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Alone on the hilltop

Just up the hill in Jacksonville’s Historic Cemetery lie the graves of two children, cousins left alone when their families moved away nearly 160 years ago.

One-and-a-half-year-old Sylvester died first, Dec. 14, 1859, and 11-month-old Martha followed six days later. How or why they died is unknown.

Sylvester was the third child of Sylvester Mather Wait and his wife, Mary Hargrove. Young Martha was the second daughter of John Anderson and wife, Elizabeth Hargrove, a twin to Mary Frances. Mary Wait and Elizabeth were sisters.

Both children were buried just as the cemetery was officially dedicated and opening for the first time. Margaret Love, the first burial, had preceded the cousins by barely two months.

John Anderson was a merchant living in Jacksonville, importing most of his inventory from San Francisco.

The senior Sylvester Wait had a significant impact on the earliest days of Jackson County history.

He was born in 1822 in Vermont and came west in 1850, eventually drifting into Oregon. After doing some mining he began herding cattle for a butcher in the Rogue Valley and soon became a partner in the business.

He bought cattle in the Willamette Valley and drove them through the Rogue Valley to California for sale, accumulating $30,000 by 1852. It was on one of these trips his future wife, Mary Hargrove, caught his eye.

Mary was born in 1836. Her family had come west from Illinois in 1852 and settled near Corvallis.

While buying cattle from Mary’s father, Sylvester was smitten with Mary but couldn’t speak personally with her to announce his sudden intentions. Instead, he wrote her a note.

“Mary, I take this method of informing you I want to speak a few words, privately, with you.”

The next morning he told her he would ask her father for her hand in marriage. The following year, Oct. 6, 1853, they married and settled near today’s Phoenix. Mary was 17 and Sylvester 31.

Although they would leave for Washington state within a decade, they lived a prosperous life.

In 1855, Sylvester built a water-powered flour mill along Bear Creek, invested in the Eagle flour mill near Ashland, opened a general store, and bought and sold real estate. He was also the local agent for the Phoenix Insurance Company, and when a name was needed for the post office established in 1857, he officially named the town and the post office, Phoenix.

During the brief Rogue River Indian War of 1857, in which Sylvester served as a captain, some of his men, while delivering flour to California, were ambushed and killed near the Siskiyou summit. Sylvester sold his mill and purchased a farm near what today would be downtown Medford.

With everything finally going so well, what prompted the Waits and the Anderson families to leave their children’s graves behind and move away from Southern Oregon?

John Anderson may have wanted to live in the big city, where he had so many business relationships. He and his family left for San Francisco, where he opened another store. He died in 1880, and Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, remarried and passed on in 1914.

For Sylvester and his family, it was the severe winter of 1861-62 that was the final straw. It not only wiped out a large shipment of merchandise he was expecting, but it flooded the valley so violently and deeply it ruined his farm.

They left in 1863, settling in an area of Eastern Washington that soon became the town of Waitsville. He constructed another flour and grain mill and soon became one of the wealthiest men in the area.

Sylvester died in 1891, at age 69. His wife, Mary, survived until she was 91, in 1936.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.