After 111 years, pioneer gets grave marker

By From page A5 | September 27, 2013

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JO THOMAS stands next to the grave marker she helped get made and placed in Placerville Union Cemetery for Mason Brown.

For 111 years, the gravesite of Mason W. Brown lay unmarked amid the weeds in the Placerville Union Cemetery.

The final resting place of one of El Dorado County’s pioneers, Brown’s grave site probably would have remained anonymous if it weren’t for the intervention of Swansboro resident Jo Thomas.

An amateur genealogist and admitted lover of cemeteries, Thomas became caught up in Brown’s life through a Website called “Find a Grave” (

A niche gathering place for researchers, those looking for the grave stone of a relative can post a request on the site and ask that someone in the community where the grave is located take a photograph and post it on the Website.

Thomas, who has long been a volunteer with Find A Grave, said she became involved with the Brown grave site after Brown’s great grand-niece, Kyla Sandberg of Massachusetts, posted a request for a picture of the man’s grave stone.

Sandberg had previously learned that Brown was buried in the Placerville Union Cemetery according to an Oct. 19, 1901 obituary in the Mountain Democrat titled “The Passing of a Pioneer.”

According to the obituary, Brown died at the county hospital on Oct. 15 at the age of 96 and was said to be the oldest man in the county at the time of his death. The obituary went on to say, “He was a native of Maine, and came to California in 1849, arriving in Georgetown, this county, the year following. Here he resided continuously until four years ago, when the infirmities of old age compelled him to enter the county hospital. He was a sunny-souled old gentleman and, according to Superintendent Mountain, one of the most agreeable of the many inmates of that institution. Through the kindly offices of Mrs. H. Sornberger of Georgetown, his remains were laid to rest in a private lot in Union Cemetery …”

Mrs. Sornberger was Mason’s niece. But why no gravestone was placed on the grave at the time is unknown.

As a member of Find A Grave, Thomas was notified that Sandberg wanted a photo of Brown’s grave stone. Claiming the posting, Thomas said volunteers are given two weeks to find the grave site and get back to the person making the request. “There are probably thousands of people across the United States who do this,” Thomas said. “People who just want to help other people find their family.”

However, when she visited the cemetery in late October of 2010, she found that while Brown was indeed buried there, the grave was missing a marker.

Marking a life

In the meantime, Thomas became better acquainted with Brown based on the research supplied by Sandberg, who has not only researched her great grand-uncle but her entire family’s history.

Born in March of 1805 in Maine, Brown was one of six children. He left Maine for the gold rush in California, arriving in the state in 1849. He left behind his wife Margaret whom he apparently never saw again. Living near the South Fork of the American River, he later moved to Yuba County where he lived a number of years. He then returned to El Dorado County and lived with his brother Silas in El Dorado. During his lifetime he worked in mining, farming and commerce. His last residence being the county hospital in Placerville where he passed away.

Touched by Brown’s story, Thomas looked for a way to put a marker on his grave. “Just reading this tiny bit of an obituary, they said he was one of the kindest ‘inmates’ and said he had such a great attitude. And I thought, this poor guy came out here. He probably had a dream of striking it rich, like everyone did. (He) left his wife back there and I think that’s a sad situation for two people to be separated like that. I think everyone needs a final resting place and something to show they were here.”

Looking for a way to mark Brown’s grave, Thomas started researching sources of funds for tombstones. But there weren’t any. She also asked Sandberg if she could contribute to the grave marker, but being handicapped she didn’t have any extra funds, said Thomas.

“I thought, before I die I want to make sure this guy gets a tombstone. If I have to, I’ll do it myself,” she said. “That’s the first time I’ve ever done that — bought a tombstone for somebody.”

All in all, it took her a couple of years to turn that decision into stone. “It kept coming up and coming up and then it took awhile to get the stone made,” she said.

Along the way, Thomas had some help. Mike Tilson of Sierra Monuments gave her a very good deal on the stone. “Mike agrees everyone should have a marker,” she said. She also received help from Bonnie Wurm with the Cemetery Administration of El Dorado County and Dario Mancio who installed the stone at a bargain price. With the stone set in place in December of 2012, Thomas was finally able to take a picture which she sent to Sandberg.

“It just worked out beautifully,” she said. “I’m hoping someday to set up a fund for those who can’t afford to have a grave stone.”

“Jo did a wonderful thing,”  Sandberg said, “and I believe that Mason is smiling down on her.”

Digging up the past

Now back to researching her own family, Thomas admitted that genealogy is “addicting and a passion.”

Laughing, she said she drags her fiance all over the United States visiting grave sites, saying she has probably visited a couple hundred of them.

“I love cemeteries,” she said. “I don’t see them as a sad place. People lived their life and that’s where they are now. At least there’s a record that they were here.”

Originally from Nebraska, she said she has been doing genealogy research since the 1980s. “I’m interested in family. I’m hungry for information about where I came from and what my past is about. I just love it,” she said.

Reminiscing on what she did for Brown, Thomas said she was “happy that this gentleman finally got his name there. He wasn’t just an indentation in the ground. This is who was here. He lived on this earth. I felt relief that I got this accomplished. If anyone deserves a stone, this gentleman does. I didn’t know who he was until I tried to get a picture of his tombstone and there wasn’t one there. I did make a personal connection there.”

Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.

Dawn Hodson

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