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Dennis Buscher and Jim Entrican: Southern Sacramento County natives working to preserve the history and legacy of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

By Catharine Li

As a fourth generation resident of Franklin, California, Dennis Buscher is a witness to the change and transformation evident in the area. But the virtue of time imparts another perspective—a historical one—for which Buscher is a dedicated custodian of. Just two miles from Franklin is Elk Grove, a city with a fascinating connection to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Serving as a trustee for the Elk Grove Cosumnes-Cemetery District, Buscher helps oversee six historic cemeteries. Within Franklin Cemetery is the grave of Alexander Hamilton Willard: the next-to-last surviving member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The gravesite of Alexander Hamilton Willard at Franklin Cemetery. Photo by Dennis Buscher.

A testament to Buscher’s extensive knowledge of the area’s history, he actively works to preserve the Willard story in addition to recording the genealogy of local families. Willard’s presence in California, while brief as Buscher explains, is still important to document. Born in 1778 in New Hampshire, Willard was a blacksmith for the Expedition, repairing metal items for the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes at Fort Mandan.

After the Corps’ return in 1807, Willard would serve as a government blacksmith in Missouri, later living in Wisconsin for 25 years. By 1852, Willard would move his wife and some of their 12 children to California. He died in 1865 at the age of 86. 

“Willard moved out here into Sacramento County when he was quite elderly, in his seventies,” Buscher said. “At that time, [Franklin] was called Georgetown. He settled out here and had land, possibly acquired through the scripts that were given to him because of his service with the federal government.” 

Before Georgetown was renamed to Franklin in 1885, a second Georgetown was also located in California. Working with the living descendants of the Willard family in the 1970s, Buscher explained the significance of this lesser-known fact. 

“The Willard family always [had] family reunions [but] they were never able to find where he was buried because they kept looking in Georgetown,” Buscher said. “It wasn’t until the 1970s that they realized that he was actually buried in a cemetery in Franklin.” 

As a founding member of the Elk Grove Historical Society (EGHS), Buscher’s commitment to the Elk Grove community spans decades. To share the story of Willard’s life and legacy, the EGHS hosts tours of Franklin Cemetery for groups interested in learning more about Willard and other pioneer figures. 

In collaboration with the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Society, plaques are mounted near the gravesite to explain Willard’s life and legacy. Located next to the original marble headstone is a bronze plaque installed by the Daughters of the American Revolution from the mid-1950s. 

Also located in Elk Grove is a street and public park named after Willard. Efforts are currently underway to build additional markers for display at Willard Park. For Buscher, encouraging people to visit local historical sites is crucial to build awareness of the detailed legacy of settlers, leaders and communities of the past. 

“That’s our recorded history,” Buscher said. “With cemeteries you can go in and visit the sites and the headstones. To go out to the cemetery, it’s a living genealogical history out there with all of the pioneers of the area, and also gives a lot of information on the lifespan of people as well.”

Buscher is proud to be involved with the EGHS and Cemetery District, alongside other volunteers who are mostly elderly residents of the area.

Plaque at the grave of Hamilton Willard, installed by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Photo by Dennis Buscher. 

Through school outreach, he hopes the next generation of young people will take the lead to amplify this history. 

“We have a big problem having younger people involved in the history of an area,” Buscher said. “The younger people are so busy with what’s going on currently that they really don’t take time to look at the past to see what life was like.” 

Jim Entrican, also a member of the EGHS, was part of the initiative to install a monument for Willard’s grave in Franklin Cemetery. Like Buscher, Entrican remains tethered to the narratives, artifacts and markers that represent the rich heritage of the Franklin-Elk Grove area. 

“Preservation of history is our key model of what we do [at EGHS],” Entrican said. “Since I retired, I’ve just focused all my attention on history and conserving things.” 

The informative signage explaining the role of Alexander Hamilton Willard in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Photo by Dennis Buscher.

A primary focus of this conservation effort is increasing exposure to further research and learning opportunities concerning the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Housed in the basement of the EGHS History Museum is the Tom Russell Research Library, which features an extensive Lewis and Clark Collection.

“We are collecting as much history as we can in our archives so that it is available for research,” Buscher said. “There’s about 270 books on the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as a stack of periodicals.”

Ultimately, Buscher is guided by the lessons of history to inform and shape collective understanding of the present.

The EGHS and Cemetery District continue spearheading efforts to serve south Sacramento County residents and visitors alike. 

“It’s very satisfying to see and to be able to help preserve the history,” Buscher said. “There’s a lot of very negative things that need to be brought up so that we learn from the mistakes of the past. As well as recognizing the progress that has been made.”

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