Community, Opinion

Local cemeteries hold deep history

For the last few months I have been engulfed in working on a historical display that will be erected at the J. Polk Currin Swinging Bridge.  One side tells of the days when River Road was essentially downtown Cottage Grove and is titled “Slabtown”.  I didn’t have much to do with that research, leaving it in the capable hands of local historian and graphic designer, Alice Christianson.  The other side is all about the Swinging Bridge and the man who conceived the pedestrian bridge that now connects east and west Cottage Grove in the first place. My homework was to dig up as much as I could on the various incarnations of this historic pedestrian crossing and the builder of the first two renditions, James Knox Polk Currin. 

One of the nuggets I unearthed was that J.P. Currin and family are interred in the historic Shields Cemetery. This pioneer cemetery clings to a hillside just outside of the city limits east of town. When I made a pilgrimage to visit J.P. Currin’s final resting place I was again impressed by how this burial site was doubtlessly chosen for its pleasant views of the surrounding countryside, on high ground, well above any potential flooding, a common enough phenomenon in days before the dams.  These are qualities shared by all of the pioneer cemeteries in the area I have visited thus far.

While wandering through the rows of tombstones looking for J.P. I was struck by the fact I was experiencing a virtual who’s who from Cottage Grove’s earliest days in real time. Besides there being a passel of Shields family graves there were also many other familiar names scattered through the graveyard; Mosby, Veatch, Currin, Cooley, Lebow, Small, Robinette, and others. There are at least 7 Donation Land Claim holders buried in Shields Cemetery including the probable donor of the original plot, William Shields and his third wife Judith.  As was common at the time, due to a limited pool of possible partners, children of these early settlers intermarried, making nearly everyone in town during the early days related by blood or marriage.

The moment I did locate J.P. Currin’s grave was poignant. Having spent so much time digging into his life, it was stirring to stand where his mortal remains lie.  Beside him was his wife Amelia, and daughter Cora who died at age two, but I was surprised to find that his other daughter, Lula, wasn’t buried with them. Miss Currin, who never married, followed her father’s passion for learning and education, also attending Oregon State University, (Fellow Grovers and lifelong friends J.P. Currin & Robert Veatch, were ⅔’s of the first graduating class of what was to become OSU) and spent her life teaching at Cottage Grove HIgh School.  I finally found her grave several rows away from her parents, near her uncle,John Wadsworth Currin. Lula’s grave was marked by a simple name plate but no tombstone, a slight I hope to rectify someday. Her cousin and D.L.C. holder William “Uncle Billy” Currin, who died a bachelor,is buried nearby but his D.L.C. holding brother, John, is buried several miles away in Sears Cemetery

William Henry Shields was an early notable in Cottage Grove. At the time of his death in 1895, at 97 years old, he was the oldest man living in Lane County.  Holder of D.L.C. No. 56, 

Shields eventually amassed over 900 acres.  Married couples could claim 640 acres under the D,L.C. Act at the time of his arrival in what was to become the Grove in 1852.  The original Shield’s claim lies south of Main Street and east of 4th Street.  Born in Tennessee, in 1799, Shields migrated to Indiana when he was twenty, married three times, losing his first two wives through childbirth.  He had a total of 15 children and had been slowly moving west through Missouri and Illinois. Together with Judith the large Shields family followed the Oregon Trail in 1851 spending their first winter near Brownsville before staking out their claim here the following year.

While the Shields name is attached to the Cemetery there is a bit of murkiness as to who actually donated the land. Local historian and D.L.C. authority, Joanne Skelton, helped advise me and related this very interesting twist, “It appears that Shields Cemetery is outside of William’s original claim and is located on the John H. Martin claim, which joins Shields’ on the south and east. From the title abstract I have it appears that at sometime Shields bought some of the Martin claim because the Martin land was included in his estate sale. In settling the estate it mentions part of the D.L.C. of John and Martha Martin, except one acre sold to the Shields Cemetery Association. It doesn’t say in the paperwork who exactly sold it to the Association.”

William Shields is the generally accepted donor and gets the credit.  Probably the first person to be buried there was Shields’ wife Judith who died in 1865.  Two of his many sons died quite young and unmarried and also lie there along with other children and grandchildren who Shields Sr. outlived.  An early account relates that “Many of the headstones for his family were hand-carved by him, but time has erased most of his work.”  He probably chose the native sandstone for the job, which is soft.

