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Tending our Heritage

As Memorial Day approaches, the sounds of weed-whackers, lawn mowers and chainsaws eating though tall grass and thick limbs will reverberate through Jackson County's historic cemeteries, thanks to a small and enthusiastic army of volunteers.

"Most people don't know who takes care of our cemeteries and all that they do," said Dirk Siedlecki, president of the Friends of the Historic Jacksonville Cemetery and chairman of the Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries. "They work hard, and they do it all for free."

A few of the historic cemeteries get occasional help from the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts or other community groups, but all cemetery coordinators said they still wish they had more help.

"I send out 85 postcards every year to remind people about our cleanup — people who either have plots here, or have people buried here, or are our members," said Carol Stanek, who coordinates activities at the Trail Cemetery.

Stanek said that only a very few ever answer her call.

"Sadly, most of the work is done by our board members," she said, "and there's a lot of work to do. We sure could use some volunteer help. We certainly wouldn't turn that away."

She said because her regular volunteers are aging, she worries what may eventually happen to the cemetery.

"We're old," she said. "We have no young people. We need some younger people to step up to the plate."

But Stanek understands that some people are afraid.

"Many people can't face their mortality and that's exactly what you face when you walk into a cemetery," she said.

Judy Boyd from Antioch Cemetery agrees.

"I've tried a number of times to get young people involved," she said, "but I haven't been very successful.

"Sometimes cemeteries are near and dear to people's hearts," she said, "and sometimes they really turn people off."

Boyd said cemeteries never bothered her because she practically grew up in one.

"When we were children, we played in the cemetery and we had picnic lunches there on cleanup day, and sometimes we still do with our families at Antioch."

At the Phoenix Pioneer Cemetery, Stan Bartell said he's thankful for every volunteer who turns out.

"This last time we only had 10 volunteers," he said. "We've had many more volunteers before, but they were never this productive. Everybody who came out this time was a hard worker."

The majority of cemetery workers volunteer because they have family buried in the cemetery. Most of them have volunteered for years.

"I started somewhere around 30 years ago," said Wayne Marshall, who takes care of the Brownsboro Cemetery near Eagle Point. "I grew up about a mile from the cemetery and when you live in a place for that long — well, you know. It just rubs off on you."

Ralph Finkas, a 25-year volunteer at Medford's Eastwood I.O.O.F. Cemetery, is an exception to the family rule.

"I don't have any family here so it all started out as just something to do," Finkas said. "I got a Master Gardener degree locally and using that, I started planting trees.

"When I started, there were only the old oak trees, some cedars, firs and arborvitaes. I didn't plant those, but I did plant all the rest of them."

Finkas believes he's planted more than 150 trees at Eastwood.

The newest cemetery to finally see some loving care is the Dunkard Cemetery in Talent, established by the Church of the Brethren in about 1888 and abandoned in the early 1960s.

"Occasionally, over the years, a few people would come out and clean the cemetery, but it never was a regular thing," said Carl Shauger as he mowed the grass at the cemetery.

"We started the Friends of the Dunkard Cemetery about six months ago," he said, "and with the help of Talent Historical Society and the Ashland VFW Grizzly Post, we're managing to finally keep it up."

As a longtime volunteer at the Stearns Cemetery and other historical organizations in the valley, Shauger is concerned about people forgetting the past.

"There are probably 60 pioneer cemeteries in the county," he said, "and probably half of them are more or less lost, pioneer cemeteries that just aren't cared for."

Even city-owned cemeteries such as Eastwood in Medford have to rely on volunteers.

"People hear city of Medford and think we have everything we need and in some ways we're way ahead of the curve," said Beverly Power of the city's Parks and Recreation staff, "but like everybody else, we've got a 20-acre site that needs a lot of hands-on attention.

"If someone wants to volunteer, absolutely, give Beverly a call," she said. "I'll have no problem finding them something to do and we'd really appreciate the help."

While most of the cemetery groups already have finished their spring cleanup, Siedlecki, who every week tends to the Jacksonville Cemetery with his brother Lee, said the need never ends.

"It's not the first thing people think about doing," Siedlecki said, "but it's important. Every one of these groups could use some help or even a little bit of money. These are people who really care about our heritage."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.

Carl Shauger weeds at Dunkard Cemetery in Talent Thursday. Shauger is one of many volunteers who take care of Jackson County’s historic cemeteries year-round. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch