Surprising discovery of grave marker brings one family together

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: J. BRIAN MONIHAN - Bruce McAlister and Karen Offen were all smiles after they loaded up the tombstone and prepared to take it back to Eugene last August.What was once a great mystery became a great celebration for the descendants of Samantha McAlister.

On April 20, 40 members of the family gathered at the Eugene Masonic Cemetery to celebrate the recovery and restoration of the tombstone for Samantha McAlister. It had lay in a field in Lake Oswego for perhaps decades, covered with weeds and totally lost to the family of one of the greatest pioneer women of Oregon. Now it stands where it was first set down in 1896.

It has been a strange story, but it ended with a lot of people glad all over.

"Most of the relatives there had never met each other before," said Karen Offen, a McAlister descendant. "When we had the tombstone back I started contacting relatives all over the country. This was a great excuse for everyone to get together."

There was one nonrelative at the event, but she was responsible for everything that had come about. Sarah DeMerritt likes to take her camera and wander around Lake Oswego looking for history in the most unlikely spots. By discovering the McAlister tombstone, she hit the jackpot.

"I was really honored and moved that I was invited," DeMerritt said. "I felt really good. It's amazing that all of this came about just from one little exploration. After I first found the tombstone everything just snowballed."

"Sarah is quite a character," Offen said. "Everyone was so interested in what she found."

This tombstone story began in July of last year, when DeMerritt was ambling around trying to find interesting items to photograph. She was especially interested in seeing what was on Kruse Farm, one of Lake Oswego's most significant historical sites, since the property was in the process of being sold to Gramor Development. Almost everything DeMerritt saw near an old barn was rubble. Except for one intact gravestone with the name Samantha McAlister on it.

At this point DeMerritt turned into a history detective. How had the stone been moved from the Eugene Masonic Cemetery to Lake Oswego? This was a question nobody has been able to answer. But by acting quickly DeMerritt was able to determine the old stone's future. She contacted the Eugene Masonic Cemetery Association, the Clan McAlister and the Lake Oswego Historical Society, and soon things were moving quickly. DeMerritt and the tombstone even turned up in a segment that was shown on KOIN TV.

No one was happier about DeMerritt's discovery than Offen, who is a professional historian and had been collecting her family's genealogy since 1969. At the very time DeMerritt was strolling around Kruse Farm, Offen was seeking to find out what had happened to the missing tombstone of her great-grandmother.

"I was very amazed and pleased," Offen said. "I immediately thought I wanted to get the tombstone and take it back to the cemetery."

It is not often a historian is able to latch onto a project of such personal value as this one.

"It was meaningful because Samantha McAlister was the first graduate of Portland Academy and Seminary in 1859," Offen said. "I liked her because she was a tough lady and adventurous. She pioneered our family tradition of going to college and university, all because she insisted that her children go to universities. She moved all over the Northwest establishing schools and churches. And she was born exactly 100 years before I was."

Offen acted quickly. She contacted her cousin, Bruce McAlister, in West Linn and enlisted the help of Mary Ellen Rogers, curator of the Eugene Masonic Cemetery, who was instrumental in bringing back the tombstone to its original resting place.

The next part was tough. The tombstone was resting on land that was involved in a transaction, and removing a stone that weighed 450 pounds was a problem. However, Offen managed to convince the landowners of how important the tombstone was to her family.

The next move involved sheer strength. Offen had to find enough muscle to move the big stone onto a truck and transport it to Eugene. Two muscle men who volunteered were Bruce McAlister and J. Brian Monihan, publisher of the Lake Oswego Review and West Linn Tidings. By sheer good fortune, however, there were two other very strong fellows available for the big lift when Offen and her crew showed up Aug. 18.

"I wrote down in my little book: 'Rescue Day!'" Offen said.

The little crew's first stop was the adjacent parking lot, where they celebrated and took photos. Next they stopped by DeMerritt's house.

"One of the first things we did was take it to Sarah so she could see it," Offen said.

Finally, at the cemetery in Eugene, the tombstone was lifted by a crane onto its proper place and cleaned up. Then Offen started making preparations for a big party.

At last, the stone had come home.

"Just amazing," was Bruce McAlister's opinion of the whole experience. But amazing things have been happening to him ever since he moved back to Oregon a few years ago.

"I came here and just kept bumping into my family," he said. "And just a few miles away was the tombstone of my great-grandmother. It took an amazing chain of events for this to happen. If not, the tombstone would have been swept up in a landfill and forgotten.

"Like those two big, burly guys. I'm not sure who they were, but they were absolutely essential. Otherwise, lifting that stone would have killed us."

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