Thursday, May 6, 2010

Salem Pioneer Cemetery, Salem, Oregon

The Salem Pioneer Cemetery in Salem, Oregon is the final resting place of many of Salem’s early and prominent citizens. Many of the names one finds on the headstones here are also the names of town streets, parks and schools. One of the missionaries to arrive in Salem in the 1830’s was David Leslie. When the mission to the Kalapuya tribes ended David Leslie stayed in Salem to settle the 640 acres, in what is now South Salem, which he acquired through the Donation Land Act of 1850. As was customary, an acre or so was set aside to bury family members. At the center of this cemetery is the Leslie family plot that began with the burial of one young daughter in 1853 and another in 1854. Sometime in the late 1850’s the Independent Order of Odd Fellows purchased surrounding acreage for community burials and the cemetery grew to over 16 acres. Today the city parks department is the legal steward of the cemetery and it is maintained by the volunteer organization Friends of Salem Pioneer Cemetery. In 1974 the cemetery was brutally vandalized and many headstones were crumbled. Some still lay on the ground today as a result. The cemetery is thought by some to be haunted by several entities, one being a woman who, towards the end of the 19th century, poisoned all four of her children and then drowned herself in a nearby creek. They are all buried in unmarked graves in the northwest corner of the cemetery.

As with most American cemeteries established prior to the 20th century, this one has many old stately trees such as oaks, madrones and Douglas Firs. Over the centuries these trees have witnessed the changes time measures. Where once the dead were brought to the hill on a dirt road by horse and cart, the trees now observe processions of cars that pass by them along the paved street and stop farther up the hill at the new city cemetery. In the new cemetery there is little to no shade, or mystery to match, and the headstones cast no shadows because they are all set flat in the ground. The trees of old cemeteries remind us that life goes on after death. They stand guard, spreading their branches protectively over family plots and the rows of the smaller forgotten stones whose names are no longer legible. One gets the sense that the trees in the Salem Pioneer Cemetery understand their duty as sentinels.

    At the east end of the cemetery is the gravesite of Eugenia Thayer who died in 1918 at the age of 21, one of the early victims of the Spanish Influenza pandemic. At the time of her death she was a junior at the University of California, Berkley and had only been ill three days.

She was the granddaughter of one of Salem’s most prominent and wealthy citizens, Asahel Bush II, who published the town newspaper and later opened a bank. Her body was brought back to Salem, likely in the Bush family’s own private train car, to be buried near other family members. Wealth, prestige and beauty could not buy Eugenia Thayer a long life. Just to the north of her stone is the Bush family plot and the tall elegant headstones that mark the graves of Asahel II and his wife, who was also named Eugenia. They look almost like thrones; fitting, since this plot seems to hold court among all the others.

 The Salem Pioneer Cemetery is redolent with stories like Eugenia’s. The trees there know this because they saw it all.

Photo of Eugenia Thayer from the Bush House Museum, Salem Art Association, photo I.D. #bh0423. 

Monday, April 12, 2010

Finding Alice

Alice Bingham was born in Salem, Oregon in 1895 to judge George Bingham and his wife Willie Harris Bingham. When Alice was just shy of her first birthday her father bought a grand house on the corner of Mission St. and 12th that is known today as Historic Deepwood Estate. Alice grew up in the house and was wed there in 1915 to Keith Powell, a local banker. The ceremony took place in front of the ornate coal-burning fireplace in the house’s main parlor.

 For the past year I have been a volunteer at Historic Deepwood museum and steeped myself in its history and lore and the lives of those who dwelt there.  Alice and her parents were not the only family to occupy the Queen Anne Victorian home throughout its history. In fact, Alice Bingham would not even be the only woman named Alice to spend a significant amount of time there. But after pouring over dozens of photographs of this woman, as a little girl in ringlets and as a beguiling teenager, she is the occupant that intrigues me the most. She was beautiful, wealthy, most likely spoiled and died at the age of 46 less than four months before the United States would become official participants in World War II. I don’t know how she died, but I think it tragic she died so young. Last week I came across a photo of her I had not seen before: Alice on the front porch of Deepwood, hair loosely tied back, and beaming as she holds her first-born infant son, Bingham. The photo most likely was taken when she moved back into Deepwood in 1916 while her husband went off to fight in the First World War. As Alice Bingham Powell and I stared at each other across the better part of a century I felt sad. Sad because I knew what she did not, that she wouldn’t live to know her grandchildren, and because I never got to be her friend.


After searching in the wrong cemetery for almost a year for Alice's gravesite, I finally found it after being steered to the correct cemetery by her great-granddaughter with whom I shyly initiated an email correspondence. (What if she thinks I am some kind of weirdo for wanting to know where her great-grandmother is buried?) I must admit that the gravesite was not at all what I expected. Photographs of Alice show a stylish woman with mischievous eyes. When looking at these photos it is easy to see why her parents sent her off to a finishing school when she was 15. This, the story goes, to separate her from Keith Powell who she met while visiting her grandparents in Lafayette, Oregon and who was nine years her senior. I did not expect a terribly ostentatious and elaborate headstone, nor did I expect the simple quiet marker that I found. Yes, the country was coming out of a Depression when she died and therefore it may have been in poor taste to purchase a more decorative headstone. Yet still, no angel, rose, dove or other symbol to signify the final resting place of such a feminine and captivating creature?

I left the cemetery more intrigued by Alice Bingham Powell than ever and determined to get to know her better.

