Historical Figures

Every community has its share of historical figures and characters – both famous and infamous.  And, since death is 100 percent, more likely than not they end up buried in the local cemetery. (Those not buried in the local cemetery end up being shipped out to a family cemetery somewhere else.) 

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This is just a few of the famous and persons of notoriety who are buried at Union Cemetery.  Some are – or were – famous nationally, while others are either locally famous or colorful characters.

Historical Figures

Frances E. (Donner) Wilder (1840-1921)
Frances was one of five daughters of Capt. George Donner, of the ill-fated Donner party which tried crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range during an early winter.  This led to the deaths of many of the party’s members.  Frances was nearly seven in 1846 when 29 men, 15 women, 43 children, 23 ox-drawn wagons became stranded in an area near where what is now known as Donner Lake along Interstate 80.  Infamous for reports of cannibalism, the party was found by “Snowshoe” Thompson, a Norseman living at Sutter’s Fort in what is now Sacramento.  Frances and her sisters were taken to safety with the first rescue party.  However, a during a second rescue attempt revealed that many of those left behind had died. Later, Frances married William R. Wilder in 1858 and the settled in a farm in the Point of Timber area.  Eventually, a portion of that District would become the Town of Byron.  Two of Frances’ grandsons, Delmar and Donner Wilder lived their entire lives in the small community.   Both also have been laid to rest in Union Cemetery.

Richard R. Veale (1864-1937) 
Richard Veale arrived in the Eden Plains region with his family at the age of 4 in 1868.  He became a prominent farmer as a young man and is credited with being the first person in the area to use modern methods; such as the steam plow and harvesters.  Prior to steam, work had been done with large “gangs” of workers. He was elected as Contra Costa County Sheriff in 1894 when the region was stilled untamed.  He served until 1934, a record for the longest continuous service of any sheriff in the United States.  Following that reign, he was elected Contra Costa County Treasurer in 1934, but served only 3 of his 4-year term, having died in 1937.

Tobe LeGrande (years unknown)
Tobe LeGrande was elected as Byron’s constable in 1896, a position he held for more than 30 years. On December 20, 1902, one of the most disastrous train wrecks in California history occurred in Byron.  The Owl Limited, bound for Los Angeles from Oakland, developed a leaking tube in the locomotive’s boiler, causing escaping steam.  That in turn threatened to extinguish the boiler fire.  The train labored to a standstill in Byron.  Meanwhile, the Stockton Flyer, a behind-schedule commuter train, was speeding down the tracks, rear-ending the Owl’s last coach and then traveling six feet into the dining car.  The impact killed 27 passengers and injured many more.  Before the “wrecking train” could reach Byron, townsmen were cutting their way into the wreckage and carrying out the injured.  Tobe was seen clambering over the tangled mound of iron and steel to carry a child to safety.

On March 5, 1923, seven buildings on Byron’s Main Street were destroyed by a fire that started in Manuel Rodrick’s barber shop.  Two young men were horsing around and knocked over a gasoline heater.  Tobe happened to be entering the building at the time, and grabbed the heater, intending to throw it into the street.  It exploded, however, and engulfed Tobe in flames.  A bystander smothered the flames with his own overcoat.  That day, seven buildings burned down, including the LeGrande Barber shop.

During the prohibition years, 1920 to 1932, Byron’s three saloons stayed open as billiard halls.  Rumor had it that a regular patron could purchase bootleg whiskey by the drink, if the bartender knew him.  Local law enforcement was aware of the illegal transactions, but looked the other way; the word was out that Constable LeGrande and Judge Krumland were two of the tavern’s best customers.

Not many people know where Tobe LeGrande’s grave is located as it is marked with a “temporary” marker.  That marker keeps “sinking” into the ground, until the next time it is found and leveled.  His grave, which is located in the oldest part of the cemetery, is just west of, and across the street from the Cemetery’s pump house.

