Recent and future improvements at the Prairie City Cemetery are the result of hard work and kind donations by locals and family members.

The tall red Marciel Well Drilling rig is installing a new irrigation well, Prairie City Cemetery District secretary-treasurer Carla Wright said. The irrigation ditch the cemetery has relied on ran dry by the end of last summer, she said.

Several diseased black olive trees along County Road 62 have been removed, a new wrought-iron archway has been installed at the east entrance and preparation work has begun for new fencing at the cemetery.

The district receives some tax revenue, but it’s just enough to pay for groundskeeping, district president Marlene Woodley said. The district asked Jennie Messmer to write a grant application to pay for a new water source, but she passed away in March 2018.

Messmer had worked for the League of Oregon Cities and the Mid-Willamette Valley Council of Governments and served as interim city manager for several Oregon cities. She received awards for her service to Oregon.

Sharon Fritsch, Messmer’s sister and a teacher at Humbolt Elementary School, stepped up to finish the grant writing in honor of her sister.

The cemetery district was awarded a $20,000 grant from the Oregon Community Foundation, a $4,500 grant from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s Historic Cemeteries Program and a $1,000 grant from the Shelk Foundation.

That money was earmarked for the well drilling and fencing projects, but the new well will cost $55,000, Wright said. A fund supported by donors over the years will be wiped out covering the difference, she said, and the district will need additional donations to cover the costs of plumbing and electrical connections for the new well.

Raymond Field donated part of his costs for removing the black olive trees in memory of his brother Ronald, who passed away in 2018, and the Grant County Road Department helped with removing the debris.

Donations from Wright, cemetery district board member Jim Sullens and Fran Bunch covered the remaining cost for the tree removal. City personnel assisted in removing old fence posts and cement in preparation for the new fence.

The cost of constructing the wrought-iron archway, one of Boyd Britton’s last metal projects in Grant County, was covered with several thousand dollars in donations from Messmer’s family and friends.

The Winegar family, with some of the oldest headstones in the cemetery, paid for constructing the cobblestone directory building in honor of Virginia Winegar, who died in 1996.

Members of the Prairie City School FFA program constructed a split-rail fence near the directory building with wood donated by the McKinley family.

Wright said 17 burials took place at the Prairie City Cemetery in 2016 and 12 in 2017 — both unusually high numbers. Eight burials took place last year.

According to Wright and Woodley, the oldest known grave at the Prairie City Cemetery is about 175 years old. An ancestor of Burt Rutan, the prize-winning retired aerospace engineer, is buried at that site. Wright also noted that unmarked plots exist for three unknown soldiers.

Six Confederate soldiers are buried in the older section of the cemetery. About 10 years ago, a dozen men and women dressed in Confederate uniforms and antebellum Southern costume appeared in Prairie City to honor the fallen soldiers with new headstones, Wright and Woodley said.

Several of Sullens’ ancestors are buried in the older section of the cemetery, including Capt. Wiley Howell, a decorated World War II aviator. When Howell was a child, he checked out a book at the Prairie City School library and never returned it. Years later when he returned home a war hero, he donated thousands of dollars to the library, Wright said.

Richard Hanners is a reporter for the Blue Mountain Eagle. He can be contacted at rick@bmeagle.com or 541-575-0710.

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