Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Since providence has led us to this place..."

Normally I would avoid exploring a cemetery at high noon in August. Not only is it often too hot and the sun too strong, but it is not the best light for taking photos.  However, yesterday our neighbors across the street began to re-cement their  driveway and jackhammers commenced ripping through the old cement at 8:00 a.m. I live in what is usually a quiet neighborhood, but the past few days, between that jackhammer and the constant loud popping of a nail gun from another neighbor’s roofing project, the suburban racket was really getting on my nerves. So I slathered myself in sunscreen, filled up my water bottle, grabbed my camera and a notebook and drove to Providence Pioneer Cemetery in Scio, Oregon about 30 miles southeast of Salem. I knew I would most likely find some peace and quiet there.

After unusually cool temperatures in June and July summer finally arrived here in the mid-Willamette Valley. Evidence of this was all over the cemetery.The grass was crisp and brown and the mounds of earth from dozens of gopher holes were baked dry. 

Joab Powell established the church and cemetery on this hill in April of 1853. Powell was a Baptist preacher who had arrived in Oregon from Missouri in 1850 determined to save as many souls as possible from eternal damnation. Like many Oregon pioneers he took a 640 acre donation land claim to farm, part of which included the hill where the church and cemetery now stand. The original church building was made of logs but the white clapboard structure one sees today was built in 1893. When Joab and the 19 other original charter members of the church were deciding on a name for their new congregation Powell is reported as saying, Since Providence has led us to this place and prospered us in the forming of a church, why not call it Providence Baptist Church?” And so it was.

Joab Powell and his wife, Ann, are buried in the cemetery as are many of their descendants, and, as is usual for that time period, there are many graves for children.

 A. T. Powell and A. E Powell, the son and daughter-in-law of Joab Powell, lost several children.

Orta Custer Powell was just one week shy of his eighth birthday when he died.
Coray was only three. And Baby Arthur it seems didn't live long enough to warrant an age on his headstone. In looking closely at the death date of A. E. Powell, the children's mother, I noticed she died in 1876 not long after Baby Arthur. Perhaps she never recovered physically or emotionally from her loss.

These two toddlers died two days apart. The bottom of the headstone reads, "Here lies the two first born babes of S.M. and S. Davidson. 

I came across a quote recently, attributed to the famous rabbi Baal Shem Tov, that read, "When the bond between heaven and earth is broken, only a story can mend it." I kept thinking about this quote as I walked between the rows squinting at the eroded headstones. And I was so grateful that I could contemplate such wisdom with only the sounds of a rooster crowing in the distance, the buzzing of a thousand summer insects and the occasional gust of hot wind through a nearby grove of Douglas Firs.

Freeman, Olga Samuelson, "A Guide to Early Oregon Churches," Eugene, Oregon, 1976.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Fashion of Mourning

I have been a docent at Historic Deepwood Estate in Salem, Oregon for a little over two years now. One thing I never get tired of is opening up the house in the morning and closing it up at the end of the day. I love seeing the morning light stream through the stained glass windows on the east side of the house. In the late afternoon, observing corners of the house recede into shadows is so calming. It is usually very quiet in the old mansion at those times and I always take a moment to imagine the occupants of the house 100 years ago and what they were doing at that exact time of the day in a world that was so profoundly different than mine.

Every season the exhibits in the upstairs bedroom change. In the spring and summer, because Deepwood is such a popular venue in Salem for weddings, there is usually an exhibit of Victorian wedding dresses, wedding cake toppers, or some other sort of celebratory relic fitting for the time of year, such as an early 20th century graduation gown. Today as I passed by the west bedroom, sometimes referred to as “the children’s room” for historical reasons, I was momentarily startled by what I saw.

This Fall Historic Deepwood Estate will showcase Victorian mourning garments and paraphernalia. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s women who lost a husband, child, or other close family member, would dress in black, head-to-toe, for at least a year. They wore special jewelry for their time of woe. Black brooches pinned to their dresses were most often adorned with a lock of their dead loved one’s hair. Some of this jewelry as well as a funeral cards, and ornaments made of human hair are also included in the exhibit.

As I stared at these garments from the doorway there was a moment I thought they were going to glide silently toward me, pass by and through me, and, without looking back, disappear through the wall on the other side of the hall. 

My job at Deepwood fulfills some very important job criteria for me. It allows me to give back to my community and fulfill a duty we all have to preserve history, culture and local heritage. It also feeds my gluttonous imagination. How perfect.