Memorial Day celebration brings attention to Eugene Pioneer Cemetery
Four men dressed in Civil War-replica uniforms lined up in Eugene Pioneer Cemetery with their muskets aimed over McArthur Court, and fired into the air. The shots rang out as the smoke from the black powder billowed from the weapons, lingering in the air for a second.
The re-enactors shot twice more to the same effect, punctuating their tribute to a 21-gun salute in the cemetery’s Memorial Day ceremony, which drew dozens of community members Monday morning. The event focused on the cemetery’s history and the men and women who died serving in the armed forces, and featured performances from the Shasta Middle School band and choir.
For the volunteers who take care of the cemetery throughout the year, the event exemplified their dedication, rewarding them for their hard work in the lead-up to the ceremony after they spent the previous Friday cleaning out the undergrowth in the 16-acre plot.
The cemetery was founded by the International Order of Odd Fellows in 1872, predating the University of Oregon by four years. As its name implies, the Eugene Pioneer Cemetery is home to many of Eugene’s most prominent early settlers, including James Henry Dickey Henderson, one of the first people to represent Oregon in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Joshua J. Walton, a Lane County judge and the person who brought the University to Eugene.
“You can’t put a value on that. It embodies the dreams and visions of the people who first came out to Oregon when we were just a territory,” cemetery association president Quentin Holmes said. “What we are today — all of us, this whole area and this civilization — is because of these people.”@@http://special.registerguard.com/csp/cms/sites/web/news/cityregion/24688499-41/[email protected]@
The cemetery’s most prominent resident is Louis Renninger, a Union corporal in the Civil War and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military commendation. The presence of Renninger’s grave provided the impetus for the cemetery to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places on August 1, [email protected]@http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&[email protected]@ @@http://www.nps.gov/nr/listings/[email protected]@
Another thing cited in the National Park Service’s decision to place the cemetery in the Register was its exemplary preserve of nature in Eugene’s urban environment. The towering fir and cedar trees, the flowers and the grass give a park-like atmosphere to the graveyard.
“You’ve got this open — it’s like the country, almost, if you’re in the middle,” groundskeeper George Dull said. “You feel like you’re out of the city, and you can relax.”
Clear days seem to attract college students to the cemetery, where they can be seen soaking up the sun, reading a book or taking a break in the shade.
“Other cemeteries maybe might not grow grass as high,” University biochemistry doctoral student Jon Mauser said, “but that’s part of the charm.”@@http://directory.uoregon.edu/telecom/directory.jsp?p=findpeople%2Ffind_results&m=student&d=person&b=name&[email protected]@
The cemetery’s groundskeeping is emblematic of the financial crunch it faces as a nonprofit with a only a small endowment with which it can work. Because the cemetery was founded well before the advent of the “perpetual care” concept — where the cost of interment includes a fee to forever pay for the upkeep of the grave — it is entirely reliant on volunteer labor, membership dues for the Eugene Pioneer Cemetery Association and donations to its meager endowment. The board of directors struggles to find money to pay for things beyond basic upkeep.
“Hopefully, 10 generations from now, the money will still be there, still generating interest, and they’ll still have money to care for this,” cemetery historian Dorothy Brandner [email protected]@http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=messageList&contribId=47187812&[email protected]@
In the cemetery’s current state, headstones are crumbling — Walton’s is even wrapped in duct tape to hold it together as best as possible — and the interest generated from the endowment is already allocated to other things, including a twice-yearly visit from the Lane County Sheriff’s Office’s work crew, one of which happened Friday.
The only person paid to work at the cemetery is Dull, who lives in a travel trailer in the heart of the graveyard and also works as a janitor at Shasta Middle School. Dull has handled the day-to-day maintenance for the last nearly 20 years, and he says he does it to keep himself busy and out of trouble.
Dull is responsible for keeping trouble out of the graveyard, too. Because of its precarious financial situation, the cemetery relies on his presence to deter vandalism and other crimes from occurring within its premises. But Dull knows his presence only does so much to stop problems from coming up.
“I can’t come out and do anything about it,” Dull said. “I just call the police if something really gets bad.”
Though headstones have been known to be knocked over, moved or stolen, the worst act of vandalism to have taken place in the cemetery happened in 2001, when the head of the 16-ton marble statue in the Civil War veterans’ plot was destroyed. The statue had originally been carved in Georgia and transported by train 100 years prior, but a Eugene artist recreated the statue’s head with stone from the same quarry.
For retired nurse Dorothy Brandner, 70, volunteering at the cemetery has given her an opportunity to stay busy and give back to the community. She has taken the cemetery’s physical records and digitized them to show where people are buried within the plots and also has made a determined effort to clean up some plots overgrown with ivy. As the cemetery’s designated researcher on the board of directors, she has taken on the task of chronicling the extensive history of the graveyard and its occupants.