 Historic Deepwood Estate 2010

Photos of Alice Bingham courtesy of Bush House Museum, Salem Art Association, Photo I.D No. bh1409 and bh0002. Both photos were taken circa 1910.

1894 photo of Deepwood Estate courtesy of Salem Public Library Historic Collection, Salem, Oregon.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cox Cemetery, Salem, Oregon

Thomas Cox came to Oregon from Illinois in 1847 with his wife, Martha, and several children. Mr. Cox owned a mercantile in Illinois and he must have really had a strong case of “Go West” fever because when he could not find a buyer for his store he packed a dozen or so ox-drawn wagons with all of his unsold merchandise and set out on a perilous journey to a land he had never seen, but had heard stories of its fertility and promise. Upon arrival Thomas Cox opened the first mercantile in Salem. His wife, having survived the arduous journey west, died just two years later in 1849 and was the first to be buried in this hillside cemetery, part of the property they purchased around the time that he decided to sell the mercantile and try his hand at farming. Thomas was buried beside her in 1863 and as the years went by Thomas Cox’s children, various other relations and close friends were laid to rest in the clearing that overlooks a spectacular verdant valley that today grows some of the finest wine grapes in the world.

                                                                       Thomas Cox

I visit this cemetery at least once a season, and it is one of the first places I drag out of town guests, promising them wine-tasting after we explore. To reach the cemetery one must walk a about a half a mile uphill on a rocky path that passes through row upon row of pinot noir and chardonnay grape vines. Before grapes were planted here, the undulating terrain was covered in orchards of peaches, pears and plums.

Recently I made the trek alone up the hill on a day so cold and wet even the vineyard dog that usually accompanies visitors on the trek opted to stay on the covered front deck of the winery tasting room. That day, despite the icy and loquacious March wind, I felt like paying Thomas Cox and his family a visit.

 I love this cemetery because it is so unpretentious and humble. The grass is usually shin-high and swaying no matter what the season, and in the summer it releases prickly seeds that hitch a ride home with you on your socks and tiny grasshoppers flutter up as you pass through. Most of the headstones are very old, moss-worn and difficult to read. Some lay in crumbles. The headstones cluster in small groups with swaths of blank loamy earth in between which leads me to believe that some headstones, perhaps many made of wood, have long since dissolved away leaving some of the dead forever unsignified.

I have great respect for all of the people buried up on this hill. I am in awe of their courage and work ethic. I can only begin to imagine the toil they endured to make the six-month trip west and begin a new life for themselves and their progeny. There is a family plot in this cemetery with a marker that bears the name of four children, all of whom died before the age of six. Four children from a single set of parents, lost. Their grief must have been unbearable.

Someone must tell the stories of those buried here.

Photo of Thomas Cox courtesy of the Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections, Salem Public Library, Salem, Oregon. The date of the photo is unknown.

Whenever possible I will cite the resources of my information. My knowledge of the people and places mentioned in this post is from accumulated reading and studying of my community's history and conversations with local historians.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Shades of Taphophilia

                                                             Photo by Sid Graves

Only recently did I know that there is a name for people like me. We are called taphophiles because we are drawn to, find respite in and are claimed by an abiding affection for cemeteries. I don’t remember when this passion of mine took hold exactly. It built slowly over the years probably by way of a life-long love of listening to my grandmother tell stories about our ancestors while I helped her in the kitchen or garden. At the end of every anecdote I always asked, “And when did they die, grandma?” That question was followed inevitably by, “And where are they buried?” Decades later, as a graduate student at the University of Oregon I was in Knight Library trying to wrap my brain around the writings of Focault or some other equally painful French thinker. I looked up from my book and out the large window that faced south and looked directly into a pioneer cemetery. So many early Lane County settlers buried there more than a century and a half ago. What would these forgotten people do if they were told, when they walked the earth like you and I, that after their bodies returned back to dust, a large university would grow up around them? Minds would expand and take on life-changing knowledge. Thousands of young people and scholarly laborers would pass by on foot and bicycle as seasons passed. How would they react to such information? And who were these people who, literally, became the roots of this institution? Do they know their contribution now, somehow? After that, whenever I went to the library to study I inevitably could not open my texts to prep for class and instead sat staring out at this cemetery and imagining the people buried there, who they were in word and deed, who and what they loved and lost when they walked among the living. (No, at the time I never thought of moving somewhere else within the library, perhaps deep among the stacks where there were no windows. Taphophiles and philosophers don’t think of such remedies until it is too late.)

I explore cemeteries because I feel I must. They fascinate me because when I enter into one I simultaneously feel inspiration and a sense of the sublime. I know that I am in a place that defies language, nonetheless, I must try to find the words.  The times that I have resurrected someone buried deep in the ground for a hundred years through research instills in me a peculiar feeling of accomplishment. I bring them back to life just by remembering and by speaking their names. Through all this some questions persist:  Why do some of us feel so impelled to explore the burial places of those who have gone before us? What does it signify? What does it mean under the penumbric question of what it means to be human?

I’ve had people say to me that cemeteries are repellent to them, but what I think they are actually repelled by is the self-knowledge that they are drawn to these places. It makes them uncomfortable. Each cemetery I explore holds the power of the sacred and the power of mystery, a chiaroscuro of sorts. On the surface, the light shines on the headstones, sculptures and the trees standing guard. These remind us of our common fate as human beings. Beneath the surface, though, is a dark hand with its index finger quietly and gracefully beckoning us to come and be brave enough to at least approach questions to which we may never know the answers.