Walking beside the Chowchilla River, Bill Coate saw the forgotten graves -- three people, long gone, that would change his life forever.
It was 1984, and Coate, who later went on to host his own history show on the radio, "Twist in Time," and has written several history books, was a sixth-grade history teacher in Madera. Coate left the river that day in search of the people behind the three "Minturn" names etched in stone.
To learn about these people born in the 1800s, he would enlist the help of his sixth-grade class.
"Something is not fair about these graves, kids," Coate told them as they stood around the graves on a field trip. "They cared here, and lived and loved and died, and now they are forgotten, and that is not fair."
His students agreed. A project to discover their identities followed.
Coate shared this story with about 30 people July 8 following the Sierra Historic Sites Association's monthly dinner at Fresno Flats Historic Village.
After months of research -- digging through coroner's reports and other primary documents -- Coate's students tracked down the granddaughter of the Minturn woman buried beside the river.
"The granddaughter had her father's original handwritten memoirs of how it was to be raised by that woman," Coate said of reading them. "We felt like we knew her. She put flesh on her bones."
The students each took a year of the journal and wrote a chapter about her life from it. The chapters were compiled and later published as "The Minturn Chronicles."
The class also cleaned up the graves and held a ceremony at the site, attended by 400 people, with a flag ceremony and "TAPS" played.
As the music continued, a 10-year-old girl from the audience stepped forward and placed a wreath on her great-great-grandmother's grave. The girl had traveled from the East Coast with her family to attend the ceremony, and had never been to her family's tombstones beside the river.
"And I'm sure you will understand, there wasn't a dry eye in the place," Coate said.
From that day on, Coate vowed he would never teach history again from the traditional approach of "read a chapter, answer the questions."
The Minturn project led to other cemetery research projects and then to founding the Madera Method educational program, the Madera Method Wagon Train, and later doing radio, television, book and newspaper stories about history.
Coate was a California Teacher of the Year finalist and named National History Teacher of the Year by the Daughters of the American Revolution. He currently writes the "Pieces of the Past" column for the Sierra Star.
Before sharing the story of the Minturn graves, Coate said a major study conducted recently among college students attending 55 of the nation's best institutions showed that 85% flunked a senior high school history exam.
In the United States, it remains possible to earn a bachelor of arts degree without taking one course in American history, Coate said.
"Will America lose her memory?" Coate said.
The association's next speaker will be a cowboy storyteller at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 12 in the Cunningham School at Fresno Flats.