While touring the Pioneer Cemetery in Palmer Alaska, I came across the grave of Donald Campbell. What caught my eye was that even though he died in 1935, there was a fresh set of bright yellow flowers adorning his headstone. In a small town in Alaska, nearly 80 years after his death, someone had left little Donald Campbell flowers and I wanted to know why.
After countless times searching into the history of Donald Campbell and his family, I don’t know that I will ever find out why someone chose to leave him such a beautiful bunch of flowers at that time, almost 80 years later. But I did come across something very interesting about Donald Campbell: he wasn’t the only child named “Donald” to die in Palmer in 1935.
In fact, the first three children to die in the new colony of Palmer, Alaska, were named Donald.
In 1935 families who wanted to break free of their current situation and try life out in a new place, surrounded by people as eager to start anew as them, got their chance. President Roosevelt’s New Deal plan, to help move the United States out of the Great Depression, gave them just that opportunity. The plan was to colonize an area of land in the Territory of Alaska, called the Matanuska Valley. Families from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan were offered a 40 acre plot of land to farm on a 30-year payment plan. In some cases this offer included a house, barn, and shipment of goods to Alaska.
In all, 203 families took the trip, ready for adventure and the promise of a new life. But the excitement would be short lived. Among other problems plaguing the colony, a few weeks after they arrived in Alaska a measles epidemic spread throughout the colony, taking the lives of at least three colony children.
The Three Donalds
8/15/1930 – 6/21/1935
Donald Henry Koenen was the son of Bernice and Henry Koenen, who moved to the Matanuska Colony with Donald and their other son Harold. At the age of 4, Donald died of heart trouble following a case of the measles. According to some, this wasn’t the first tragedy for the Koenen family, they had lost another young boy in Wisconsin only a year earlier.
Donald was buried in a homemade wooden casket, following an impressive funeral procession that brought most of the colonists out to pay their last respects.
4/8/1934 – 7/6/1935
Lost second, and the recipient of the beautiful bouquet of yellow flowers that inspired this post, was Donald Irwin Campbell, the 14 month old son of George and Onabelle Campbell. He died on July 6, 1935 of Pneumonia brought on by an “especially serious case” of the Measles.
After the death of Donald Campbell, the colonists let out a plea for more medical facilities. Their only doctor, Dr. E.E. Ostrom, was carrying the entire burden of the colony.
1933 – 7/9/1935
Just three days after saying goodbye to Donald Campbell, the Matanuska Colonists lost another child to disease.
Donald Olson was the son of Hilmer and Gwendolyn Olson of Duluth, Minnesota. While some sources say he died of chickenpox, others say he died of a spinal infection as the result of having the measles.
I guess it is not strange for 3 children to die of complications of the measles within a month of each other in an undeveloped area in the 1930’s. But it does seem unusual for each child to have the same first name. I wonder what the other families, especially those with children named “Donald” were thinking around this time? Did they wonder if it was a curse? A message from some higher being? I don’t know, but I do know that if I had a son back then, I would not have named him Donald.
While visiting Union Cemetery in Tumwater, Washington, I took a picture of the headstone for George, Isabella, and Riley Bush. I spent a few minutes setting up the shot just right because I loved the contrast of the Bush family’s 1860’s headstone, and the 20th century superstore behind it.
But after posting this picture to Reddit, and to my Facebook page, I received a few messages from people telling me how sad or angry the picture made them. It left me wondering what the Bush family would have thought of this view. Maybe they would have really liked to be right where all the action is, near the hustle and bustle of a shopping center.
Plus, I know of at least one person who probably would have loved to be buried there…
I desperately wanted to go to Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery. Ever since I got the cemetery baseball card last Christmas I knew I just had to see it, now here I was only 30 miles away… yet it might as well have been 1,000.
A weird request
During my recent trip to Chicago I realized visiting Bachelors Grove Cemetery may not ever be in the cards for me. I hadn’t known that the cemetery would be 40 whole minutes from the hotel I was staying at, or that the cemetery would have strict rules regarding the time that it closes. I was warned by locals not to even try and enter the forest preserve after sunset, as the area police are reportedly very strict about this rule.
But I wasn’t about to give up so easily.
Since the cemetery was so far away a bus or cab was out of the question. So after some thought I knew my best bet was to convince a local or someone with a rental car to take me.
I was in Chicago for a work conference, and I knew very few people in the class. So I did what anyone would do in my situation (right?), I announced to the whole class that I planned on visiting a “haunted” cemetery 40 minutes away and needed a ride, and maybe a companion or two. My friend Diane volunteered to go right away so I had a companion, now my plan just needed another teeny tiny little part of the thing …a ride.
