Times Past

Burial grounds of SLO County’s founders should be restored

The John Michael Price plot is at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Arroyo Grande.
The John Michael Price plot is at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Arroyo Grande.

‘I’d like to come back here in a hundred years and see the view from where we sit.”

John Michael Price, the founder of Pismo Beach, was sitting on the bluff above St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Arroyo Grande. He had a wonderful view of most of his land holdings. He was speaking to his 2-year-old granddaughter whom he called his “child of the century,” because Elsie Price Muzio was born in 1900.

Elsie was too young to fully remember, but the incident was etched into the history of the Price family. John Price would be buried in that cemetery several weeks later.

Price was the last Mexican alcalde, or “mayor,” of the territory between Santa Barbara and Monterey. He was an English seaman who became both a rancher and developer. Price was a key player in the history of California during the last days of Mexican rule and the Gold Rush era. He established public education in San Luis Obispo county in 1850.

Today, Price’s grave and that of many South County pioneer families are in an iron-gated — from outward appearances abandoned — cemetery surrounded by commercial development. The names are obliterated by years of neglect on many of the grave markers. The wooden markers have long since disappeared. Some of the gravestones have been stolen. Some nearby residents say it has a “haunted feel.”

Ironically, Price established the cemetery in response to the abuse of the original Old Mission Cemetery during the 1870s and 1880s. That cemetery was located on the Chorro Street side of the Mission. It contained thousands of Native American remains along with those of a number of early European settlers. As the town of San Luis Obispo grew, developers dug through the site. Sadly, many of the Native American remains were discarded by downtown builders.

Most of the European burial remains were taken to a cemetery on Marsh Street. When those grounds were subject to flooding, the remains were again moved to the current Old Mission Cemetery off South Higuera Street.

Price, who had been baptized a Catholic as “Juan Miguel Priz” in the 1830s, did not want his remains or those of his family to be subject to such “willy-nilly” treatment.

On Aug. 13, 1887, he sold two acres of prime bottom land for $1 to Francisco Mora, the Bishop of Monterey and Los Angeles, to be used as a cemetery. The site along Branch Street was already being used for such purposes by Arroyo Grande’s St. Patrick’s Church. The pastor, Rev. Michael Lynch, recorded Manuel de Avila Terry’s burial at the site on May 30, 1887.

The group “Save St. Patrick’s Cemetery,” is on Facebook and has a website. I hope that the group can work with the Diocese of Monterey to improve the forlorn graveyard.

John Michael Price might be pleased with the success of his commercial vision, but knowing his “child of the century” as I did, I know that he isn’t a happy camper in his grave.