Pioneer cemeteries intrigue

These collections of homesteaders' graves dot Central Oregon

By Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin

There's a kind of stillness that exists in a cemetery that seems unlike that found in any other place. Cemeteries, especially those tucked away from cities, possess a deep kind of quiet — even as birds chirp and breezes rustle.

Wandering amid grave markers, pondering the mystery of the lives that have gone, can make one feel a sentimental longing for the past.

This is especially true when visiting one of Central Oregon's many historical cemeteries, also known as pioneer cemeteries. Each of these cemeteries, which are identified by the Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries, contain a grave of someone who died before Feb. 14, 1909.

Some — like Pilot Butte Cemetery — are large park-like spots in the middle of town. Others are single graves in the middle of nowhere — like the grave that reads “Sacred to the Memory of JE_IE” in Alfalfa, believed to date back to the 1840s.

Almost all of these locations are worth exploring. However, many of the smaller spots are located on private property.

The state keeps a list of all historical cemeteries, reporting 10 in Crook County, nine in Deschutes County and nine in Jefferson.

The appeal

Kuri Gill, the Oregon Historic Cemeteries program coordinator, said people use these historical spots to research genealogy, to enjoy a park-like setting within a city or as a roadside stop while on a long drive.

She works with individuals and groups throughout the state who want to know how to clean up historical markers, how to prevent and respond to vandalism and much more.

Gill believes historical cemeteries can teach us a lot about the past. She has visited cemeteries that contain a potter's field, which include graves of ethnic minorities as well as the poor. Some graves tell the story of diseases that hit a particular town or contain information about veterans.

Johan Mathiesen, a Portland resident who penned a guide to Oregon cemeteries called “Mad as the Mist and Snow: Exploring Oregon Through its Cemeteries,” first began exploring cemeteries while driving on backcountry roads in the state. Cemeteries made for good places to stop. Soon he became fascinated and has since traveled to more than 650 cemeteries in Oregon.

He believes cemeteries appeal to people who enjoy good reading (for the epitaphs) and good stories. “You can make up your own imaginary stories about what happened to these people.”

People can also glean information about what was happening at the time, for instance seeing the number of people who died in 1918 due to the flu epidemic.

Visiting old cemeteries is also a reminder of the harsh conditions in which people used to live. Old cemeteries usually contain numerous graves for infants, children and teenagers. It's a reminder of how fragile life was.

Mathiesen said one of the most touching graves he ever saw was that of Olive Wren, who died at age 10 and is buried in a cemetery in Cornelius. The stone says, “Last words were: Do the girls know I'm going away?” There's a story there, even if we don't quite know what it is. Some of the epitaphs are poetic, religious or romantic, said Mathiesen.

John Kent, a volunteer with Des Chutes Historical Museum, has visited several of Central Oregon's cemeteries because of his interest in pioneer history. He read Mathiesen's book and said it “opened my eyes to cemeteries.”

Kent recently traveled to the Rease Cemetery located in a prairie near Newberry Crater. Kent said it contained a few graves of people who were early homesteaders in the Paulina Prairie area. The cemetery is named for George Guy Rease, who lived 1879 to 1903 and who died of smallpox. Kent said the trip was interesting and also lovely. “When I go, I'd like to be there.” He called it tranquil, “antique-ish and out of the way.”

Kent has also visited the single grave outside of Alfalfa, which is on the wagon train route.

Camp Polk

Located a few miles north of Sisters, Camp Polk Cemetery is unique, with a homespun, cowboy feel.

“Nothing quite has the flavor of Camp Polk,” said Mathiesen, who calls the spot “one of my favorite places in the world.”

The location was first set up as a military encampment in 1865 but was abandoned after a year. Then it was a homestead site for the Hindman family in 1873, and the frame of a barn from that time still stands nearby. The cemetery was established in 1880.

The graveyard is not owned or organized by a group or person and still seems very much part of the frontier. The approximately 170 grave sites are not formed into rows or any discernible pattern or order. They are haphazardly located, and many are surrounded by low wrought-iron or weathered wood fences. There are benches, fire pits, birdhouses, ceramic figurines and all manner of knick-knacks located seemingly everywhere in the cemetery — it's a “gold mine of handmade stuff,” said Mathiesen.

