Rick Pyburn was working in his shop one day when he looked over and saw a man at his door.
“I asked him, ‘Can I help you?” And he said, ‘No, I came to help you,’” Pyrburn said.
The man was Kevin Armstrong and the help was in the form of his CAT — a machine Pyburn needed to build a road into the Gingles Cemetery, a forgotten resting place he purchased from Greater Albany Public Schools for $1.
Before Armstrong showed up on Pyburn’s doorstep, that road was a long-term goal. So was clearing brush and cleaning headstones, mapping out graves, and finding owners of stones leaning against trees.
“Without Kevin donating that road, I don’t know when we would have gotten it done,” Pyburn said, noting that Armstrong spent three days' worth of time cutting in the road, which runs through two private properties and up a steep hill to a crown of trees that shield the cemetery from view.
On the north side of the cemetery, a folding lawn chair leans against a tree.
“That’s mine; that’s where I started clearing the brush,” Pyburn said.
And he’s cleared a lot of brush.
The grounds that support the newly laid road were overcome with brush and blackberry bushes just a few months ago, until Pyburn, his wife and their work parties cleared a path.
This summer, Pyburn received $8,200 from the Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries to lay in a road, but because Armstrong donated his labor, Pyburn was able to use the funds to purchase gravel for the road and may be able to use the remaining money to help with the cleanup.
“Right now, I want to open it up to let the light in,” Pyburn said. “Then, we can get work parties in and clear it to the dirt.”
Then, comes the hard part.
It’s difficult to find a clear path through the cemetery that doesn’t involve tripping over fallen tree branches or avoiding headstones laying in the overgrown grass and poison oak. And every few feet the ground dips suddenly in tiny, shallow valleys.
“That’s where the unmarked graves have sunk,” Pyburn said.
Once the grounds are cleared, Pyburn plans to bring in a company to map out the cemetery using underground penetrating radar, but the chances of matching wayward headstones to unmarked graves are slim. There’s no list of individuals buried in the cemetery.
There’s also no photograph of the original landowner, James Gingles, who served as a county commissioner and the area’s first postmaster general. Gingles deeded the cemetery land to the Wells School District in 1886. The Wells School District eventually became the Benton County School District, then the Fir Grove School District and eventually part of the Greater Albany Public Schools district in 1979.
“It’s very odd,” Pyburn said of the inability to find a photograph of Gingles. He’s been to historical societies and state libraries, but so far, the search has been fruitless.
“We’re just working on researching all of these people,” Pyburn said.
Future plans for the cemetery haven’t been set in stone. Pyburn does know that there will not be public access. How he’s going to display the tombstones he can’t match to graves, he doesn’t know yet.
Standing in the cemetery, gesturing to the surrounding trees, Pyburn relayed a phone call he received recently.
“He goes, ‘you ought to get rid of those trees, they cause trouble.’"
Pyburn doesn't agree: "These trees are angels looking over people here.”
And in detailing his efforts to restore the cemetery thus far, Pyburn thinks he’s had some help.
“From the day I decided to offer the school district $1, everything has fallen into place,” he said. “Every time I found an obstacle, it would just dissolve. I know in my heart, the people buried there are right there and helping. It’s just been an amazing journey.”