Saturday, December 12, 2009

Joy of Planting

Rainier Cemetery

A trio of Washington State cemeteries I recently visited on a trip to see Jimmy illustrates the principle of “random acts of beauty.” The three cemeteries—Rainier, Orting, and the Washington Soldiers Home—count among them two pioneer and one military cemetery, which range from almost military precision to largely free-for-all.

Washington Soldiers Home Cemetery

The Washington Soldiers Home Cemetery occupies the southern flanks of a small knoll, a good defensive position, that guards the neighboring valley. The graves are laid out in concentric rings surrounding an obelisk and flag pole, which occupy the summit. The nearly identical stones are only occasionally interrupted by irregulars the likes of which one finds in any graveyard. There is a dignity to the uniformity and tidy order of military cemeteries, and this is no exception. One would be honored to be buried here (and only pray for a bigger maintenance budget); knowing that, in the evening when the ghosts come out to chat, the line stretches from today to the Civil War. They may have differing accents and differing garb, but the stories will ring the same bell over and over again.

Orting Cemetery

Orting Cemetery is not far from Washington Soldiers Home—at the other end of a horseshoe bend—in either distance or sentiment. It, too, is orderly though by no means uniform; and while there are uprights here and there, I notice in the photos that all the recent stuff is flat, suggesting a modern regulation. A number of the flat markers, though they may be intermittent in age, are of the “pillow” variety, meaning that they rise above the ground surface and are a consequent impediment to mowing. A new sign at the entrance demonstrates that someone is minding the store.

Orting Cemetery

Despite the lawn stone requirement, many of the headstones display individualized carvings, that while not detracting from the dignity of the interred, refrain from excess sobriety. Warren Burris’s stone, emblazoned with, not only his, “Papa’s Boy,” photo on the surface, but also a deep carving of Warren jumping a motorcycle in the mountains, is a good example of giving dignity to an untimely death, while leaving reminders of who the deceased was beyond a name and dates. A tombstone of this sort goes beyond reminding us that someone is gone but helps us remember who they were, even if we never knew them. It celebrates the person versus mourning them.

Orting Cemetery

In the same way, the bench honoring Ken Montgomery, while rife with the symbols of death—bellowing bull elk, fallen tree, setting sun—is anything but somber and depressing. It certainly has its own joie de vivre.

Rainier Cemetery

Overall, Orting displays a mid-point between the strict regulation of Washington Soldiers Home and the liaise faire rambunctiousness of Rainier Cemetery, an unquestionably delightful graveyard. It was walking up the sun-dappled slope of this small wooded cemetery (Rainier), after recording some 680 cemeteries, that the sentence grew in my mind: a good cemetery is a joyful place.

Rainier Cemetery

It was a sharply cold day when I visited and the wind was finding any smidgin of unprotected skin, but the sky was bright with a thin layer of gauze where a cloud might have been. Even at midday the sun streamed in low on the horizon, and oblong patches of light stretched away from it. The wind was knocking down a rain of small branches and here and there lay a widow-maker. It paid to stay alert. But the slope it was on, facing west and south, helped, perhaps, by a canopy of small to large trees, gave an illusion of warmth and protection. There was no sign at the entrance telling people what they could and could not do. No one cared how long your plastic flowers brightened a gravesite.

For the most part, despite the geography and presence of sizable trees, the graves in Rainier are arranged in an orderly fashion, although the order quickly disintegrates if the situation demands it. Corners of the cemetery, half forgotten, are being swallowed by bushes and St. John’s wort; and when one gets to the “rockery” at the top of the hill, all pretense at precision is put aside. Up there is a scene worthy of Camp Polk, with someone or some bodies having hauled in uncounted pickup loads of rocks and erected a considerable complex of nooks and crannies festooned with fields of plastic flowers and storms of driftwood. There are benches and fences, crosses and a wishing well (in case the one didn’t work). Where there aren’t rocks, there are pebbles. An organic flowing together of several graves uniting them in a friendly family. One can only imagine the scene at night when the ghosts here come out to sit on the benches and trade stories.

Orting Cemetery

Of course there’s more; you’ll have to come see it yourself.

But it’s a joyful place. It’s an inviting space. It’s a place that says: sit down a spell, have a bowl, relax. It’s just the way a good cemetery should be.

