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‘Meet the Pioneers’ program returns to J’ville this fall

Period players share historical tales to raise money for Jacksonville cemetery
The cast from the 2019 Meet the Pioneers program pose in the Historic Jacksonville Cemetery. The program will resume this fall for the first time since 2019. [Photo by Ken Gregg]

Meet the Pioneers living history tours return Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7-8 as a fundraiser for the Friends of Jacksonville’s Historic Cemetery, following a two-year pause amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Players in dress from their eras relate stories of individuals buried in the cemetery or recall significant events of their days that impacted the area. Tour groups of 18 to 21 are shuttled to the hilltop cemetery from downtown for the one-hour presentations. Groups leave every 15 minutes from 4 to 6:30 p.m.

“The players interact with themselves and the audience as they tell their stories,” said Dirk Siedlecki, president of the cemetery’s friends. The players represent the spirits of the deceased who have returned to the cemetery to share their tales.

Guests this year will hear from John Swan and Anna Sophia Love, a story of a short and happy time together with a tragic and sad ending. There also will be tales about Jacksonville's first fire engine, almost lost at sea, and Oregon becoming a state, with Col. William G. T'Vault and Lady Oregon discussing some of the delays and rationale behind Oregon’s confirmation of statehood.

There are 14 players this year. Four will perform on their own, but the others will interact in telling the stories of married couples buried in the cemetery from the mid 1800s into the early 1900s.

“I’ve had seven or eight wives. I get a new wife every year,” joked Robert Hight, who has been a player during all 14 previous years of the series. Hight has a degree in acting, was active in local theater and had portrayed Ben Beekman at Jacksonville’s Beekman House in the 1990s.

This year Hight will tell the story of James Niel, who was a lawyer, district attorney and county judge. Niel died at 76 in a fire that burned his home on Oregon Street. His wife, Minnie, had died several years earlier, and he was in ill health.

Anne Peugh will portray Minnie, a woman known in the community for helping other people, said Hight. “In those days the women did a lot of work and didn’t get recognized.”

One year Hight told the tale of Dr. Overbeck, who treated patients during the 1868-69 smallpox outbreak that killed more than 20 Jacksonville citizens. History of prominent citizens is easier to come by, but portrayals have been done of farmers and common folk, Hight said.

“It’s fun to work with the people, and it’s fun to be a part of real history. It’s not just made-up history,” said Hight. “Some of it is pretty tragic.”

A research team comes up with suggestions on whom to include. The group usually meets in January or February but didn’t start until the end of April this year when the decision was made to bring back the program. Researchers prepare draft scripts, then the players get them and work with the researchers to finalize a presentation, said Siedlecki.

“It’s kind of a collaborative thing. We will get together to talk about things,” said Pam Smith of Jacksonville, who has been a researcher for six years.

“This year we have the first lady that was elected to the Oregon Legislature,” said Smith. The idea came from the Mail Tribune’s History Snoopin’ column by Bill Miller, which has supplied other story ideas in the past.

Visitors will learn about Marin Towne, who was elected in 1915. While most of the spirits are buried in Jacksonville, Towne lived in Phoenix and is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery there.

Southern Oregon Historical Society, Rogue Valley Genealogy Society, and historian Ben Truwe’s extensive website and newspaper obituaries provide a lot of the leads for stories, Smith said. “If you look back in the archives of time, they are all a mine.”

Sometimes there is just not enough information available for what appears to be a promising story, Smith said, but then a couple of years later, something may be discovered that will lead to development. That happened this year with the John Tice family after letters that he wrote were discovered.

Meet the Pioneers began as one-time fundraiser in 2006. Siedlecki and his wife, Mary, had seen a presentation put on by the Grants Pass Historical Society and decided to do a similar show in the cemetery to raise money.

“You are going to do this again next year?” people were asking as they left the first event, Siedlecki recalled. “We never intended for it to go beyond the first year.”

The event was expanded at one point to include Sundays, but attendance wasn’t great that day and it was dropped. The event was a sellout on its first appearance and has continued that tradition since. As of Sept. 22, about 20 tickets remained for this year’s event.

Information and ticket purchasing is at friendsjvillecemetery.org under the tab “Meet the Pioneers.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.