At 32 acres, the Jacksonville Cemetery is one of the largest pioneer cemeteries in Oregon. Around 6,000 people are currently buried there. The cemetery has a unique layout, it’s more like seven small cemeteries divided into different sections: Jewish, Catholic, Masonic, and several different fraternal organizations, including The Odd Fellows and the Improved and Independent Orders of Red Men.
Local historian and longtime Jacksonville teacher Larry Smith said different groups burying their own on the same grounds created ca bit of drama. He said that’s why anyone visiting the cemetery will notice the “Catholic Wagon Trail.”
“The Catholic Wagon Trail… was put in in the 1860s because the Masonics and the Catholics did not get along,” Smith said. “They did not get along in life, they did not get along in death… “So [the Masonics] would not let the body-burying wagons go through up here. So the Catholics had to build this trail.”
As is true with many stories passed down in time, there are many different tales. When asked about the drama, Dirk Siedlecki, current President of Friends of Jacksonville’s Historic Cemetery, said he wasn’t sure there was any.
“You know…this is all part of history. A lot of things are true and facts and others are kind of like folklore,” Siedlecki said.
Siedlecki acknowledged that the Masonics and Catholics may not have been the best of friends, but said to his understanding, the fraternal organizations supported one another.
Even as an expert in the Jacksonville Cemetery’s history, Siedlecki admits it’s hard to know exactly what was going on when the cemetery first opened in 1859, but he does know some things as fact. Here are a few:
The first person to be buried in the cemetery was Margaret Love. Love was buried in October of 1859, though the cemetery didn’t officially open until December 1859.
According to Siedlecki, Love’s son got special permission from the City of Jacksonville so that her body would not have to be dug up and reburied when the cemetery opened two months later.
A quick glance around the cemetery and you’ll notice a few headstones with years earlier than 1859. Siedlecki said those people were moved from the old Jacksonville burial grounds that used to be at the bottom of the hill where the current cemetery sits.
“All of those remains for disinterred and brought up and reburied in the cemetery,” Siedlecki said.
Another fact: There are 400 veterans buried throughout the cemetery, the earliest being two soldiers who fought in the war of 1812.
There are a few recognizable names to Southern Oregon natives as well, like Cornelius Beekman, founder of the first bank in the Pacific Northwest. The burial spots for the Beekmans and other prominent families are easy to spot.
“I’m just amazed at how the stone carvers were able to stone carve these stones and do this beautiful design flowers or inscriptions on these monuments. And then how they were able to get them here by horse and wagon and bring them up the hill,” Siedlecki said.
On the other end of the spectrum is the “Pauper’s field.” A portion of the cemetery that is marked by small graves, including some wooden crosses.
“[The Pauper’s field] is where people that weren’t accepted by society at the time, such as Blacks, Native Americans, Hawaiians, poor people, or people that couldn’t afford to buy a plot,” Siedlecki said. “Or those that might have been going through town and died while they were transiting Jacksonville.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Jacksonville Cemetery is what lies hidden inside the Sexton Tool House: a trap door.
“Bodies would be stored in this vault in the tool-house until the weather permitted a grave to be buried,” Siedlecki said.
But Siedlecki said what seems to surprise people most about this 160-year-old cemetery:
“Here we are almost 2020, we still bury people in this cemetery!”