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Oregon Trails: Memorial Day

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EAGLE POINT, Ore. — By many accounts the first well known observance of a Memorial Day type observance was in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1st of 1865. On May 5th of 1868, a call was made for an annual and nationwide observance on May 30th, because it did not fall on the anniversary of any battle. In recent years, it’s been on the last Monday in May, but for nearly a hundred years was May 30th.

Thousands of white marble tombstones, military straight and with grass trimmed and mowed waits for flags and flowers at the eagle point national cemetery. For nearly 150 years, Memorial Day, or “decoration day” as it was first called, has been a day to honor deceased veterans.

In recent decades, many families use the day to place flowers on graves of any ancestor. At Historic Jacksonville Cemetery, Dirk Siedlecki of the state historic cemeteries commission is leading efforts to restore significant monuments and plots.

He says that while many of these marble, granite and limestone markers were made elsewhere and shipped to Southern Oregon, some at great expense, many others were made by local craftsmen of local stone.

“In the early days the mid–let’s say–mid to late 1800′s in the valley, The Russells being one over in Ashland. And locally we had James Carr Whipp and he had the Jacksonville Marble works. His marble business was right on California where the current telephone building stands today. And he did markers not only here in Jacksonville, but through cemeteries throughout Southern Oregon,” explained Siedlecki.

Siedlecki says he was in business about 15 years in the 1880′s and 90′s, and was very successful.

“This is the monument to Carrie Whipp, Daughter of Whipp and his wife,” Siedlecki said. “You can see what a beautiful, beautiful tribute this is to his daughter and this is referred to as a French cradle style. You can see the side rails and one of the purposes of this type of marker is, especially for children, was that, was that parent could plant flowers within the grave site, and when they came to visit it wasn’t such a harsh reality of visiting a gravesite. It just made it a little softer and a little bit easier for them with uh, flowers growing within the grave site.”

Flowers are often planted at gravesites, especially in the pioneer cemeteries. At the Hilldunn Cemetery overlooking Emigrant Lake near Ashland, many plots here have flowers planted and one of the reasons it’s believed the end of May was appointed for decoration, or Memorial Day, is because this is when the flowers are blooming.

This cemetery has some of the valley’s oldest graves, including that of one of the area’s unique tomb stone carvers, Anne Russell. Her husband started a marble quarry and monument business in Ashland, and when he died, having learned the trade.

Although she was a petite woman, she took over the business. Several of her carvings are here and at other valley cemeteries. Other stones were made in San Francisco or other cities, sold to families by traveling salesmen, such as William Lindsey Record.

“There was Partidge Marbleworks, Edward McGraff, and McCormick Marbleworks,” said Siedlecki. “They were all 3 San Francisco marble companies, and at one time or another, he was working for one, or the other. And in one case he was working for 2. And had a very, very successful business.”

The earliest markers were likely simple stones, or wood crosses or boards. Few of those survive. Some look like stone, but are actually made of zinc to resist corrosion and decay, but granite and marble were the stones of choice for those who could afford them.

“If people had the money and some people in Jacksonville were able to buy Italian marble, or marble from back east and then it was shipped out,” said Siedlecki. “Early on it came by ship around the horn, and ended up over in Crescent City and then brought over by horse and wagon. So, you can imagine how long it took and what the expense was to have some of those markers.”

The Blair Quarry up Neil Creek in Ashland was a favorite stone source for Ann Russell, which supplied stone for many markers, as well as other public buildings in Medford and Ashland.

“It wasn’t individual stones. It was a mountain of it. Solid! And they would drill and blast and take out large chunks,” said Stan Smith, who remembers the quarry.

“Everybody wanted this granite,” said Dana Smith Tuley, Stan Smith’s daughter. “A Portland bank was trying to get the granite but they couldn’t get it fast enough.”

One of the few remaining monument company in the area now that makes markers is Oregon Granite Company. It’s been here for more than a hundred years. No longer are monuments hand-carved.

Sand blasters are used to create the detailed letters and images and those quarries are all quiet now, just as many of the cemeteries sit quietly with few people to remember who is buried there so many years ago.

Memorial Day has its roots back to the years right after the Civil War, when there were so many war dead in the nation’s cemeteries. Today we call it Memorial Day, and we honor all of our ancestors who have passed on.

By many accounts the first well known observance of a Memorial Day type observance was in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1st of 1865. On May 5th of 1868, a call was made for an annual and nationwide observance on May 30th, because it did not fall on the anniversary of any battle. In recent years, it’s been on the last Monday in May, but for nearly a hundred years was May 30th.