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Davis, California

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Chiles Mansion serves up some chills

Editor’s Note: California Aggie reporter and columnist Amanda Hardwick searched for Davis’ most chilling and ‘haunted’ places in light of Halloween.

This past Saturday night in Davis, most students were enjoying themselves at the bars, searching for a party or perhaps studying for midterms. I, however, was standing in the middle of the Davis Cemetery with four friends and one lantern. Yes, it was actually a lantern.

Our mission: to find the location of the old Chiles Mansion off East Eighth Street. With Halloween right around the corner we thought it would be fun to explore a Davis historical landmark with a spooky reputation. A search on Daviswiki.org for “haunted places”, pointed us in the right direction.

The Davis Cemetery website says that the property that Davis Cemetery and the Chiles Mansion estate sits on was bought by Joseph B. Chiles in 1850. Chiles Mansion was built on the premises by relatives William Dee Chiles and Clara Chiles. The mansion sat tucked away off East Eighth Street on a lot adjacent to the cemetery.

What evidence remains of the mansion’s existence today are an old barn and some dilapidated outbuildings. So what happened to the mansion? A talk with Davis Cemetery office manager Susan Finkleman provided some answers.

Finkleman said that Larry McFarland, a professor in the veterinary department at UC Davis, bought the mansion the 1960s. He resided there with his wife Sonia and children Kenneth, Nina and Michael.

“He seemed to be a well-liked guy,” Finkleman said. “He made the property a wonderland for his children.”

But not all was not well in paradise. McFarland and his wife separated in 1972, and he moved to an apartment several blocks away from the mansion.

On the night of Apr. 7, 1972, McFarland made an unexpected appearance at the property. This appearance resulted in the murder of his wife and three children; an article in the Sacramento News and Review stated that McFarland had bashed their heads in.

McFarland then proceeded to take their bodies to the master bedroom, where he then shot himself. Finkleman explained that he also doused about four locations in the house with gasoline and set the mansion on fire.

“Many people around here still remember the fire,” Finkleman said. “You could see the flames from many places in Davis. It was a big deal.”

Finkleman also said that the night was a premeditated act. A suicide note was found in McFarland’s nearby parked car.

“The note was lengthy and said if the family couldn’t be together in life they should be together in death,” Finkleman said. “It also specified how he wanted his family to be buried together in the Davis Cemetery.”

Finkleman said Sonia’s mother, Mary Simmons, appealed the case, demanding her family not be buried with the murderer. Simmons won, and McFarland was buried on the far end of the cemetery away from his family. The gravestones are there to prove it.

While the fire completely destroyed Chiles Mansion, the surrounding barn and farm structures can still be found, in a somewhat decrepit state. Simmons held the rights to the property until her passing in 2006, and for all those years prohibited development of the land.

“Mrs. Simmons kept the house exactly as it was,” Finkleman said. “She didn’t want to develop anything. It was kind of a memorial to her daughter.”

Today the scene of the crime, with its close proximity to the cemetery, receives some curious speculation from members in the Davis community. When searching “haunted places” on Daviswiki.org, Chiles Mansion appears with over ten other listings.

After personally surveying the barn and surrounding buildings at night, I can vouch for its eerie reputation. The night was breezy, and walking into the property you have to pass through a metal gate that creaks and sways in the wind. The barn was pitch black everywhere that the lantern light did not hit, and we could not help but wonder what was residing in the rafters above our heads. An empty Natural Ice beer box on the ground was our only comedic relief.

After about fifteen minutes we had had enough of our spooky adventure. I am also happy to say that I made it back through the dark barn without tripping and impaling myself on a pitchfork.

Other sinister-seeming Davis locations I found online included The Haunted Gazebo, The Foundation, The Baxter House, and even some unexpected suggestions such as “The Evil South Silo Bathroom”. I checked out the South Silo bathroom – I personally did not find anything evil.

If you are considering a Halloween adventure of your own, be careful about your chosen location. Finkleman said that Halloween often draws in curious crowds, but warned that the Davis Cemetery has tactics to prevent this.

“We discourage them strongly by running our irrigation system,” Finkleman said.

AMANDA HARDWICK can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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