May 30, 2007

Historic cemeteries in the high desert

Wilcox Cemetery, south of Kent

It should come as no surprise that cemeteries have individual personalities, much like neighborhoods. Redmond Memorial Cemetery is like a typical small town, with an older more stately section butting up against a tidy yet homogenous newer area. Camp Polk Cemetery outside of Sisters, however, is like those ramshackle neighborhoods that grow so gradually that no one bothers with homeowners' covenants to control the eccentrics.

Let the big cities have their corporate-owned cemeteries with rules on what kind of stone you can install, what kind of service you're allowed and at the glance everything looks the same. Central Oregon is rich is eclectic cemeteries in towns and countryside and overflowing with long-forgotten spots on abandoned ranches and farms, only a few toppled stones remaining to tell historians who lies there.

Camp Polk is probably the best known and most unusual in our area.
The cemetery is located on a knoll near Whychus Creek, requiring some burials at 45 degree angles in nothing you could attempt to call rows. Memorial markers run the gamut from a simple brick honoring an unnamed 19-year-old cowboy kicked by a horse - whose exact burial spot is unknown - to elaborate wrought iron fences surrounding towering granite stone statues. In some spots families have set up vigil areas that resemble backyard campfire rings, complete with benches. In others family plots have been fenced with plastic flower bed borders and filled with memorabilia honoring those buried there.

Other cemeteries are quintessentially high desert and reflect the history of our region. Just off Highway 97 near the near-ghost town of Kent the Wilcox Cemetery sits in a non-descript field of cheat grass and tumbleweeds that was once a viable wheat field. Weeds grow up around the markers and through the fencing, adding a whimsical 'ghost town' touch to the site. The stones contain a mini-history lesson in the hard ranching life, listing infants and children lost to disease and farming accidents.

According to Kuri Gill, program coordinator for the Oregon Historic Cemeteries Program, ownership and authority over some of the older and remote burial sites can be unclear.
Sometimes people buy property and assume they own a cemetery on it but in fact the cemetery site was taken out of the parcel years ago and deeded to someone else - or sometimes, to no one at all, leaving the cemetery ownerless.

"We use our resources to try an untangle some of that for landowners," Gill said. The program is headed by seven volunteer commissioners from all over Oregon. The program's mission is to maintain a listing of cemeteries with burials prior to 1909 and encourage preservation and interpretation by conducting workshops and granting money to projects that meet that goal.

"If a site isn't managed we try to find someone who wants to take care of it," she said, explaining that matchmaking between landowners, both public and private, and interested individuals and groups is a part of the historic cemetery program.
Community members can assist the program by cataloguing known cemeteries in their area for the program's data base, which Gill said is hoped to be online by the end of 2007. Cemetery survey forms can be found online at

For more information about local historic cemeteries log onto or or

--- story and photos by Leslie Pugmire Hole

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