Look around. Neighborhood’s OK.

Think you could stay?

Rainier Cemetery

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Thousand Words
Woodmen of the World: III

Alford Cemetery (Harrisburg, OR)

Hello to all my old and new friends;

I went digital in the summer of 2004. Going digital forced me to buy a new computer. When I updated my camera this year, I had to update my computer as well. This has not been a cheap avocation. I went digital when I embarked on an exploration of Oregon cemeteries.

Lone Fir Cemetery (Portland, OR)

I began with the goal of finding and recording the essence of all functioning cemeteries in the state. I was by no means a photographer. In fact, it had been a number of years since I’d had a reasonably good 35 millimeter and was strictly a vacation tourist snap-shooter. What I was hoping to accomplish from the project was a guide to said cemeteries, accompanied by a few pictures from each. Or perhaps just a single photograph for minor cemeteries. I’d had by this point a fair amount of experience writing and had, probably, an unwarranted confidence in that; but I knew I was no shakes as a photographer, so that would take second fiddle in the guide to the written word.

North Powder Cemetery

Consequently, when I went to upload my photos to Flickr, I only uploaded a few representative photos from each cemetery rather than everything I shot. But strange things happen over time. People said they liked some of my photos. People said they liked some photos that I hadn’t thought much about at all. I slowly began to realize that I shouldn’t edit out what I thought were uninteresting or repetitive photos, as other people often felt entirely differently about the same shot. Likewise I began to understand that, since there was no financial restriction on the number of photos I could post online versus publishing in a book, there was no real reason to restrict the uploaded photos to only those I thought worthy and that by doing so I was restricting the amount of information available about the cemeteries. Slowly I began to see I could do a guide online, and I could do so with all (or almost all; there is some editing) the photos I take.

Likewise and even more slowly I began paying attention to what makes a good photograph and what doesn’t. I began to cut down on cropping and tried to capture the proper composition at the camera rather than the computer.

Tacoma Cemetery

More than anything, I learned by looking at your photographs. It’s no secret that I’m the bumbling idiot of photographers, so I’ve had nowhere to go but up; but all of my contacts have great vision, and a few of you are incredibly accomplished and I’m humbled every time I look at your stuff. I know I’m in the company of masters and I only hope some will rub off on me.

And, frankly, I think it has. I know that I’m no where near the master you folks are, but I feel that at least I can play the game now. I can warm your bench any time. So to speak. Or at least I think I can. I’ve never been accused of humility.

Although I’ve cut down on cropping and look towards better initial composition, I have increase editing time. I’m not so good with settings on the camera, but I’m getting to know my way around the editing tables, and they help, too, in making a crisp copy.

IOOF Cemetery (Coburg, OR)

And to the degree to which I’m no photographer, I’m no artist. I’ve had absolutely no training in either and I’m as creative as a blind lamp post, so I don’t try for “art” in my work. My goal is not to make you think, “My, what a gorgeous photograph,” but rather “My, what a gorgeous tombstone.” I’m successful if what I show you is stunning, but that you don’t notice the photography at all.

I think I do that better now than I did before. I believe practice, while not making perfect, does improve ones game. As a result, I take and post more pictures per cemetery than I did five years ago. Better pictures, too, I hope. But I’m aware that what this means is that I have to go back to those early visitations and shoot them again. Give them their full due.

Central Point IOOF Cemetery

In the end, it was the photographs that shined through, and the writing ended up being supporting dribble. Not that I don’t feel I have something to say—you’re reading this blog, for God’s sake—but rather that the photos say so much more. And more succinctly. And the blog gives me a place to highlight particular ones.

My apologies; I dribble (I just said that).

Ah well, until it’s used up, I’ve got nothing but time.

Pioneer Cemetery (Centralia, WA)

Photo Notes:

This is the last of three displays of Woodmen of the World photos, giving a feeling for, I hope, the wide diversity of what they produced. In the scheme of things, the Woodmen didn’t last long as a tombstone dispensary, but they left an indelible mark on the cemeteries of America.

There is a Flickr group devoted to Woodmen of the World, which you might enjoy visiting.

