Petaluma Parks: A Sunday morning walk in Oak Hill Park
It is a cold and breezy, overcast Sunday morning - Super Bowl Sunday, it so happens - and Petaluma’s Oak Hill Park is surprisingly quiet at the moment.
“It must be the football game,” guesses Victoria Webb, a local photographer who lives nearby, and frequently visits the park with her daughter, husband and camera. As she stands near the park’s pétanque court - also silent, as the Petaluma Valley Pétanque Club generally meets to play on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays - the only sounds heard are the sibilant shore-like rustle of the wind in the trees overhead and the occasional yelp of joy from a dog on the lower end of the park. “Even on cold or wet days, this park is full of people on a Sunday,” Webb notes. “People taking walks, kids playing in the playground, other folks with their dogs on the dog park side. So, this is a little non-representative. But I guess we’ll just blame the Super Bowl.”
Among Petaluma’s oldest and most historically colorful parks, Oak Hill’s 5.5-acre expanse is tucked into a photogenic pocket of land in the heart of the Oak Hill neighborhood, within easy walking distance of the downtown business district. Ringed by houses, above and below, the tree-filled spread features a good-sized children’s playground, shaded picnic areas, a single-hoop basketball court near the pétanque court and a public restroom, the latter a reportedly popular stop among local Postal Service letter carriers. There is plenty of open space, some heavily treed, some a bit more lawn-like, with gravel trails throughout, and minimal concrete walkways, the park’s natural character having been mostly retained over the last several decades.
“This is one of my personal favorite beauty spots in town,” says Webb.
The park has a number of unique features, with the pétanque court, a part of the park since June of 2007, being just one of them. Pétanque is a French game, similar to bocce ball. Along Howard Street is a 100-plus-year-old stone wall, itself a beloved, oft-photographed landmark. At the far end of the park, above the large, partially enclosed dog park area, there’s a rustic labyrinth, complete with a small, mysterious, Stonehenge-like rock pillar. Though not easy to find, there is a short, semi-remote walking trail in the area above the labyrinth, always under the watchful eyes of neighborhood watch groups to prevent illicit activities.
And of course, there’s the persistent rumor that the park, or a certain part of it, is haunted.
“This used to be a cemetery, of course,” says Webb with a wicked smile, leading the way past the spot where an enormous coastal oak once stood - more on that later - past the playground, and up toward the 48-foot diameter labyrinth. As she reaches it, the meditatively winding pathway, attractively delineated with stones, is suddenly illuminated with sunlight as the clouds finally begin to part. The Oak Hill Park Labyrinth, a project of the Leadership Petaluma Class of 1999, has remained intact, and mostly well cared for, for over 20 years now.
Having grown up in Petaluma, just a few blocks from the park, Webb is one of those lifelong Petalumans who remembers the first time she heard about it having once been a burial ground.
“I had this friend named Roussa, and I remember talking our parents into letting us watch the movie ‘Pet Semetery,’ and we were terrified, obviously,” Webb recalls. “Roussa’s mom picked us up. It was late. It was dark. We were still shaking in terror, and she pulled over in front of the park on the way home, and said, ‘Want to go play in the park? It used to be a cemetery you know.’ I thought she was messing with us. I thought she was trying to teach us a lesson, not to see scary movies, and never to go into the park at night. It worked. I was slightly terrified for years.”
Many who grew up in Petaluma have their own version of Webb’s Oak Hill Park/cemetery story.
According to local records, much of it well documented at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum, by the time the area was legally declared a cemetery in 1868, the land had been used as a burial ground for many years. In 1872, given the propensity of the ground there to being saturated with water during the winter, Petaluma’s John McNear, whose young wife had just died, established Cypress Hill Cemetery on a large property between Magnolia Street and what was for many years known as Cemetery Lane (long ago renamed Sycamore Lane). By 1879, all burials at Oak Hill were discontinued, and in 1900, when plans were afoot to place a school there, the City of Petaluma let it be known that all bodies were to be removed from the area.