Abner Prather was the first veteran to be buried in 1889 at what became the Los Angeles National Cemetery. LA Observed photos from Sunday.
I visited the national cemetery in Westwood on Sunday, after the girl and boy scouts had placed an American flag at every grave. It's a Memorial Day ritual at the cemetery, one of LA's prettiest and most historic and solemn places. After Monday's 10:30 a.m. commemoration, the cemetery staff and some volunteers will go around and collect all the flags — put them away until next year. For a few days, the sea of flags blowing in the breeze makes it harder for the thousands who drive by to ignore the place and its meaning.
There seemed like a lot of visitors this afternoon. Some tended to graves in small groups, others just drove slowly through to take in the moment. I have one relative interred at Los Angeles National Cemetery, an uncle who moved west from Indiana on Route 66, when that was the thing to do. I came Sunday, though, to check in on another old soldier from Indiana who adopted California. Abner Prather joined the Indiana infantry in 1844 and served in the Mexican-American War. Somehow, by the end of his life he was living at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and Sailors on the coastal plain west of Los Angeles. One day in May in 1889, Prather was the first inhabitant of the newly opened home to die, so they put him in the ground on a hill in ranch lands east of the soldiers' home. He's still there, joined now by more than 87,000 others.
I wrote about the origins of the Los Angeles National Cemetery in my 2005 book, Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles, from Angel City Press. My Memorial Day post this year is to reprint an excerpt of the chapter on the veterans home and the cemetery, which these days are separated by the 405 freeway.
Remnants of the original Soldiers’ Home are still visible along Wilshire Boulevard. Closest to Westwood, and the most dramatic reminder, is Los Angeles National Cemetery, where 87,000 American warriors and their loved are commemorated on 114 acres. It started as a small Boot Hill, donated by rancho holder John Wolfskill, after “a gray-haired soldier named Prather failed to answer ‘adsum’ to his name” at roll call, the Times reported in May, 1889. Abner Prather had been a Union blue in the 4th Indiana infantry before finding his way to the plain west of Los Angeles. His original wood-plank marker near the undulating cemetery’s highest point has been upgraded to a marble gravestone, just one of the countless that file in emotion-tugging ranks under century-old trees. The cemetery’s presence is not well appreciated by Angelenos, but the solemn grounds have stood in for Arlington National Cemetery in numerous films and television episodes.
Near Prather’s secluded grave, a simple yet elegant granite obelisk honors soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War, the foray inspired by publisher William Randolph Hearst, egged on by Harrison Gray Otis and fought by Teddy Roosevelt, among others. Elsewhere lie fourteen recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, their service spanning from the Korea Campaign of 1871 to World War II. Buried nearby are also more than one hundred Buffalo Soldiers, the African-Americans who first fought in the Indian Wars of the American frontier, plus veterans of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion and all the conflicts of the 20th-century through the Vietnam War. Two loyal dogs, Blackout and Old Bonus, have received national burials there. In The Black Echo, a novel by Edgar Award–winner Michael Connelly, FBI agent E.D. Wish can’t stand that her office, up high in the federal office building across Wilshire, faces such a gallant collection. “All those graves,” she sighs. “I try never to look out the windows there.”
Some of the men buried there had marched hundreds of miles to apply for membership in the Soldiers’ Home. Private George Davis, of the Fourteenth New York Cavalry, arrived first on May 2, 1888. Soon, a thousand men were camped around him, awaiting the home’s opening. It was built on rancho land donated by Wolfskill and U.S. Senator John Percival Jones, and grew into the largest and most appealing rest spot for old soldiers in the West. Broad manicured avenues curved among evergreen trees and flower gardens. Members, as they were called, lived in group “domiciliaries” designed in stick-and-shingle style by the architecture firm of Peters and Burns, with attractive verandas overlooking the grounds.
Members tended the orchards and grew lima beans, vegetables and oats for the kitchen. They also kept livestock and a menagerie of other animals, some for eating and some as pets, among them a kangaroo and a cougar. Biologists at California State University Los Angeles say that Southern California can thank the Soldiers’ Home men for the aggressive, greenish-coated fox squirrels that roam backyards and parks. They were brought from the Midwest and South by veterans, got loose and quickly spread, driving out the region’s more docile native gray squirrels.
At the center of Soldiers’ Home life stood a massive three-story dining hall with seating for a thousand. On Memorial Day and for ceremonies, members put on their uniforms and fell into formation outside under the dining hall clock. When one of their own died, a procession would march behind the caisson over to the cemetery. The prospect of catching sight of so many white-bearded men in uniform attracted tourists on the Balloon Route that circled from Los Angeles to the coast and back. Trains would pull into the home and stop outside the dining hall, allowing time for photographs with the old soldiers. President William J. McKinley, a former Union officer, paid his respects on May 9, 1901, during the Los Angeles visit where he stayed overnight with General Otis on Wilshire Boulevard. Pictures show throngs of men in suits and bushy mustaches massed in front of the dining hall to hear the president assure the veterans, “That government for which you fought, to which you gave the best years of your lives…will see to it that in your declining years you shall not suffer but shall be surrounded with all the comforts and all the blessings which a grateful nation can provide.” Four months later, McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York, by an anarchist.
The last original structure – and the oldest located anywhere along Wilshire Boulevard – stood just across the parade grounds when McKinley visited. Construction began in 1899 on a clapboard chapel that architect Charles W. Moore has called “a building with exceptional verve.” The westernmost Wilshire entry on the National Register of Historic Places, it was designed by J. Lee Burton as a rare place of worship that houses Protestant and Catholic sanctuaries under the same roof. Divided by a double-brick wall, each side had its own entrance. The Protestant side, consecrated on March 11, 1900, is more Romanesque in motif, while the Catholic half, dedicated a week later, shows Gothic influences. The exterior was originally stained an earthy red and green, but the chapel facing Wilshire Boulevard now has been painted a cream color. A wood-framed streetcar depot from the same era and designer also survives not far away; both are in poor repair and in need of preservation.