Volunteer bringing abandoned Oregon cemetery back to life
For decades, the old German Hill Cemetery near Estacada sat unattended, hidden under a tangle of brush and vulnerable to nature's fury and vandals.
In early February, James Moriarty, chairman of the Estacada Cemetery Maintenance District, received permission from Oregon's Commission on Historic Cemeteries to clean up and adopt the George-area cemetery northeast of town.
It's a labor of love for Moriarty. He retired a few years ago after 24 years as a U.S. Border Patrol officer in Southern California. In 2018, Moriarty moved to the rural Clackamas County town to be closer to family.
It didn't take him long to figure out he needed a project to stay busy. Growing up in New England, Moriarty was interested in genealogy and decided to put that to work in Estacada.
Then he discovered the abandoned German Hill Cemetery, a few miles from his home. It needed a lot of love, Moriarty said. "I don't want to say it's dilapidated, but there are stairs out front that are all mossy and everything's overgrown," he said.
About a dozen members of the Scheel family are buried in the cemetery. The first grave belongs to a child, Emma Scheel, who died in 1888. The last known burial was Edward Nicholas Scheel, who died in 1977 at age 81. Known as "Eddie," Scheel was a longtime mechanic who worked in Portland-area shops before moving to Sandy, where he died.
Vandalism and a jungle of weeds and brush had taken its toll on the small cemetery, Moriarty said. In January, he applied for a state abandoned cemetery care permit, which allows him to take over the cemetery's maintenance. The Historic Cemetery Commission granted the permit Feb. 5.
'It has been amazing'
Getting an abandoned cemetery care permit is not an easy task. Before applying, Moriarty spent more than six months researching the cemetery in hopes of finding someone who owned the property or knew the site's history. He had to agree to strict guidelines on the cemetery's restoration and maintenance. He also had to "take custody of documents related to the cemetery" and set up a fund for possible donations to maintain the site.
So far, the research has turned up only bits and pieces of valuable information. "I know that I'm going to have to brush up on my German," Moriarty said.
Through research, Moriarty discovered that the German Hill Cemetery could be one of more than a dozen unattended or abandoned historic cemeteries in Clackamas County. Neighbors living near the cemetery could not recall who owned the site or if anyone had been there in years, he said. Property tax records also didn't show an owner for the cemetery.
In the past few weeks, Moriarty has contacted descendants of the Scheel family in Estacada and Sandy. He hopes to meet with them to "discuss their family documents, family trees, family newspaper articles, deeds and photographs."
"I have also been contacted by members of the community, church members in the George area and the Scheel family, that are willing to assist and volunteer to help assist cleaning, maintaining and preserving the cemetery," Moriarty said. "It has been amazing."
He has also talked with the German American Society of Portland about a possible grant to preserve the cemetery.
As long as it takes
Besides research, the cemetery's restoration takes a lot of groundwork, with Moriarty and some volunteers clearing brush, cleaning grave markers and trying to locate graves. He plans to document his progress with photographs and a possible website.
It's the first time Moriarty has tried something like this.
"I'm not a landscape architect," he said. "I just want to start with simplicity, try to find the markers and clean them up. I want to go in with the intent of keeping it historical."
Moriarty's ready to work on the cemetery for as long as it takes. "This is not a one-year thing," he said. "It's going to take a lot of work."
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