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Secret of the wooden cradle

Old cemeteries hold tightly to their secrets, yet they tempt us from time to time with unexpected discoveries — immediately touching our hearts and minds with the pains and memories of our humanity.

The echoes of grieving parents still seem to hang in the air as we walk through Jacksonville’s historic cemetery. Here, symbolic cradles mark the loss of babies on the very ground, where, so long ago, funeral tears were shed.

Usually formed from concrete or carved in marble, cradle graves represent the last wish of fathers and mothers who hoped to comfort their babies in their long and lonely sleep.

In Jacksonville, there are two cradles that are very different — one, fashioned from wire, marks the resting place of Johannas Biede, the 2-month-old son of a Jacksonville tinsmith. The other, unidentified until recently, is marked with nothing more than a rectangular framework of rough-hewn wood.

Resting at the top of the hill, in the corner of the Catholic section of the cemetery, this rustic-looking grave is unmarked, and for more than 125 years has been a source of wonder. What child is buried here? The clue came from distant relatives.

Eleven pounds at birth, Bessie Agnes Sprague was born Aug. 12, 1880, to Herbert and Mary Maud Sprague. Fifteen days later, Aug. 27, Bessie died and was buried two days later. A year earlier, Herbert and Mary had already lost a son. Perhaps Bessie was buried with him.

Mary Sprague was 17 years old when daughter Bessie was born, and her husband was 32. She was the oldest daughter of John and Hanoria Cimborsky, the unlikely merger of an Austrian immigrant and an Alabama belle. Herbert was the son of a Massachusetts carpenter.

Mary was born in 1863, during one of the worst storms ever to hit Jacksonville. Rain poured down for days, muddying creeks and filling gullies in just a few hours. For nearly a week, the town was completely cut off from the outside world. It was a turbulent beginning for what would become a turbulent life.

The couple celebrated the birth of a son barely a year after Bessie died. Named for his father, Herbert Jr. survived to adulthood.

Already there was something going wrong with the marriage. Mary had recently returned from an extended solo stay in San Francisco to find her father dying of liver cancer. Soon afterward, there was a marital separation of some sort, with Herbert heading south to California and Mary Maud and her son relocating to Washington.

In July 1892, Mary was granted an uncontested divorce from Herbert by Seattle’s Superior Court. She married Frank Clancy, who adopted her son. Frank was a prominent member of Seattle’s political and sometimes shady sporting communities. Notorious for his fistfights with enemies, Frank and his brothers operated a number of liquor businesses and owned a group of hotels. Mary managed one of them.

Mary Maud died at age 49 in August 1912. Her son followed a year later, and Frank Clancy died in 1917.

Herbert Sprague settled near Sacramento, California, and was last heard of in 1910, when he was 62 years old and working as a hired hand on a farm south of the city.

The oak and madrone leaves have fallen for yet another year on little Bessie Sprague’s wooden cradle. But at least now we know who and where she is. The baby who never got a chance will never be lonely again.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “Silent City on the Hill: Jacksonville, Oregon’s Historic Cemetery.” Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.