Simon Taylor Barkely (1847-1941)
Simon Barkely was born and raised in Iowa. He came to California to visit his brother, Lazarus, in 1876 at the age of 29.  Simon remained in the area, while Lazarus sold off his land, in what is now Knightsen, to the Knight family.  Simon married Sara Sullenger, whom he had met at a dinner dance at the Point of Timber Grange Hall in 1880.  Judge Robert Wallace of Brentwood performed the ceremony; the second recorded marriage in the Brentwood Township.  The Barkely’s settled in the Vasco region which is North West of Brentwood and is now under water as part of Los Vaqueros Reservoir.  Farmers Simon and Sara eventually produced a family of seven sons and five daughters.   In 1908 the Barkley Family moved into the Brentwood Township and settled near the corner of Maple and Third Streets, where the Brentwood Community Center now stands.  Every one of the Barkley children attended and graduated from Liberty Union High School which was just a block away from the family’s home.   Also, five of the sons graduated from college, which was exceptional that era.  One of Simon’s great-grandsons is former Congressman Richard Pombo of Tracy, who also represented the Brentwood and Byron areas in Washington, D.C. 

Charles Barkley (1895-1974)
Charles ‘Charley” Barkley, one of the younger sons of Simon and Sara Barkley, was the Constable for the Brentwood Justice Court during the 1930’s – 1950’s.  While he was diminutive in stature, he was tall in spirit and was reported to be one of the toughest law enforcement agents in the area.  It was rumored that an armed gang of robbers were held up in a small ranch house just outside of the Brentwood area.  The house was surrounded by several officers from various branches of service in the area.  Fearing that an officer might be killed, the law enforcers remained just outside the range of the bandits’ guns, as there had been a shoot-out earlier.  Charley was also fearless as he marched to the front door of the house with bullets whizzing past him kicked in the door, disarming the outlaws.  The men were all arrested without further incident.

Robert Garwood Dean (1832-1920)
Robert Dean arrived in California from New York in 1850 on the schooner Francisco.  His trip which would have been around Cape Horn was a seven-month odyssey.  Mr. Dean built a log cabin in the Bear Valley region, intending on prospecting for gold.  But, local Native Americans stole his mule and supplies.  During the twenty years that followed, Robert worked for his uncle, Seneca Dean, in Stockton, CA.; hunted game in the San Joaquin Delta; followed the gold rush to British Columbia; worked for the Hudson Bay Company (fur trappers); returned to California and opened a store supplying silver prospectors.  He also built a two-story hotel and managed a grocery store.  In 1870, Dean became a wheat farmer and businessman in East Contra Costa County.  Later, he became the president of the Bank of Brentwood and was instrumental in the founding of Liberty Union High School in Brentwood, in 1901.

Heidorn Family
Members of the Heidorn family have served East Contra Costa County since 1875, when Christian and his wife Dorothy Mary Stoverson immigrated from Hanover, which later became a part of modern Germany.  His just older Brother, Henry Heidorn, soon followed his younger sibling, first settling in the area that is now at East 18th Street and Trembath Lane in Antioch.  Later, he moved his family to an area that is now known as Lone Tree Way and Heidorn Ranch Road, the only reminisce of the family name.

Christian Heidorn – (1848-1908)
Christian Heidorn was the youngest of three brothers who lived in the city-state (Duchy) of Hanover. Since his oldest brother was the only one to inherit land, this left the remaining younger two brothers to work for their older sibling or go into government jobs.  (Their sisters were all married off to other land owners.)  Being the more adventuresome of the two brothers, Christian, in 1869 at the age of 21, boarded a friend’s ship that was headed for New York City.  Once in the New World, he decided to sail around Cape Horn to the San Francisco Bay area.  Upon arriving in 1870, he ventured to East Contra Costa County, and purchased 200 acres in an area that is near modern day Knightsen.  At that time, the area was known as Eden Plains District, named after the school that served the vicinity.  Christian returned to his homeland, which by then had become a part of Germany.  There he married his bride, Dorothy Mary Stoverson.  The pair ventured to East Contra Costa County in 1875, with Chirstian’s brother Heinrich (Henry) following with his bride Charlotte Brockow.  Christian and Dorothy (known to her relatives as “Aunt Mary”) set up house keeping and began farming on the land Christian had purchased five years prior.  By the 1890’s the Heidorn Ranch had increased to more than 800 acres which were dedicated to nuts, wheat, fruit and a fine vineyard.  All the produce was shipped to market via Babbes Landing.  Christian was the first president of the Knightsen Irrigation Company.

Dorothy Mary (Stoverson) Heidorn (1855-1951)
Wife of Christian Heidorn, was 95, almost 96 when she passed away on November 11, 1951; 43 years to the day after her husband had died.  Mrs. Heidorn was distinguished as the oldest resident of the entire County of Contra Costa at the time of her death; in her daughter’s, Edna Hill, home on Dainty Avenue, Brentwood.