Time was not the only factor in the downfall of monuments in the cemetery.  A 1924 newspaper story reports that “Shields Cemetery visited by shameless vandals”, it further mentioned that 19 headstones were tipped over. Usually the marble grave markers break on impact when so treated.  A service project led by David Spriggs and the Naval Reserve worked to repair some of this damage in 1993. The sailors fitted the broken tombstones together and encased them in cement, preserving them albeit in the horizontal rather than vertical orientation. They also worked on general landscaping and maintenance issues, many hands make light work!

Sprigg’s great-great-grandfather, Isaac Veatch, who was in the Kentucky Militia during the War of 1812,(the marker acknowledging his service notes “Wounded in Action”). The elder Veatch was not one of the early pioneers of Cottage Grove,but moved here from Missouri to join his younger sons just a few years before his death in 1880. Three of the Veatch sons, Harvey Clayburne, Slyvester Ewing, and Isaac Miller Jr. accompanied the 1853 Knox/Olgesby wagon train, hired as cowhands. After settling in the Cottage Grove area first two Veatch brothers married daughters of the influential party member and nominal leader, Samuel B. Knox. Of the three only Isaac Jr. is buried in Shields, the other two lie in Firgrove Cemetery.

Another name that covers a lot of real estate in Shields Cemetery is Mosby.  David Mosby was born in 1822, Mercer County, Kentucky.  He arrived in this area in 1850 and made his D.L.C. east of town where Layng Road passes through it and includes the covered bridge and creek that bear the Mosby name. In 1855 he married the daughter of George and Malinda Small, fellow D.L.C. holders out Gowdyville way.  A Small aside, Malinda is buried in Shields while George ended up planted in Silver Lake Cemetery way over in Lake County. I smell a story there somewheres.

As testament to the hard times faced by early pioneers is that two sides of David and Isabella’s tombstone list children’s names of the four Mosby children who all died within one month in 1864; ages 11 months to 7 years old. Additionally listed on the marker are two infants who did not survive long enough to be named, born in 1870 and 1873. The Mosby plot is not alone in having many young children buried there.

It was the original intent from the Shields family that any descendent of early families would be buried there for free.  This is no longer the case.  While encasing some of the most illustrious members of early Cottage Grove society, the Shields Cemetery is still an active public burial space. Stan Simonsen, whose great grandparents & mother are buried there, was tending to their graves one day in 2002, when the then President of Shields Cemetery Association asked him if he would be willing to assume the role. He agreed and now twenty years have passed and he continues to manage the cemetery.  It still relies on volunteer labor and yearly contributions from the members who pay an annual $10 contribution to support the maintenance of the graveyard. Burial spots are available for $400 for a 5’ x 10’ plot. If you would like to have your loved one (or yourself) join some Grove pioneers one day, contact the Shields Cemetery Association: P.O. Box 165, Lorane, OR 97451 or call 541-942-5935.  An alternate contact is to reach out to Smith, Lund, Mills Funeral Home.

And while a row of Filbert trees planted many years ago have intergrown into the encroaching fir trees along the drive up to the cemetery, time has not stood still for the burial grounds.  Noise rumbles up from the busy Interstate 5 just downhill from the pioneer’s final resting place. I wonder if they could conceive of what buzzes past them daily in our busy world of today.

Another encroachment is a development of modern houses that have crept up to the cemetery’s eastern boundary. It certainly has curtailed the picturequese view that the original donor enjoyed. Ah, progress!

As a parting shot in this direction, let’s reach back to 1914 and a local newspaper account of a Shields family reunion that also reflected on the past being celebrated in the present, albeit 108 years ago. “Sixty Relatives Gather in Reunion”, read the headline, “The feature of the reunion was the banquet given Wednesday in the city park (Coiner), which was part of the original donation land claim of William Shields.” The account further related that there were only two surviving offspring of W. H. Shields, both present, and further that son, Robert Nathaniel Shields, was the only one of the 60 family members present who still carried the family name. The article further related that a mere 13 living family members were absent from the gathering.

If you want to experience the juxtaposition of past meets present, find your way up the hill to Shields Cemetery and take it all in, past, present, and the future!

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