It’s easy to get lost at the Buena Vista Cemetery in Murphys.
Situated near Highway 4 and downtown, the cemetery is 12 acres in size and holds about 3,000 plots. The property is hilly, lined with unmarked dirt roads and dotted with dozens of trees.
The Murphys Cemetery District needed to find a way to direct the out-of-town and seasonal tourists to pioneer gravestones and family plots, said Trustee Maureen Elliott.
“People forget where graves are. Even I do sometimes,” she said. “If we could just direct them to a road sign, we were hoping that it would make it easier for the families.”
That’s where Alex Jukes, a Sonora High School sophomore, came in.
“People need to be able to find their loved ones, and I was trying to make that easier for them,” he said.
Jukes is a member of Boy Scout Troop 343, which represents the Highway 4 corridor of Copperopolis, Angels Camp and Arnold. Like his father and grandfather before him, Jukes has worked toward becoming an Eagle Scout — the highest rank of achievement for youth in the Scouts.
“The scouts are important to me because they are all my friends,” he said. “I've been with them for almost seven years, and so I’ve built these friendships. I want to get my Eagle because it's the highest achievement you can get in scouting, and I want to show the other scouts that this is possible.”
Elliot said the Buena Vista Cemetery is the only cemetery operated by the district. The district has operated the property since 1930 and conducts about 25 burials a year. Elliott said with the growth, people started getting lost.
Funded by local property taxes, the district is often strapped for cash, she said. The annual budget of the cemetery district is about $50,000 a year, which pays a part-time groundskeeper and maintenance work on dead trees and replacement facilities.
“We’re tasked with maintaining and improving and making it nice for the families that use the cemetery, but we just don't have a lot of money. To have him take over that labor is just terrific,” she said. “To have somebody that says ‘Hey, I’ll do that work for you,’ and especially a young person like that, it's very impressive.”
The district paid for the materials and assigned names to the roads, she said, and allowed Jukes and a team of eight people — five scouts and three adults — access to the cemetery on to complete the work.
The work wasn’t easy and required all the help the group could find, Jukes said.
He used an auger to dig holes, while others mixed cement and posted the signs.
“I felt it kind of matched my personality and work ethic,” Jukes said. “I’m hard working, outgoing, and I generally like to have fun, so I feel like being able to do something a little different, to give scouts a new experience in their lives, will kind of help them later in life possibility.”
One of the foundational features of the Eagle Scout project was for Alex to organize, plan, direct and problem-solve the entire project on his own, said Cameron Jukes, Alex’s father and Scoutmaster of Troop 343.
“It was very interesting watching people come to him with questions about what to do next. It was really neat. Even I was coming to him asking him questions,” said Cameron Jukes, of Angels Camp. “He was able to lead and direct, and it was a proud moment.”
The group toiled for about three weekends, installing an estimated 18 road plots and 26 total signs. The work was not without its obstacles, they added.
By the third weekend, around Nov. 17, the group — and their tools — were beginning to show signs of wear. First, the pull string on the auger broke, Alex said, and it would no longer start. Knowing the project needed to be finished that weekend, they transitioned to using a more time-consuming jack hammer instead.
“It took a couple hours longer,” he said.
In the final stage, the group installed a map and kiosk to guide visitors, Cameron Jukes said. Rushing to complete the project before an expected storm, the group let the entire day slip away to dark.
“We were so busy it didn't even occur to us that we were in a cemetery at night,” Cameron Jukes said, laughing.
Alex said balancing the labor with homework was difficult.
Alex has served other community projects by clearing leaves along the pathways and in front of the old schoolhouse in Columbia in 2016.
The earliest markers at the cemetery go back 150 years to the death of John Albert, who died June 26, 1855, at the age of six. A woman named Ann Shearer was buried on July 1, 1855, after dying during childbirth and was followed by her twins the next day on July 2, 1885, Elliot said.
The road names were meant to acknowledge the rich pioneer history of Murphys and honor some of the families who remain in the area, Elliot said.
The main street is Cemetery Lane, which is connected to a county road of the same name. Other street names are dedicated to the families of Kimball-Cutting, who owned lumber mills throughout the Mother Lode; Kaler, who have lived in the area since the 1850s; Jordan, ancestors of a local constable; and Davis, a family who owned a ranch and a store in Calaveras County, Elliot said.
The next step in earning the rank of Eagle Scout will be Alex facing a board of review made of up Scout executives and volunteers, who will interview him to know his character and how his project (and previous achievements) align with the values of the organization, Cameron Jukes said.
“When you see someone delve into their first project they deal with, it’s fun to see that expression on his face. It was fun to watch him,” Cameron Jukes said.