Brandner wants the people who use the cemetery to respect the dead and their memorials, but its location proves detrimental to her desire.
“I don’t know how we can accomplish that being surrounded on three sides by the University,” Brandner said. “I don’t know how that can be accomplished unless we get more people in the University community involved in the maintenance or care.”
The coexistence of the cemetery with the University was tenuous at best at some points in history. The University tried multiple times to get the cemetery condemned to acquire its 16-acre parcel of land, with its last attempt happening in the 1960s.
“I believe there was talk about the University needing to expand, and there was actually some drawings and proposals made to build university buildings on top of the cemetery, which, when you look back on it now, was a crazy idea,” said Tim King, the University’s director of grounds and its appointee to the cemetery’s board of directors.
Once the cemetery’s board of directors was created, it included an appointee from the University president to represent the school with the cemetery. The school benefits from having green space within its campus footprint, and it also gets access to parking across from McArthur Court that technically belongs to the cemetery; some of the revenue generated from that arrangement is paid back to the cemetery by the University.
University students benefit from the cemetery’s presence more than the school does, because they are the ones who get to take advantage of its lush, green environs. Even classes — such as a community ecology class — use the cemetery as a place to study lichens native to the Eugene area.
Mauser, the biochemistry student, is currently taking that class, but his involvement in the cemetery is much deeper than that. He spends much of his free time photographing the headstones in the cemetery and uploading the pictures to Findagrave.com. Mauser was drawn to the cemetery by his own genealogical pursuits, and then put more time into documenting its history because he says it’s “a way of respecting the people that have lived before me.”
“Today, I came out because I had a class out here, but I also had two families from around the country request specific grave pictures of their relatives,” Mauser said. “There’s hardly anything I’ve experienced that is quite like the gratitude you get when you get an email from six members of the same family saying, ‘Thank you for taking a picture of my grandmother’s headstone; we didn’t know where she was, but now we do.’”
Genealogy draws a lot of people in to the cemetery because people increasingly have been trying to get to know the history of their family. As a pioneer cemetery, many of the people buried there are generations removed from their living relatives. (That’s not to say the cemetery is inactive — two burials have taken place this year.) Both Mauser and Brandner said they volunteer in the cemetery here in exchange for others volunteering where their families are buried.
“I would love to see people because their parents and grandparents are buried across the nation, they’re out here starting a new family or school, and they come in and take care of some of these things because somebody back home is taking care of theirs,” Brandner said. “That would just warm my heart.”
The cemetery’s lack of perpetual care leaves it dependent upon volunteers to do much of its caretaking. The ones who give the most to the cemetery are the small, dedicated corps of people who put time into keeping it looking as good as they can make it. These dedicated individuals come in and weed the plots, chronicle where people are buried, place flowers on graves and try to raise money to pay for repairs and upkeep.
Holmes, 71, has been active in a volunteer role at the cemetery since retiring in 2000. Holmes’ great-grandfather, Egbert Charles Lake, has a prominent plot in the cemetery and Lake’s company, Eugene Granite and Marble, provided many of the headstones in the graveyard. Holmes’ involvement at the cemetery was prompted by his mother, Ruth Lake Holmes, 92, who has served as the association’s secretary since [email protected]@http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~farmerie/webber/webber2.htm#[email protected]@ @@@@
“When I retired and returned to Oregon, she asked me to come to a meeting,” Holmes said. “In good style, you can imagine, I was put on their board of directors, then I was the editor of their informal newsletter, and then as some people passed away, they elected me president, so I’m just carrying on the tradition.”
The people who volunteer at the cemetery are always looking for help from the community in taking care of it, both financially and physically, because they never have the ability to get the whole cemetery in perfect condition at one time, as Holmes says.
“The more people that we can get, the better,” Brandner said. “It takes a lot of bodies to do a lot of this, but it also takes a lot of money, because you can’t restore a marker on nothing.”
Mauser finds himself frustrated with how little respect is paid to the cemetery, but he believes people don’t realize the entire site is taken care of by volunteers.
“It’s 16 acres’ worth of graves, and people come out here and disrespect them and crap, and there’s just not enough of us and there’s not enough time on the volunteer side to help restore it,” Mauser said.
For those who volunteer at the cemetery, the satisfaction they get from working in it motivates them to help out. Apart from his family having a prominent role in the cemetery’s history, Holmes takes interest in the cemetery’s place in local history.
“We try to pay honor to those who did a lot to make Eugene, Oregon, Lane County and the University of Oregon what it is today because of the lives that they lived.” Holmes said. “It’s part of the history of our West.”
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