by Stacey Graham
Jacksonville, Oregon was a dirty little rut. Miners swarmed the hills looking for gold hidden in creekbeds and left it destitute of honor, beauty, and respectability. Once gold was pulled from Rich Gulch in 1851, Jacksonville blossomed, while men drug mules through the mud streets and into the hills, leaving their families to struggle in the small Southern Oregon village.
Pioneers bringing hope for a new life eased into the Oregon Territory. As campsites gave way to houses and businesses forced the miners into behaving, Jacksonville broadened its shoulders and grew into one of the largest cities in Oregon in the last half of 19th century. Farmers tamed the surrounding land, changing the face of the ancestral home of the Upland Takelmas tribe as the Native Americans jostled for position amongst the newcomers—and fell behind.
The population stumbled in 1884 when the railway bypassed Jacksonville, now the county seat, for nearby Medford. With the railway went businesses and residents looking for a way out of this tiny Western town butting up against the hills. Jacksonville fell into a gentle decay until the 1960s, when town residents protested against having Interstate 5 dividing the town and sparked preservation efforts.
Jacksonville now has National Historic Landmark protection on over 100 of its buildings — plus the cemetery — due to their efforts.
The first burial on the land occurred in 1859, before the cemetery was officially opened. Local businessman John Love got permission to bury his mother in October. Plots were being advertised by December 1859 and the ground was dedicated in 1860. It has been filling ever since.
My story in Jacksonville started in 1982. Moving from the San Francisco Bay Area to a hamlet called Applegate, twelve miles from Jacksonville and along the river, I became involved in Jacksonville’s history by volunteering as a teenager to be a historical interpreter at the Beekman House, as well as working at the now defunct museums.
Summers in the Rogue Valley were often between 90-100º. Wearing layers of period clothing in a non-air conditioned mansion led me to take lunch breaks up in the hills surrounding Jacksonville. Winding into the trees where it was cooler, I’d drive into the cemetery overlooking the town and relax.
Often I’d have lunch with the Beekmans, but then branched out to visit other graves on the 41 acres. My favorite was Josephine, no last name listed. Her late 19th-century stone was small and crumbling. Evidently she had been forgotten, perhaps right after burial, as lives flowed through the town like gold dust—just a wink and it was gone. The dirt path cut over her gravesite. Her stone was half-buried in the shrubbery. Having a soft spot for the underdog, I pulled away the weeds and brought the stone back into the sunlight. Thirty years later, I still think about my first adopted gravesite.
While Josephine’s stone gave no clue to her demise and only a death year now lost to my bad memory, other stones shared the realities of the early pioneers: cholera, diphtheria, measles, smallpox, lead poisoning, and “Indian War” made the list of ways to hit the dirt early in Jacksonville.
While in college, years later, I took a class that focused on the community. I had a pick of subjects; it only needed to be something that once brought the community together, as well as charted the development of the Rogue Valley. What better microcosm than a cemetery?
Plotting the cemetery was easy. For the most part, it was well-maintained (aside from poor Josephine) and sectioned into seven segments including Jewish, Catholic, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, and the Independent and Improved Order of Red Men. A potter’s field on the north side of the cemetery held the remains of blacks, whites, Native Americans, Hawaiians, and possibly Chinese. Due to the nature of being a potter’s field, there are no gravestones beyond a more recent monument erected to honor the 133 bodies left behind.
As my research continued, the connection between the community was clear: everybody dies. Choosing to focus on the art of the stonework, I wove patterns from their shared stories. Hardship, bad luck, and disease were etched into the faces of the gravestones — but decorated by art, it became part of their narrative. A child taken by measles, a middle-aged man lost in war, or a woman buried next to her infant: represented by lambs, half-opened roses, even beehives and horses told tales that no date could share.
I later earned degrees in History and Archaeology/Anthropology to learn more about how we keep the circle going and how the past influences our choices. I’ve continued my work, quietly visiting cemeteries around the United States. Now I take my children as the next generation of gravestone custodians and art lovers. What better way to revisit Josephine and tell her that she’s not forgotten?
Stacey Graham is the author of four books and a ragtag collection of short stories. You may currently find her scaring the pants off of readers with her book Haunted Stuff: Demonic Dolls, Screaming Skulls, and Other Creepy Collectibles. She intends on returning the pants at a later date. Please visit her website, at Twitter, and at Facebook to share your ghost story.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. (This one’s a little late.) If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you. The submissions guidelines are here.