from David’s son Jack that, as his father remembered it, Lincoln did not emphasize the prepositions, “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as we say it today, but he emphasized the word people.
After the war, he came west to Guerneville where he grew some of the finest tobacco in the country right here along the Russian River. He won the prize for best tobacco at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, won another prize in the Portland Exhibition, and took the Gold Medal in the California State Fair. He died in 1930 at age ninety.
David’s son Jack, whom many of us knew, learned to play the clarinet by practicing long hours in his father’s tobacco shop in Guerneville. We were told that people stood by the shop to hear Jack play his clarinet even if they weren’t interested in buying tobacco. Later, Jack wrote an important instruction book for clarinet and saxophone and went on to write and produce musical shows for the Bohemian Club. Jack died in 1984, and is buried near his father.
Schubert singled out John and Ellen Bagley for special praise. Not only did John Bagley get the U. S. Postal Office established in Guerneville in 1870, but when Postal officials wanted to know what to call the new post office, Bagley told them to name it in honor of his friend and business partner George Guerne. Had he been a more self serving man, the town might very well have been named Bagleyburg.
Shubert let us know that Bagley ‘s wife Ellen wrote a column for the local newspaper for fifteen years, recording who was born, who died, who got crushed by a falling redwood tree, who got a hand cut off in the mill, who got gored by an ox, and so on, the tough stories of those tough times. Without Ellen Bagley’s writings, Schubert said, his voice trembling with gratitude, it would be all but impossible to know the early history of the lower Russian River.
And so we came to the final grave Schubert had time to tell about that day. It is unmarked, and nobody knows who lies there. But from a column by Ellen Bagley written in 1883, we know that a gray haired man of perhaps sixty years made himself a bed of twigs and blankets out in the woods, laid himself down for the night, and never woke up. His body was discovered some months later, and in his pockets were cobbler’s tools. He was buried in lot 190, plot number 3. Schubert called him simply The Cobbler.
John Schubert was a good guy, a good friend, and a great chronicler of “Yesterday and Yesteryear.” For John it was a labor of love, and the way he went about it helped us realize that history can be both fascinating and fun.
Bob Jones wrote “Keeping the Faith”, a column in local weeklies for fifty years. He was pastor of the Guerneville and Monte Rio Community Churches for twenty years, living in Guerneville since 1966. His column appeared in Sonoma West Times and News for its entire run. A former editor told him that “‘Keeping the Faith’ can be whatever catches my interest, and that’s what it’s been,” said Bob.