Matt to the rescue
No luck. No one took me up on the offer to take hours out of their evening driving us to and from a cemetery in the middle of the forest. Go figure.
Seriously though, I thought people would be clamoring at the chance to go on such an awesome outing but it was quite the opposite reaction. During the first class break multiple people came up to me and advised against my trip to Bachelor’s Grove. They told me me that it was unwise to go out into a strange city. After all anything could happen to me, did I hear about the school kids that were just shot while walking home from school? What exactly that had to do with Bachelor’s Grove I didn’t know, and I wasn’t discouraged.
Another classmate, Gae Lynne, volunteered to come along. So there were three of us now and all we needed was a ride. A little later a new person entered the classroom, Matt. I didn’t know Matt personally but I did know one very important piece of information: Matt lives in Chicago. I looked at Diane and said “Should I ask him? He wasn’t here when I made the announcement so…”
“Oh yes,” she said, “definitely ask him!” So I did.
Without hesitation he said “Sure I’ll take you, when do you want to go?”
So that was that and the next night, Diane, Gae Lynne, Matt, and I were off to Bachelor’s Grove…
Visiting Bachelor’s Grove – in pictures
The future of Bachelor’s Grove … Prison?
While reading up some more on Bachelor’s Grove before posting this blog, I ran across some recent events that have saddened me. It seems a headstone repair group, approached originally to help assist in repairing the cemetery, is pushing for the cemetery to be fenced off for good. This would mean that no one could go in Bachelor’s Grove, ever.
How sad for the families of the people buried here, to have to look in through a fence to see the graves of your loved ones, as if they are in a zoo or prison. I can’t imagine that the deceased would have wanted their resting place caged off from the outside world just because a headstone repair group prefers to keep their work pristine.
I think that fencing off Bachelor’s Grove will invite more crime to the area. The lawful people who want to visit and take care of the place will be shut out, while the mystique and interest of the cemetery for non-law abiding citizens will drastically increase.
I hope I get a chance to visit Bachelor’s Grove again and be able to walk the well worn paths of visitors, and hear the stories of the headstone recovery efforts without being shut out as if the deceased are in prison, never to be freed.
For more information about how to speak out against the efforts to permanently cage in the cemetery, see the right hand side of this website: bachelorsgrove.com.
While wandering through the scenic Jones Point Cemetery in Haines, Alaska, I couldn’t help but notice the wide variety of sounds coming from all around me.
There was the whirring of machines in the warehouse next door, the buzzing of the bees and mosquitoes, and even the beating wings of the eagles that Haines is so famous for.
It was an interesting mix of sounds but I put them out of my mind as I only had a short amount of time and wanted to concentrate on what I was there to do: photographing all the headstones so that the information could be preserved forever.
Going from headstone to headstone I became very focused and didn’t notice anything in particular until some movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention.
I looked up from my camera and saw a man who seemingly came from nowhere. He was dressed in sandals, black pants, a brimmed hat, and a black coat. His long hair and beard obscured his face. But one thing in particular made him stand out, he was holding a guitar.
He walked right over to a bench near me and began playing a gentle tune on the guitar. The notes were halting and unsure at first. After a short while of playing (and watching me, probably wondering what exactly I was doing) he began to sing a slow, sad melody. As he became more comfortable the notes became more sure, his voice louder, until I couldn’t hear the other chorus of noises around the cemetery, and could only hear his sad melody.
The music became a companion to me as I read each headstone, wondering about the person buried there. Who were they? Did they have someone to play them love songs? I also wondered about the mysterious musician. Was this simply a quiet place to practice? To reflect? Or was the slow, sad melody a love song to a dear lost loved one?
After a while I heard the melody stop and I looked up to see which way the stranger was going. But he was already gone, disappearing as mysteriously as he arrived. I can’t help but wish that every visit to a cemetery was accompanied by such beautiful music.
Graving is the hobby of:
* exploring cemeteries
* photographing headstones
* recording burials
* discovering genealogy
My name is Jenn and I live in Anchorage, Alaska.
I've had a fascination with cemeteries and genealogy ever since I was a child but never really got into it until I came across a site called Find A Grave.
Once I discovered the Find A Grave project and the hobby of graving I realized that I not only could explore my interests but also help people at the same time.
It feels great to be able to help someone find out where their loved ones are buried and send them pictures of the headstone if they can't visit right away.
I've come across a lot of amazing things and adventures while graving so I decided to start this graving blog so I could share it with you.