Henry William Heidorn (1875-1946)
In 1904, the H.W. Heidorn mercantile store opened on the streets of present day Knightsen.  It was two stories tall and sold everything from “soups to nuts” as the saying goes.  His business partner was his just younger sister, Emma Heidorn (White) (1877-1963), who helped run the store.  Henry was named for his uncle who had settled in the Antioch area.  The younger Henry later became Justice of the Peace and was instrumental in forming the Knightsen Irrigation Company.  He was also Knightsen’s postmaster for many years.

In 1878, the Byron-Brentwood-Knightsen Union Cemetery Association was formed.  It was governed by a seven-man Board of Directors, who was appointed at large from throughout the district. (In those days, women did not participate in government at this level and had yet been given the right to vote.)

More Historical Figures

Edna Christina Heidorn Hill – (1892-1975)
Edna was the youngest of the Heidorn family, having been born 14 years after her sister, Emma.  She attended school at the Eden Plains school house that is now preserved at the East Contra County Historical Society Ranch on Sellers Avenue and Sunset Avenue.  Edna was one of the first to graduate from Liberty Union High School in the early 1900’s.   She then, at the age of 16, began classes at San Jose State Normal School, which is now San Jose State University, graduating two years later with a teaching credential.

Her first teaching assignment, at the age of 18, was in her alma mater, Eden Plains School; a one-room, First-through-Eighth grade edifice.  Miss Heidorn was diminutive in stature, but made up for it in spirit and determination.  She is said to have marched into the building, taking immediate charge of all the students; some taller and older than she was.  The older students had bullied and run off several prior teachers that were male and considerably bigger than Miss Heidorn.  Laying the law down, and getting into their faces, Edna told the bullies that if they did not cooperate they could go home.  The next day, only those students who really wanted the study returned.

In the late 1920’s, Edna Heidorn married widower Sam Hill, who later became publisher of the Brentwood News.  The couple published that newspaper until it was sold over by Edgar Allen, Sr. (also buried at Union Cemetery) in the early 1930’s.    Returning to the classroom full time, following the death of her husband in 1946,  Mrs. Hill who had previously served as principal of the Knightsen School, began teaching in the Brentwood Union School District.

In 1954, a new building that originally had been constructed to house a new kindergarten class (kindergarten was not offered until 1949) was renamed Edna Hill School; the first edifice for instruction to be named for a living teacher.  Located on Birch between Second and Third Streets in downtown Brentwood, to this day, it still serves middle-school-aged students of the Brentwood Union School District.

Sam Hill (1876-1945)
Sam Hill was originally from Downieville, CA near Redding, where he had dropped out of school at age 10 to work for his hometown newspaper, the Mountain Messenger.   He purchased the Brentwood News from Edward Kynoch in 1920 and was widowed four years later at the passing of his wife, Annie Ackley Hill (buried next to her husband).   Several years later, Sam married Edna Heidorn who was a school teacher.  Sam is credited with “modernizing” the newspaper by installing electrically-driven printing equipment.  He also built the circulation to 650 households, which represented most of te residents of East Contra Costa County.  Upon his death in 1946, Sam was remembered by many top-ranking politicians who served at the State level, and local notables.

Charles E. Sanford (1851-1925)
A member of Charles Sanford’s family, Josephine, gifted land to the community of Brentwood in 1888, stipulating that the land be used only as a park.  Since the township was not yet incorporated (Brentwood became a city in 1948) the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors appointed a board of three to administer what has become the Brentwood Park in the present downtown portion of the city.   For many years following the gifting, the land remained vacant.  However, by the 1920s the park, which originally was known as Brentwood Grove, became a favorite place to escape the summer heat under the many eucalyptus trees that had been planted there.  Diseased, old and dangerous to walk under, all but one of the eucalypti were replaced by other types of trees during the early 1980’s.  The park is located on Second Street, surrounded by Maple and Oak, next to the current city hall.

Marshall Benn (1878-1984)
Marshall Benn moved to Brentwood in 1893 at the age of 15, four years prior to the Southern Pacific Railroad arriving in East Contra Costa County.  Benn became Brentwood’s first superintendent of the city water works and sewage treatment plant, from 1944 to 1954 upon his retirement.  He died in 1864 at the age of 106 and is one of the oldest historical figures buried at Union Cemetery..  Marshall is the grandfather of Patrick McHenry who owned and operated the Brentwood Funeral Home for almost 30 years from the 1960’s through the mid-1990’s.

