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Hill Cemetery holds plentiful local and state history

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Gaston graveyard holds interesting and sometimes mysterious stories from long ago.

Ken and Kris BilderbackThe stories lie hidden on a hill just east of Gaston. The story of the first man elected to office in Oregon. The story of the man who created the Tillamook Cheese empire. The mystery of Ruthie and Rubie.

Those stories and many more lie hidden in Hill Cemetery, named not for its perch atop a hill, but rather for the man who donated the land for one of Oregon's earliest pioneer burial grounds, Almoran Hill, whose own amazing story has been largely lost to history. The struggle today is to prevent the cemetery, also known as Hill's Cemetery, from becoming lost to history.

Hill Cemetery's struggles are common to many small, off-the-beaten-path graveyards. One by one, members of the last generation of volunteers who preserved the historic headstones are being buried there themselves, with few people stepping up to take their place.

Bill Wiltse, the cemetery's longtime president, recently sold his Gaston home and now splits his time between Hawaii and the Columbia River town of Clatskanie. "I used to live two minutes away," he says, "but now it's at least an hour-and-a-half to get there."

Wiltse would like to pass stewardship of the cemetery to a younger generation, but he says, "Millennials just don't care about history."

The cemetery board disbanded more than a decade ago, leaving the site's legal status in limbo.

After the recent death of someone who owned a plot in the cemetery, the state board that oversees mortuaries and burials was unable to find a current person with authority over the graveyard, eventually contacting Margaret Bell, retired Gaston City Recorder and former cemetery board member. "I'll do what I can," Bell said, "but I don't even know what the law is."

Hill Cemetery has survived crisis before. Sometime in the early 1900s, although nobody remembers exactly when, a wildfire swept up the hill, destroying many of the old wooden crosses and grave markers. The cemetery's southwest corner is now devoid of headstones, although the remains of many local pioneers still lie buried beneath the grass and weeds.

Their exact location is a mystery, however, because a City Hall fire some years earlier charred the southwest corner of the plot map, roughly mirroring the wildfire's path.

The families of many of those pioneers replaced the burned headstones of their loved ones with granite or marble markers, but some of the deceased no longer had family in the area, so townsfolk did their best to remember their names. One such headstone reads simply "Our darlings, Ruthie and Rubie, 1911-1912," although no one remembers their last names or story.

The charred remains of one headstone burned beyond recognition still is attached to a fencepost. "I don't know who it is," long-retired caretaker Larry Epling recalled several years ago, "but I always put a flag there on Memorial Day. I called him my unknown soldier."

Even those whose names are known are often neglected by history.

William Doughty, for example, was a major factor in the Champoeg meetings that created Oregon's ties to the United States. He was the first man elected to the provisional government, being named bounty hunter to eradicate wolves and serving as one of the area's first nine senators. "Government" is misspelled on his headstone, but that's better than his fate at Champoeg State Park, where his name is etched forever as "Daugherty."

Another name preserved is that of Peter Duncan McIntosh, who revolutionized the Northwest dairy industry when he created Tillamook Cheddar Cheese. Gaston's dairy farmers hired McIntosh away from Tillamook, and he died on the floor of Gaston's cheese factory in 1940 without ever replicating the success he found on the Coast.

Memorial Day is approaching. Will there be a flag on the "unknown soldier's" grave? Will anyone remember him, or the hundreds of others whose stories lie hidden on a hill near Gaston?

Ken and Kris Bilderback will speak about efforts to preserve Hill Cemetery at noon Saturday, May 20, at the Washington County Museum in the Hillsboro Civic Center.

Portions of this column is from their book "Creek With No Name: How the West was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon."