Blackhorse Jones’ Ship of Life

September 30, 2011

Kings County Library

Then: Oar in hand, Kenzie Whitten "€œBlackhorse"€ Jones stands atop his self-made burial vault, dubbed his €œ"Ship of Life," at the Grangeville Cemetery, shortly before his death in 1909. The child is his grandnephew Randolph Rhoades.

For the brilliant, eccentric Kenzie Whitten “Blackhorse” Jones, the journey into the afterlife was an obsession. It also became his legacy at the Grangeville Cemetery at Armona.

Jones, born in 1834 in West Virginia, came west at age 7 with his family to farm in Northern California, near Crow’s Landing. As an adult, he was struck by tragedy when his sweetheart, brought him a drink of water as he rested from running a threshing machine. Her skirt was caught in the machine, and she was crushed to death. Drought caused the family farm to fail in 1877.

A broken heart, it was said, caused him to move south to homestead along the Garza Creek in western Fresno County. He was a lifelong bachelor.

His nickname derived from his breeding of fine black Morgan horses, which were sought by mortuaries throughout the state to pull hearses. He was known as an inventor, geologist, scholar, conservationist and called the “Sage of Garza Creek.”

Around 1880, he began to prepare for death. He’d built a large wagon that was a virtual farm on wheels, pulled by cattle he’d trained for that purpose. He set out for the pioneer cemetery—a 50-mile trip that would take several days—with everything he’d need piled on the wagon.

Vegetables grew in boxes of soil, and chickens laid eggs in crates padded so the eggs wouldn’t break on the journey.

All that, along with an enormous sandstone block and tools, made Jones’ wagon “the strangest contraption ever to travel the San Joaquin plains,” according to historian Frank Latta.

At the cemetery, Jones made a concrete vault and embedded it with fossils. Above ground, it was topped with an 1,800 pound sandstone lid holding a small boat, also crafted from sandstone and complete with oars. Both the boat and a sandstone cradle were chained to what he called a “rock of ages,” symbolizing his vision of passing from cradle to grave.

Surrounding the monument, he placed large blocks of petrified wood and sandstone boulders.
Into the sandstone he chiseled reflections and advice for the living such as: “While our highest thaughts (sic) are in the heavens, our deepest thoughts are in the grave, so put thine house in order, for thou shall die.” On the headstone is a carved anchor, symbolizing hope and eternal life.

It would be many more years before Jones took that final journey he’d thought about for so long, and perhaps foreshadowed in one of his graveyard inscriptions: “I have crossed the stream and anchored my boat to the rock of ages.” He died leading a horse across Garza Creek, in 1909, when he was 75.

His obituary in the Lemoore Republican called him “a peculiar genius with a colossal mind.” Friends took his body in a hand-hewed casket he’d made from a cottonwood tree he’d watched grow for close to 30 years, and delivered him to his beloved “ship of life.’
The gravesite remains today much as he built it.

Now: Kenzie Whitten "Blackhorse" Jones\' vault as it appears today.