Gill said this kind of stuff is commonly referred to as “grave goods,” and Camp Polk is filled with it. The cemetery's pioneer graves are located alongside modern ones. Currently, people rope off areas and label them “reserved” for future use.

It is a fascinating place in which to wander. One headstone reads: “Cowboy, 19 yrs, horse kicked.” The grave of Robert H. Krug bears the inscription: “Murdered by A.J. Weston.” While there are infant graves here, not every pioneer grave has a sad story. James Taylor was born in 1806 and died in 1896 — living a hearty 90 years.

John Hayes, who is a board member with the Sisters Country Historical Society, said the cemetery has “a complex status, to say the least.” He is concerned that the lack of any rules or regulations may lead to people inadvertently disturbing some graves.

Hayes said there is a small anonymous group that spruces up the cemetery from time to time and that it remains in “remarkably good shape” despite its limbo status.

In addition to the homespun charm, this cemetery also offers sweet views of a rolling meadow in the distance.

Crook County cemeteries

Crook County has numerous pioneer cemeteries, in part because it has some of the oldest history of Central Oregon.

Mill Creek Cemetery, on the east end of the Ochoco Reservoir, is located on a dusty spot with nice views of the rolling countryside. It is also a good place to see numerous pioneer-era graves. Mr. Macy is noted as the first burial and dates back to 1872. There are several child and infant graves from that era — “Bird song Baby” says one, “McVaegh Boy, Age 6, died 1899” says another.

Farther up the road, near the Ochoco Ranger Station, is the Howard Cemetery. The drive to get there is lovely, passing through meadows and tall trees. The cemetery is a smaller, more intimate spot amid the trees.

Roma J., daughter of Clyde and Daisy Hun, is there. She died at 10 months of age in 1910. Wildflowers grow around her grave. Her story is a sad one, indicative of the era. According to information from a book at the Bowman Museum, Crook County's historical museum, the baby died after eating some wallpaper that her parents were hanging in their home; wallpaper at the time was laced with arsenic.

The small cemetery, which was recently full of butterflies and bird song, also contains newer graves, including that of local author Andrew Gale Ontko.

One of the most interesting graves was that of Sophronia Carlone Hopson Boyles, who lived September 1821 to June 1909. Her gravestone says she was the wife of one Civil War veteran and the mother of two more. On top of her gravestone sits an old glass jar filled with yellowed letters. The one visible from the outside starts, “Dear Mary” and creates a compelling mystery.

Pilgrim's Rest, a cemetery in Powell Butte, could win a prize as the most scenic, as it showcases panoramic views of the Cascade mountains. One notable spot in this well-maintained, nicely manicured cemetery was the stone for Libbie, wife of James Turner, who died in 1908. Libbie, the stone says, was “the sunshine of our home.”

Whether exploring the history of Central Oregon, the history of your own family or simply looking for a way to spend a peaceful afternoon, pioneer cemeteries may provide the answer.

Looking for old graves?

Many cemeteries include a mix of older and newer graves, but many visitors seek the oldest graves. Here are a few tips to locate these more historical markers.

• Tall. Many older grave markers are tall and thin and white, similar in shape to a chess piece.

• Clusters. Older graves tend to be clustered together, although this is not always the case. But in general if you find one older grave, you will likely find more in that vicinity.

• Head to the back. If the cemetery is large, head to the back or farthest edge first.

Find local cemeteries

• Visit the Oregon registry of historical cemeteries at www.oregon.gov/OPRD/HCD/OCHC/. Click on “Historic cemetery list.”

• Check out Johan Mathiesen's blog, “Blogging a Dead Horse,” at bloggingadead horse-dmt .blogspot.com. Check out his Flickr account at www.flickr.com/photos/deadmantalking/. Click on the Oregon collection. Most Central Oregon spots are listed under the “Pine Belt” region. Click on each name to see images and glean more info about the cemetery's location.

— Alandra Johnson