A long-abandoned pioneer cemetery that found an unexpected owner in Greater Albany Public Schools may soon have a new caretaker.

Albany is one of a handful of school districts statewide to own a pioneer-era cemetery. The district has received a request from a neighbor, Rick Pyburn, to let him take over the property, and the Albany School Board is slated to take up that request as part of its meeting at 7 p.m. Monday.

"I want to put it back in the place it should be," said Pyburn, who has relatives buried in the Gingles Cemetery northeast of Adair Village. "There’s 69 souls buried there. I want to do something that’s right."

The three-quarter-acre property is a collection of mossy tombstones tucked into a grove of fir trees off Springhill Road between Buena Vista Road and Independence Highway. It's surrounded by private farmland and not reachable by road. Permission must be sought from adjacent property owners by anyone seeking access.

James Gingles (pronounced "Jingles"), a pioneer who served as a Benton County commissioner and a state representative, was the original owner. Gingles deeded the property in 1886 to what was then the Wells School District, which became the Benton County School District. Researchers believe the land had been a family plot that eventually was expanded to include neighbors and the surrounding community. 

The Benton County Historical Society doesn't have direct information as to why Gingles would have transferred the property. But Mary Gallagher, collections manager for the Benton County Historical Society & Museum, said the Gingles schoolhouse, one of the first in Benton County, was located near the cemetery. The schoolhouse would have been the community center until the construction of the North Palestine Church about 1883, she said.

Benton County School District eventually became Fir Grove School District, which was absorbed into Greater Albany during an overall consolidation in 1979.

Democrat-Herald news stories from 1985 indicate the cemetery ownership came as a surprise to school board members, who learned of it six years after the consolidation. A neighbor who'd dug through county records as a project to see the cemetery preserved found a 99-year-old handwritten deed, which she brought to the board in August 1985 as part of a request to fence and maintain the land.

Jeannie Vanderpool told the board she was seeking funds for that project from the Benton County Historical Society and the Benton County Commissioners. But while the cemetery today contains small sections of interior fencing, no one ever fenced off the entire area.

Nor did anyone take on regular maintenance, although news articles indicate a student group worked there in 1987, and Scouts, church groups and at least one coalition interested in historical preservation have done cleanups since.

In 2005, Benton County listed Gingles Cemetery among sites representing important cultural resources that are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy.

Albany has spent no money on the cemetery during its nearly 40 years of ownership, said Russ Allen, the district's director of business. However, the district has donated gravel and other materials to cleanup groups on request.

The site has never been platted, but various organizations have tried to put together a picture of the site. The Genealogical Records Committee of the Linn Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution made a recorded inventory of burials there in 1934, the earliest known, and found the records of 47 people at that time. (That's missing a name on at least one tombstone, however, which dates to 1892 and can still be seen.)

Sherman Pompey, a research historian and school district representative, put together a report on the cemetery for Greater Albany in 1987, using the DAR report, interviews, public records and a Work Projects Administration historical record survey dated July 1938.

The report said according to the 1938 survey, the earliest grave known is marked Mr. Miller, a brother to James Gingles' first wife, Sarah (Miller) Gingles. Miller died in 1851 in The Dalles and the family carried his body to the cemetery. Sarah was buried in the cemetery two years later, and in between came Hiram Hardie, 1807-1852, also thought to be related to the Gingles. James himself was buried there in 1889.

Many other pioneer families came to be laid to rest in the Gingles Cemetery in the next decades, some whose names are still common in the valley, such as Suver, Vanderpool and Pyburn. 

Pompey found the most recent burial information dating to 1938, for David Vanderpool. Even then, the cemetery had fallen victim to the elements, with pallbearers reporting "a jungle of brush and poison oak" as they carried the body to its resting place. One gravedigger Pompey interviewed recalled they had to try three times to find a place for Vanderpool because they encountered the remains of earlier graves on their first two attempts. 

Rick Pyburn, who said he can see the cemetery from his family's land, has been working with the district's lawyer about taking over the property. The district is recommending the Albany School Board agree to transfer the cemetery for $1.

Kuri Gill, Oregon's historic cemeteries program cooridinator, said Pyburn told her he wants to restore the site and has contacted her about how best to preserve it.

Individuals can and do own pioneer-era cemeteries, Gill said. So do nonprofit organizations, historical societies and perhaps half a dozen other schools and districts in the state. The state even has records of a few pioneer cemeteries, she said, that are owned by no one at all.

If, someday, someone wanted to use historic cemetery land for another purpose, that's possible, but only if that person goes through all the processes required by the state, which would include input with the state historic preservation office and the Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries.

"Ownership is a challenging thing," she said. "If people take it on, they're supposed to take care of it, preserve it and not damage it.”

However, she said, oversight is limited. And while the state has laws regarding the destruction of monuments and disturbing burial grounds, "there's no explicit language in historic cemetery law that defines what kind of maintenance they have to do."

Gingles Cemetery is a historic cemetery listed through the state, so its owner and the owners of surrounding lands must allow access, Gill said. However, they are allowed to set the rules by which such access may occur, including days, times and whether someone must make an appointment to be escorted to the property.

"You're not allowed to just show up," she said.

Lisa Pearson of North Albany is an occasional visitor to the Gingles Cemetery. She said she receives permission from her employer, who owns property nearby and lets her come take the occasional hike.

On Friday, she brought her niece, Pearl Prinslow, 18, of Salem. The two spent half an hour or so wandering in the grove, trying to discern marble shapes among the weeds and bracken. 

The mossy stones match the weeds and fade into the shadows. Many are small and all but hidden in the vines and other ground cover. But someone has been there in recent years: a soggy, bedraggled teddy bear marks the grave of Estella Dickson, who died in 1884 at the age of 3 months.

"It's very strange. Like, it's so secluded, you know?" Pearson said. "I always wonder, do people even know that they're here?"

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