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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow History hidden in cemeteries

History hidden in cemeteries

An iron gate and 12 headstones comprise the cemetery at Home, on the Snake River. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).
An iron gate and 12 headstones comprise the cemetery at Home, on the Snake River. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).

By LISA BRITTON

Of the Baker City Herald

The rusted wrought iron gate swings open with the slightest of squeaks.

No human voices invade the quiet of this aged graveyard, where tree trunks twist through the fence and the glossy green leaves of poison oak reach toward the 12 marble headstones.

Only the waves lapping at the shores of Brownlee Reservoir pay tribute to the dead:

Melissa Huffman, born Oct. 22, 1809, died Dec. 6, 1882.

Three members of the Evans family who drowned Aug. 8, 1908.

A baby who's birth and death dates are the same.

This overgrown patch of earth perched on the bank of the Snake River is the Home Cemetery, one of more than 30 historic cemeteries in Baker County.

It won't be forgotten for long.

Members of the Baker County Historical Society have started to tour the county's oldest cemeteries as part of a project launched by the Oregon Pioneer Cemetery Commission, said Bea Jean Haskell, Historical Society secretary.

The Cemetery Commission began distributing a 21-question survey in 2000, encouraging volunteers to record a historic cemetery's location, condition, ownership — even the type of material used for the headstones.

A cemetery is considered historic if it contains burials prior to Feb. 14, 1909, the 50th birthday of Oregon's statehood.

This information will help the Commission allocate grant funds to assist clean-ups and maintenance for these historic burial grounds, said Mirra Meyer, executive secretary of the Oregon Pioneer Cemetery Commission.

"We'll be able to help local groups get either technical assistance in restoring cemeteries or training," Meyer said.

The Commission was formed in 1999 to begin the process of restoring historic cemeteries and educating the public on proper procedures for restoration, she said. After the first of the year their name will change to the Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries.

The Commission is working with the non-profit organization Oregon Historic Cemeteries Association, which was also formed to help educate the public on caring for these cemeteries, she said.

"We're really trying to get across that these are historic sites. They're not just a place to go tipping tombstones," Meyer said.

The areas offer other clues to the county's past as well, such as unique plants placed to commemorate a death more than 100 years ago.

"Many times there are original works of art in the form of tombstones. It's so much more than just the markers — it's border to border," Meyer said.

Historical Society begins tours

Bea Jean Haskell estimates it will take about a year to tour and document Baker County's 30 historic cemeteries.

"We're going to have to go out and walk these," Haskell said.

To begin the process, she obtained a list of Baker County's cemeteries from the county clerk's office.

Though the total number was about 60, many have alternate names listed as separate entries, Haskell said.

Mount Hope alone has eight named sections that have grown together into the one cemetery, she said.

Historical Society board member Richard Harris narrowed the cemetery list to 31 after searching Baker County for four days.

It wasn't easy either.

"They're really quite scattered around the county and hard to find. You couldn't always see the headstones because most of the stuff was overgrown," he said.

And in many cases the locations weren't very accurate.

"They were generally within a mile — or two or three," he said.

The best clue, he said, was a bunch of trees in the middle of a field. The foliage usually marks an old homestead with a family burial plot.

Then there are some burials with no identification at all — he only found the sites by visiting with local residents.

"We've also found some single graves. I hear there are quite a few individual graves out there that aren't marked," he said.

"There's a lot of history that hasn't been recorded."

So far the group has toured nine cemeteries: McEwen, Sumpter, Whitney, Big Flat, Bridgeport, Rock Creek, Haines, Fleetwood and Mount Hope.

Haskell said one of the hardest questions to answer is: Are important individuals in state or local history buried there?

"Well, yeah, to us there are," she said. "They're the people who settled here."

If you know of an obscure historic cemetery or would like to join in the project, call Haskell at 523-4174.

 
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