Dum tacet clamat

Idldewild Cemetery (Hood River, OR)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Woodmen of the World: II
Plus Green Burials

George Cemetery

The local remnant rag, The Big Oh? (aka The Oregonian), had an article recently about the growing interest in green burials. It concentrated on the George Cemetery in the Estacada Cemetery District one of the best collection of small pioneer cemeteries in the state. The people who live in the district have faithfully assessed themselves taxes to maintain them. I owe them a revisit.

In any event, I’ve thrown this notice in with my second installment of Woodman of the World tombstones. I’m hoping you won’t mind.

Woodmen Part Two

Tillamook IOOF Cemetery

Olney Cemetery

Oakwood Hill Cemetery (Tacoma)

North Powder Cemetery

Cornelius United Methodist Cemetery

Lake View Cemetery (Seattle)

Lake View Cemetery (Seattle)

IOOF Cemetery (Lakeview, OR)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Woodmen of the World
Unite: A Photo Gallery: I

IOOF/GAR (The Dalles)

Granite Hill Cemetery

No one forgets their first Woodman of the World faux stump headstone. Cemetery novices tell you in an excited voice of this incredible find they made in a small cemetery near their home. Yep, WoW, as they’re known. The stump—fallen tree and all that—is a traditional symbol of death and has been used informally both here and in Europe for a long time, but the Woodmen of the World, in its program of providing tombstones for its members, kicked the image into high gear (can I say that?).

Union Cemetery

Riverside Cemetery (Albany, OR)

Hard information on WoW headstones is hard to come by; I don’t think there’s been a book about them, yet (authors take note). As this gallery attests, faux stumps were not the only motif the WoW used, but they were definitely the most notable. What’s particularly notable is that, despite their popularity and ubiquity, as far as I can tell, each one is unique. My understanding is that orders and drawings were sent to local craftsmen to execute the monuments, who in turn interpreted the drawings as they saw fit. Whatever the cause, the result has been a windfall of unique monuments across the entire country. In lieu of the book yet to come (I’m open to offers), I’m going to present here a selection of WoW headstones in a series of posts; there are too many for a single run.

Lone Fir Cemetery (Portland)

Testimony that at one time, at least, the WoW folk were more than a simple insurance agency is via a fabled performance venue in Eugene, OR, the WoW Hall, which was my introduction to the Woodmen of the World. Their active involvement in the WoW Hall has long since passed, but their name remains stuck with the theater they put together, which was—and still is—a showcase for some amazing performers. My most memorable nights there were watching Reverend Chumleigh and the Flying Karamazoff Brothers, along with Artis the Spoon Man, doing amazing feats of derring-do never equally anywhere, except, perhaps, at the Country Fair (little children, be warned). I’ll forever have a picture burned into my memory of Robert, the Juggler, backing offstage, his hands afire with lighter fluid, eyes as wide as pancakes, trying to keep the flaming tennis balls in the air before screaming. Ah yes, the good old days. The WoW Hall.

Brownsville Pioneer Cemetery

The Woodmen of the World still exist—they’d be happy to sell you some insurance—but their policies, alas, no longer come with a tombstone. It’s a pity, but we’ll just have to suffer through. Carve your own.

Mount Calvary Cemetery (Portland)

Technical Note:

The framing for these pictures was done in Picnik, as a part of Flikr. It's slow, but I found opening two windows at a time (thank God for Firefox) kept me going full time. The hint to use it came thanks to fellow Flickrdick doubledcop. If anyone else wants to use the basic program (there's a "premium" package one can pay for), I have a couple hints. A) You can put multiple frames around one picture by simply repeating the process. B) When choosing frame colors, the little eye-dropper will pick up the color from wherever it's pointed, not just the color chart provided. I like to get my frame colors from within the photo itself; that way I'm sure the colors are complimentary.

Calvary Catholic Cemetery (Galveston, TX)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Weekend Water
A Gallery of Pleasure Craft Tombstones

Havurah Shalom Cemetery

Wisner Cemetery

Oswego Pioneer Cemetery

I promised long ago to complete my trio of boat monument posts; the first two, you’ll recall, covered fishing and working boats. That I have less pleasure craft than working boats in my collection might be due to my preferences as well as luck in what I find. In the archetypes I chose to accompany this post I notice, just for example, no kayaks (not to mention surf boards) or pontoon boats. Lack of pontoons might be a regionalism, but we have a lot of kayaking in the mountains.

