By Rebecca Stone
For the TODAY
Those who say you can rest when you’re dead don’t know the folks interred up at the Taft Pioneer Cemetery. In the two weekends leading up to Halloween, some of them will walk the earth to share their stories with intrepid visitors daring to embark on Lincoln City’s second annual A Tour To Die For.
The roughly hour long tours to the historic cemetery kick off at the Lincoln City Cultural Center. There, prior to boarding shuttles offered courtesy of Chinook Winds Casino Resort, guests will be welcomed with hot beverages, snacks and a visitation by the fortuitously named John W. Bones. A grocer back in the day, Mr. Bones donated the land 92 years ago that would become the city’s first cemetery — and his final resting place in 1945. And Mr. Bones had good taste. Perched atop a hill, across from the ocean, Taft Pioneer Cemetery offers sweeping views that would be the envy of the living.
Enroute to the their final destination, guides will treat guests to Native American legends, and perhaps some of the more well-polished stories from a different era. At the end of the line, six of the area’s early settlers will take time out from their eternal resting schedules to offer a glimpse into the past in the course of a lantern-lit stroll through the tombstones to each of their graves.
A collaboration between the North Lincoln County Historical Museum, Taft Pioneer Cemetery Association and Lincoln City’s Theatre West, this little jaunt through past lives delivers a spooky albeit history-rich experience, much of it culled from the research of museum Executive Director Anne Hall.
“I pick different characters each year from the museum’s extensive collection of oral histories,” said Hall. “I try to find people who have interesting life stories, who are buried in the Pioneer Cemetery.”
This year, three men and three women are featured, including two couples — the women sisters — who shared the same house.
“I thought it would be interesting to get the differing points of view on what was a very similar experience,” said Hall. “I also wanted to contrast the stories of the wives and husbands. Often, in history, the stories of women’s lives are deemed less important than men’s. Although they worked primarily in the home, the lives of the women were often more exciting than the men’s.”
Theatre West actors portraying the dearly departed this year are Bryan Kirsch as Mr. Bones, while veteran thespian Elizabeth Black and Matt Blakeman bring the stories of Finnish couple Jack and Ida Liswig to life. Ida’s sister, Anna, and her husband Matt Niemi are played by Donna Morris and Don Bambrough. And rounding out the cast are Terri King as local dance hall enthusiast Tonia Hespack and Lewis Smith as homesteader and chicken coop resident Matt Kangas.
“The museum prints out biographies, with stories, told in first person, from archival information, and these become scripts,” said Smith, who doubles as director. He explains that while they work from facts, some creative license is taken, and a degree of improvisation and audience interaction is not uncommon.
In addition to the challenges inherent in taking a production “on the road,” Lewis also explains that coordinating with shuttles that run every 30 minutes can be tricky. And then there is the weather. Should it turn inclement, organizers will, instead, provide a cemetery drive-through experience, followed by a nocturnal visit to the historical museum, complete with spiritual hosts. The call will be made each night an hour before the tour.
A Tour to Die For is partially made possible by a grant from Travel Oregon, from which it received an Oregon Heritage Tourism award. It also received an Oregon Festivals & Events Association’s 2016 Hidden Gem Award. According to Ed Dreistadt, director of the Lincoln City Visitor & Convention Bureau, this has led to Lincoln City being regarded as a leader in heritage tourism.
“With very little investment, Lincoln City has a new attraction that literally brings our history to life,” says Dreistadt. He adds that the event, which sold out last year, brought an influx of out-of-town business to the community in what is typically the off-season. And expectations are that this year will be no different.
“Given the demand last year, it will most likely sell out again,” he said.
Sheryl P. Smith, president of the Taft Pioneer Cemetery Association, credits numerous volunteers who are helping out with the tour, including local residents Mari Lasagna-Kircher, Terry Kingston, David McKee, Tami Leedom, Bri McKee, Cathy Minnich, Steve and Susie Allen and Linda Wagner who have stepped up to serve as tour guides. Also joining the tour guide lineup this year are Oregon State Representative David Gomberg and State Senator Arnie Roblan.
With so many enthusiastic souls involved in this event, there’s little doubt that A Tour to Die For, will become a tour to remember, and one to return to year after year.
Tour shuttles will transport visitors into the spiritual realm every 30 minutes on the evenings of Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 20-21 and 27-28, from 5:30 to 7:30 pm, with matinée tours offered Sunday, Oct. 22 and 29, from 2 to 4 pm. Tours depart from the Lincoln City Cultural Center, at 540 NE Hwy. 101. Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for children ages 12 and under. For tickets and information, go to www.TourtoDieFor.com. Proceeds from the tours benefit Pioneer Cemetery, North Lincoln County Historical Museum and Theatre West.