Unmarked graves spark curiosity

When Pat Ogden commented on Greg Kyllo’s facebook page on the Chinese presence in Salmon Arm things happened

When Pat Ogden commented on Greg Kyllo’s facebook page on the Chinese presence in Salmon Arm things happened.  Phone calls started, emails were sent. Could the Mt. Ida Cemetery be nominated for Heritage BC’s Chinese Historic Places Recognition Project?

Pat’s suggestion came with credence.  Pat is a Hopkins from Piccadilly Road. She grew up here, is keen about family history, and is working on a publication on the Mt. Ida District.  She’s related to almost everyone out in the Salmon Valley. Every family, that is, that has been there for four or five generations.

Pat had been on one of my cemetery tours. She remembered a reference to the Chinese section of unmarked graves. I had told the crowd that in the 1960s the graves were marked by wooden sticks with Chinese characters on them.

Don Byers had told me about the markers, remembering a time when he worked for the District Municipality of Salmon Arm. He had attended my first cemetery tour.  Don was also a Salmon Arm Museum board member. He was probably checking on me to make sure I was getting my facts straight! Don showed me where the graves were and his story was incorporated into the tour. Don passed away last year.

The graves Don pointed out were thought to be those of Chinese people who wanted their bones exhumed and sent back to China. Unfortunately their wishes were never fulfilled. In 1937, the last shipment of bones went to China. The outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War made more shipments impossible. Our deceased Chinese visitors became permanent residents.

Ted Reynolds, another District of Salmon Arm retired employee, also remembered the graves, though not the location. He knew they had had stick markers with characters on them, not how many or where they were.

Tony Fryer, the former caretaker at the Mt. Ida Cemetery knew about the graves as well.  Tony took over the job after his parents, Wayne and Eleanor, retired and cared for the cemetery for 31 years.  Tony pointed out the “Chinese” graves on a map. They were depressions without headstones. Tony told me recently that he didn’t fill them in because there was no record of who was buried there. Respecting the sinking land as evidence was Tony’s way of remembering that there were bodies interred in the ground below.

There’s a community-held memory of the cemetery records being lost in a fire.  The story has come from several sources. Logically, the records would have been kept in town, not at the cemetery, either at City Hall located on Shuswap St. or with the record keeper for the District of Salmon Arm.  The two organizations had separated in 1912 when the City of Salmon Arm was formed. Some say the argument was over taxes, water, sewer, fire protection, and sidewalks. The fight wasn’t over the cemetery. Both municipal “bodies” shared cost of maintenance and upkeep. The plot of land on Foothills served the whole community.

Trying to figure out the truth about the fire is not easy. The District Municipality didn’t have a permanent meeting place until the little brick building was built on Hudson in 1928. Records could have been stored where the meetings were held: over the Palmer Store, in the Bank of Hamilton, in the Agricultural Hall, and in the Exchange Building.  Those buildings did not burn prior to 1928. Were the records stored in the basement of the public school that burned down in 1917? No one can say for sure.

Whether or not the records were destroyed in a fire, no one knows for sure who resides in these ten plots at the Mt. Ida Cemetery known as the “Chinese graves.”  The sticks rotted away, community memory has been forgotten. Or has it? Contact the Museum at 250-832-5243 if you can help.

-Deborah Chapman is the curator for the Salmon Arm Museum at R.J. Haney Heritage Park.


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