Hans Bonnickson (1847-1909)
He arrived in Brentwood in 1874, four years prior to the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad and four years prior to the establishment of Union Cemetery.  The Bonnickson family had emigrated from Denmark and settled on a parcel of land at the corner of what is now Sellers Avenue and Chestnut Street.  Hans was a wheat farmer and a key player in the early development of the region.  He was also instrumental in the development of the Liberty Union High School District, and served as one of the Board’s earliest presidents.

Edgar Allen, Sr.
He arrived in the Brentwood area from the Midwest in 1931.  With his wife Gertrude, he purchased the Brentwood News from Sam Hill, publishing that weekly newspaper for more than 25 years.  When he bought the paper, it was located in a small frame building on First and Chestnut streets.  In 1950, Edgar moved his operation to a building on Third Street near the current Brentwood City Hall.  That building stands today, and houses the local Catholic Charities.

Judge Henry G. Krumland (1880-1946)
He was born on the family farm in Byron and spent his entire life in East Contra Costa County.  Following High School, Henry enrolled in a business course and returned to Byron in 1907.  He went to work in the Lorenzo Plumley Mercantile Store and in 1909 was elected Justice of the Peace for the Byron Township, an office he held for more than 30 years.  The judge’s office was located at the rear of Plumley’s store.  As a judge, notary public, manager of the local mercantile store and leader of numerous fraternal organizations, Henry was credited with much of Byron’s early development.

Judge Robert Wallace (1859-1946)
Robert Wallace was born in San Francisco and moved with his family to East Contra Costa County when he was 12 years old.  Robert’s father purchased 160 acres of land south of Brentwood and was of the area’s first wheat producers.  Robert was elected Justice of the Peace for the Brentwood District in 1903, holding that post for many years.  His office was located in a small building that was located where La Costa Taqueria stands today, at the corner of Oak Street and Brentwood Boulevard.   Not only was it the headquarters for judicial and business affairs, it was also a place to purchase wood, coal and ice; or to bathe in a tub at the rear of the building.  Robert was instrumental in establishing the Bank of Brentwood; later the Bank of America on the South East corner of Oak and First Streets.  That building, constructed in 1913, currently houses the Brentwood Press publishing company.   Robert also was the first to sell Home and Connecticut Hartford Insurance to residents and business owners.

John Samuel Armstrong (1843-1916)
John Samuel Armstrong and his wife, Mary Ann Conner Armstrong, were born in Ireland.  They moved to Byron in 1876, settling where the Byron Airport now stands.  Their union produced seven boys and three girls.  John was a “custom baler”, hiring himself out to other farmers in the region to bale their hay.  In 1886, John and several of his neighbors founded the Byron Hot Springs School District on the Armstrong farm; and John served as the first school board president.

James Ball Dainty (1837-1917)
In 1853, a ship from England carrying James and Elizabeth (Ella) Dainty sailed to Australia where the couple lived  for several years prior to coming to California.  Once here, they settled in the Pittsburg area where James worked for the coal mines in nearby Sommersville, Nortonville, etc.  In 1875, James and Elizabeth applied for and received a 160 acre land grant near the current day Briones Valley.  However, they did not begin to farm there until their children were old enough to help with the chores.  In 1889, their youngest son, William, married Ella Nicholson and later purchased thirty acres of land near Brentwood, so their children could attend school.  William Dainty’s land is bordered by Dainty Avenue, Central Boulevard, Griffith Lane and Marsh Creek.  Ella lived to be 99 and is one of the oldest persons buried at Union Cemetery.  Their daughter, Zelma Seabury lived to be 102 and is buried.

Two Developers of Union Cemetery

Colburn Preston
Colburn Preston arrived in California in 1869 after traveling over the Isthmus of Panama, just one year prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad.   At that time, the Panama crossing was the fastest way to travel from coast to coast.  However, the risks were great, as malaria, yellow fever, or cholera often struck travelers who were trekking through the jungles or while waiting for a north-bound ship in Panama City.  Colburn Preston became a successful farmer in East Contra Costa County and eventually sold the four acres that began Union Cemetery in 1878.

