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Tombs with a view

Published on October 10, 2018 10:16AM

Tour to Die For director Lewis Smith in a previous role for the event.

Tour to Die For director Lewis Smith in a previous role for the event.

A selection of this year's actors get into character • Photos by Cody Cha

A selection of this year's actors get into character • Photos by Cody Cha

By Gretchen Ammerman

For the TODAY

It’s pretty hard to beat the fact that the Taft Pioneer Cemetery in Lincoln City includes the interred remains of members of the Bones family, one member of which, local grocer John Bones, donated the land upon which the cemetery sits.

But once you dig deep, there are actually many interesting stories about the people who might have less on-the-nose names, but were largely responsible for the look and flavor of the city as we see it today (with all due respect given to the people who were here well before it was “settled.”)

Some of those stories will come to vivid life for two weekends, beginning Friday, Oct. 11 and ending Sunday, Oct. 21, during A Tour to Die For, when actors from Lincoln City’s Theatre West portray some of the cemetery’s residents. The trips down memory lane begin at the Lincoln City Cultural Center, with participants then transported by Chinook Winds’ minibus to the cemetery. Handheld lamps provided for visitors for the walk through the graves, and live music provided by John Bringetto, head of the Lincoln Pops, will add to the creepy yet festive environment of the tour.

“We start with John Bones at the cultural center,” said Theatre West member and this year’s event director Lewis Smith. “He will talk about the history of the land that the cultural center is on. The rest of the stories will be told at the cemetery.”

Tour organizers choose characters whose life stories are not just interesting, but also help shed light on pioneer life, according to past passed-on pioneer portrayer Cassie Ruud.

“The tour really gives a good perspective on what life was like back then,” she said. “It also shows that history still lives on.”

“One year I played a character that loved to dance,” Ruud added. “So at the end of the tour, I would dance with visitors who looked like they wanted to do it. I ended up dancing with one of my character’s descendants; that was a really cool experience.”

To keep the tour fresh, new characters are added each year; this year includes a Finnish expatriate and a mother of 10 whose kids left a local legacy.

John Edmund “Strong Arm” Johnson, who died in 1958, but whose birthdate has been lost to time, was born in Finland and ended up on the Oregon Coast after working as a longshoreman. He lived with a group of bachelors in an A-frame on East Devils Lake Road until he was able to afford a 7.5-acre lot with a log cabin, on which he grew raspberries, strawberries and potatoes.

He earned his nickname by displaying feats of strength, like the time a friend was showing off by lifting two 100-pound sacks of flour. “Strong Arm” lifted the friend, complete with the flour, and did a few deep knee bends.

He lived and died simply, and is buried in the cemetery with no headstone.

Nevada May Burkhead Mann was born in 1869 and died in 1938. Her family moved from Salem to Rose Lodge in 1912, traveling on foot and using a team of mules to carry their belongings. The trip took three days. She raised her children in a home with no electricity, plumbing or running water. Only one of them, Bill, got an education beyond grade school, as the rest were needed at home to help with growing food.

Bill rode a horse for seven miles to get to high school, then went on to Oregon Normal School, now Western Oregon University.

Mann’s son Frank became a brick mason and built great fireplaces that still exist; two can be seen at the Dorchester House. Some of them were built using rocks he found in the D River.

Another new character is Nicolai Hill, a direct ancestor of the current manager of the cemetery.

In the event that inclement weather visits one or more nights of the tour, the buses will still drive through the cemetery, but guests will stay on board until disembarking at the North Lincoln County Historical Museum for the live re-enactments.

But regardless of the weather, the bus drive won’t be a silent event.

“As we go through town there will be a historical tour,” Smith said. “The guide will point out and maybe tell stories about some of the old houses, including where the old mill used to be.”

Some changes from past years’ tours include cutting out a trip to Devils Lake to hear a local legend about a creature that once lived in the lake.

“People don’t like to be on the bus any longer than they have to be,” Smith said. “And we heard from visitors that they would prefer we stick to real history, not monsters of legend.”

There are also fewer matinée tours, as they didn’t prove very popular.

“People really seem to prefer doing the tour after dark,” Smith said.

Organizers also found that they didn’t sell many of the tickets for kids.

“It’s not a spooky haunted house, it’s more for people that love history,” Smith said. “Even though, visiting the cemetery at night, that’s still pretty creepy.”


Tickets, $25, include light refreshments at the cultural center, are available online at tourtodiefor.com. Evening shows will run every 60 minutes from October 11 to 13 and 19 to 20, from 5:30-9:30 pm. Two matinée tours will run on Oct. 21 from noon to 2 pm. The Lincoln City Cultural Center is located at 540 NE Hwy. 101.

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