La Center Cemetery

Crescent Grove Cemetery (Tigard, OR)

Pioneer Cemetery (Pioneer, WA)

Regionalism pops up in other ways. The small lakes of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, for example, don’t lend themselves to large sailboats; whereas the high-prowed McKenzie River boat is designed to ride over rocks in steep mountain streams. The small outboard fishing boats are universal as are canoes, speedboats pulling water skiers, and small cabin cruisers. There are no propeller propelled punts here.

Bilyeu Den Cemetery

Mt. Calvary (Eugene, OR)

I’ve thrown in two examples of the same stock design, a single fisherman in a small row boat, being used on two different stones conveniently rendered in complimentary colors. As far as I can tell, they’re essentially identical (slightly different water rendering) except that in the red version the fisherman has a pipe in his mouth. Ah, the personal touch.

Hayes Cemetery

Park Hill Cemetery (Vancouver, WA)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Campos Santos of New Mexico

A quick note here to alert you to an incredible selection of photos from New Mexican Campos Santos graveyards at a site called Crossroad. Their essential purpose "preserving the Unendowed cemeteries or 'Campos Santos' of New Mexico, as the saced and endangered places they are." I have put a link to them over on the side bar under "Dead on connections," so it'll be easy to find.m It's hard to look at them and not think of the cemeteries of their distant cousins, the Native Americans, who live up here. Certainly there is a form of continuity between them.

What the society does, beside taking evocative photos, is unexplained further. Whatever it is, I support it and strongly urge you to look at the pictures.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dairy Lunches & Other Lost Worlds

Grass Valley IOOF

You’ve never heard of “dairy lunches”; I can pretty much guarantee that. I know that because several years back I was researching dairy lunches and no one had ever heard of them, not even people in the trade. Well, eventually I ran across someone who did know about them, but it was a long haul.

I only knew about them because I’d been researching the history of ethnic restaurants in my town (Portland, OR) by digging through old phone books, looking for restaurants with ethnic names, and ran across a period of time—1920s-1940s—when nearly a quarter of the restaurants in town had the words “dairy lunch” in their name.



Naturally, I started asking around.

—Anybody know what a dairy lunch was?


Turns out they were the food fad of their day. Eat clean, eat dairy and you’ll avoid, if not cure, all ills. Being a Wisconsin boy, I can attest to the efficacy of that advice. Too bad we don’t still follow it; I can’t think of anything that a slice of lemon meringue pie doesn’t help.

I mention all this, not because there’s any connection between dairy lunches and cemeteries—the advice to eat clean and eat dairy was not deadly—but rather to demonstrate how quickly major institutions in American life can fade away leaving only wisps of memory like swirls of fog at the end of the pier. I wrote my little piece on the role of dairy lunches in American life, it was read by a handful of people, and promptly forgotten again. Dairy lunches are still lost.

It’s not quite that bad for fraternal organizations, the Odd Fellows and the Masons are still out there, but none of us remembers what they used to mean to American life, how they dominated American society. We don’t remember it because we never knew it. We only know they have halls here and there in some towns, halls as often falling to the wrecking ball as not. If it wasn’t for the Shriners’ circus most American would know nothing of the Masons.

Yet there are telltale traces of the pervasive influence these fraternal organization (known in England as “friendly societies”), the Odd Fellows and the Masons in particular, had in American life scattered throughout the landscape: the cemeteries. As always, cemeteries are the archaeologist’s treasure trove, and in this case it’s the very names of the cemeteries that leave a memory of a time when fraternal organizations played a central role in our culture. Indeed, it was a time when people were trusting their eternity to their chosen fraternity, something previously reserved for the church. How and why this transformation occurred and why it as quickly disappeared are enduring mysteries. I’m sure there are volumes written about fraternal organizations, but they rarely get covered in high school civics. Their place in our history is largely forgotten and were it not for the halls and cemeteries, the knowledge of their very existence would soon vanish.