Sylvester Wills (1896-1917)A wheat farmer, in the 1860s, at Point of Timber where Discovery Bay west exists today, Sylvester Wills was credited with developing Union Cemetery’s original 4 acres, Point of Timber Landing where barges took on produce bound for markets east and west, and the Byron-Bethany Irrigation System.  He was also credited with developing area schools, including the Iron House School where his wife, Lucretia taught.  Sylvester is said to have donated a half acre of land for the Grange hall, which served as the heart of the Point of Timber region.  The hall was used for dances, voting, receptions, community meetings, church activities and school functions until the railroad came through and the towns of Byron and Brentwood were established.  A part of the Wills ranch was the burial place of many citizens until the establishment of Union Cemetery in 1878.

This is just a few of the famous and persons of notoriety who are buried at Union Cemetery.  Some are – or were – famous nationally, while others are either locally famous or colorful characters.

Frances E. (Donner) Wilder (1840-1921)
Frances was one of five daughters of Capt. George Donner, of the ill-fated Donner party which tried crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range during an early winter.  This led to the deaths of many of the party’s members.  Frances was nearly seven in 1846 when 29 men, 15 women, 43 children, 23 ox-drawn wagons became stranded in an area near where what is now known as Donner Lake along Interstate 80.  Infamous for reports of cannibalism, the party was found by “Snowshoe” Thompson, a Norseman living at Sutter’s Fort in what is now Sacramento.  Frances and her sisters were taken to safety with the first rescue party.  However, a during a second rescue attempt revealed that many of those left behind had died. Later, Frances married William R. Wilder in 1858 and the settled in a farm in the Point of Timber area.  Eventually, a portion of that District would become the Town of Byron.  Two of Frances’ grandsons, Delmar and Donner Wilder lived their entire lives in the small community.   Both also have been laid to rest in Union Cemetery.

Richard R. Veale (1864-1937) 
Richard Veale arrived in the Eden Plains region with his family at the age of 4 in 1868.  He became a prominent farmer as a young man and is credited with being the first person in the area to use modern methods; such as the steam plow and harvesters.  Prior to steam, work had been done with large “gangs” of workers. He was elected as Contra Costa County Sheriff in 1894 when the region was stilled untamed.  He served until 1934, a record for the longest continuous service of any sheriff in the United States.  Following that reign, he was elected Contra Costa County Treasurer in 1934, but served only 3 of his 4-year term, having died in 1937.

Tobe LeGrande (years unknown)
Tobe LeGrande was elected as Byron’s constable in 1896, a position he held for more than 30 years. On December 20, 1902, one of the most disastrous train wrecks in California history occurred in Byron.  The Owl Limited, bound for Los Angeles from Oakland, developed a leaking tube in the locomotive’s boiler, causing escaping steam.  That in turn threatened to extinguish the boiler fire.  The train labored to a standstill in Byron.  Meanwhile, the Stockton Flyer, a behind-schedule commuter train, was speeding down the tracks, rear-ending the Owl’s last coach and then traveling six feet into the dining car.  The impact killed 27 passengers and injured many more.  Before the “wrecking train” could reach Byron, townsmen were cutting their way into the wreckage and carrying out the injured.  Tobe was seen clambering over the tangled mound of iron and steel to carry a child to safety.

On March 5, 1923, seven buildings on Byron’s Main Street were destroyed by a fire that started in Manuel Rodrick’s barber shop.  Two young men were horsing around and knocked over a gasoline heater.  Tobe happened to be entering the building at the time, and grabbed the heater, intending to throw it into the street.  It exploded, however, and engulfed Tobe in flames.  A bystander smothered the flames with his own overcoat.  That day, seven buildings burned down, including the LeGrande Barber shop.

During the prohibition years, 1920 to 1932, Byron’s three saloons stayed open as billiard halls.  Rumor had it that a regular patron could purchase bootleg whiskey by the drink, if the bartender knew him.  Local law enforcement was aware of the illegal transactions, but looked the other way; the word was out that Constable LeGrande and Judge Krumland were two of the tavern’s best customers.

Not many people know where Tobe LeGrande’s grave is located as it is marked with a “temporary” marker.  That marker keeps “sinking” into the ground, until the next time it is found and leveled.  His grave, which is located in the oldest part of the cemetery, is just west of, and across the street from the Cemetery’s pump house.

There are several more early pioneers of Eastern Contra Costa County buried at Union Cemetery.

More information is available by emailing ucemetery@yahoo.com and requesting a copy of the historical booklet prepared by local historian Kathy Leighton and other members of the East Contra Costa Historical Society – Sharon Marsh (now on Board of Trustees); Maureen Murray; and, Barbara Russell-Cambra.

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