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Special Report: Fresno's Famous

CBS47 looks into the past and Fresno's founding fathers,
The early founders of the City of Fresno died long ago, but the remains of some will forever be in cemeteries and mausoleums here in town. Their final resting places range from simple to elaborate. But as CBS47's Rachel Azevedo reports, it's the stories behind the names that are most intriguing.

Situated off Belmont, west of Highway 99, in cemeteries that date back to the late 1800s, the founders of Fresno rest in peace. Their grave markers range from gaudy and grandiose, to under-stated and simple. Some are interred in structures that desperately need repair.

We talked to Loren Spiller, who works at Wild Rose Funeral Home. Spiller is an expert when it comes to Fresno's famously dead and he's fascinated by the stories behind the names on the wall. "The famous, to the sublime, to the infamous. They're all here," said Spiller. Take Henry Conrad Warner, founder of Warner Company Jewelers, a Fresno business for 144 years. Spiller says Warner died at work. "Heat stroke in his jewelry store in 1897. July, no air conditioning, 1897. Need I say more? said Spiller.

There are several Fresno notable's inside this "odd fellows" mausoleum. William Shaw, a former police chief and the namesake of a main street in Fresno. Albert Graves Wishon, a pioneer for water and power in the Central Valley. And businessman OJ Woodward -- one of Fresno's largest parks bears his name. Sadly, the building is now decaying around them. An effort to raise money for restoration has so far not been successful. 

Another mausoleum, in a slightly better state, has been nicknamed "The Pink". It has pink stucco that's crumbling in some places. Frank Balekian is the administrator of the Arart Armenian Cemetery and he can't quite explain the Egyptian motif, which was popular in the 1920s, which is when he believes it was built. " We have no historical records to our knowledge," said Balekian.

Back out in the cemetery, you can find some of the remains of William Saroyan, the famous poet whose name is on a theater in downtown Fresno. "He was cremated and half of his ashes are here in Fresno and the other half were taken to Armenia," said Balekian.

As you weave through more than a hundred acres of cemeteries in Southwest Fresno, there are thousands of headstones, eye-catching private mausoleums, markers that look like tree trunks, and a rather modest marker for the man who donated all the land, Moses J. Church.. As night falls, the iron gates keep the living away and animals take over the dark, desolate landscape.

Mountain View is the oldest cemetery in Fresno. Records go back to 1888, but it's even older than that. The date on one grave marker is 1882. Back in those days, burials were the only option. It wasn't until 1914, when Chapel of the Light opened, that cremations were available for the first time in Fresno. Keith Hargrave showed us around the oldest building for cremated remains. He's worked there for 58 years and knows almost all the history. You can call this place a work of art. After all, the architect was Julia Morgan, famous for Hearst Castle. "This room is more interesting I think because it shows Julia Morgan's art. It's all stone facing and all this type of art work is the same thing you'll see at the castle," said Hargrave.

Speaking of homes, Hargrave showed us a one-of-a-kind urn that was made to look like a 1930s style home that still stands on Van Ness today. When Benjamin and Leah Levy were having the home built, Leah was killed in a car accident. "Mr. Levy thought it would be nice if he could have a replica of the home because she never got the opportunity to live in it," said Hargrave.

Gail Bovell-Tong has lived in the two-story modern art home for 35 years. She knew the story behind it and fell in love with the home's character and attention to detail. She even feels a special connection to Leah Levy. "Well I mean, she's here in every turn of the wall, every light fixture," said Gail.

Another unique urn is the one made for Dr. Chester Rowell. He gave free health care to Armenians when they first came over. His ashes are not kept there. Instead, they're in a boot of the memorial statue in Fresno's Courthouse Park.

The history of Fresno lies in cemeteries, mausoleums, and columbariums, for all to visit. Some find it spooky to spend time with the dead but Spiller says there's nothing haunted there, only the spirits of entrepreneurs who built the foundation of the place we Fresnan's call home. "Remember, don't be afraid of the dead, only the living," said Spiller.

The cemeteries are open Monday through Friday for people who want to visit, but you'd have to schedule a trip to go inside the mausoleum.

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