Nestucca Valley Cemetery

Both Masons and Odd Fellows are, as their names would suggest, evolutions of ancient trade guilds that spread from Europe to America with the European invasion and were going particularly strong at the time of the American Revolution. Free Masons were, arguably, of higher status than Odd Fellows, but in their prime the Odd Fellows easily outstripped the Masons, which is reflected in the number of cemeteries they provided. In my Oregon Territory database, Odd Fellow cemeteries outnumber Masonic cemeteries almost two to one (51/26).

(In days of yore, trades were divided up by rank, with masters being at the top. Independent tradesmen [they were invariably male] not under the direct tutelage of a master, i.e. neither apprentice nor journeyman, were referred to as “fellows.” Often in smaller towns there weren’t enough members of a given trade to form its own local guild, so these independent fellows would sometimes join together and form their own guild of mish-mash professions; hence Odd Fellows.)

Needless-to-say, trade unions of any stripe have often been looked on with a jaundiced eye by the powers that be, as, indeed, all associations of the populace evoke political suspicion. Guilds were formed to provide protection of their craft in the marketplace, both by setting standards and providing economic safeguards for its members. It’s in the latter duty that the Odd Fellows have shined in American life. By the nature of the Odd Fellows being a collection of people from diverse crafts, it could never have the role of setting professional standards, so that aspect of guild fellowship was never a burden to them and they could concentrate on fiscal protection for its members, which is reflected in their mission statement: “To visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.” It was their boast that “no Odd Fellow or Odd Fellow’s dependent ever becomes a public charge” (emphasis theirs).1

Harrisburg Masonic/IOOF Cemetery

For a while, at least, they took those responsibilities very seriously. By 1927 they were operating sixty-two “homes” across America and ten elsewhere. The homes were an inspired combination of caring for old, indigent members under the same roof with an orphanage, while using the accumulated wisdom and energy to operate a farm. It’s a model to which we could well return.

They did not, though, surround their homes with cemeteries. For that they selected other locations. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a history of their cemetery involvement. Their Web site doesn’t mention them. But their Web site doesn’t mention the old homes, either. Advancing social legislation, especially that of the New Deal, put the kibosh on the Odd Fellows communal philanthropy. It may have been better for the country, but not necessarily for the Odd Fellows.

A note of caution, if you’re thinking that the Odd Fellows seem eminently reasonable and that you might like to hitch your wagon to their train, that, though they pride themselves on being “non-sectarian,” it doesn’t mean you can believe whatever you’d like to believe. They believe their mission to be “founded on the inspired word of God as revealed to man in the Holy Bible,” and would like you to believe the same.

For the most part the IOOF (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) has given up the cemetery business. I have no idea when the last Odd Fellow cemetery was founded, but I’d vote for prior to mid-20th century. Some are still maintained by IOOF chapters, but the majority have long since been handed over to other authorities, often with a name change that disguises their origins. Likewise with the Masons.

(For the record, the aforementioned database of 670 or so cemeteries has 55 with Catholic connections and 72 with ties to other Christian religions. The Jews have nine. Probably the bulk of the remaining were Donation Land Claim cemeteries created by the holder of the claim and subsequently taken over by a civic authority. A few were started by municipal authorities themselves, something that would be unheard of today.)

But the remnant memory in name or history of a cemetery with IOOF affiliation isn’t just a record of the importance of those institutions in American life, their locations mark, just as Jewish cemeteries do, places of previous prosperity. Many a disappearing community in Oregon that can no longer muster a gas station, much less a lodge hall, is marked with the existence of a whilom Odd Fellows cemetery. If the town was really important, it might have a Masonic cemetery, as well. In Fossil, for example—population 470—the Odd Fellow and Masonic cemeteries are themselves fossils as much as the bones that pop out of the ground. Their very presence testifies to the former glory of this rural wayside, a theme repeated over the entire state.

How this compares with the rest of the country, I have no idea. I know that IOOF and Masonic cemeteries blanket the nation, but what percentage of cemeteries were founded by fraternal orders is unknown. In the Oregon Territory it’s roughly 7.6%. The Masons come in at 3.9%. Nobody’s counting the rest of the country. In the end, the Odd Fellows weren’t so odd, after all. They simply disappeared.

Lorane IOOF Cemetery
1. This quote and most of the information about the Odd Fellows’ homes that follows are from the “Album of Odd Fellows Homes,” edited by Ira Wolfe, 1927; 12th edition; Minneapolis, MN.