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City hopes to make Pioneer Cemetery come alive

The Hillsboro City Council and staff are discussing plans to make the Hillsboro Pioneer Cemetery more alive than ever with improved visitor access, new plant species and community events such as historical re-enactments. by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Ornate headstones are common in the Hillsboro Pioneer Cemetery, which has not seen new burials since the 1970s. David Hill, the founder of Hillsboro, is among the notable citizens at rest in the historic graveyard.

“The cemetery can really be a place for education,” said Hillsboro city recorder and cemetery manager Amber Ames. The city hired Kurt Lango of Lango Hansen Landscape Architects to create a new master plan for the cemetery and present it at a recent council meeting.

“We looked at a number of options,” said Lango, “including how people entered the cemetery with or without vehicles, areas for potential interpretive opportunities to tell the city’s history, and we looked at maintenance issues such as plant upkeep.”

The changes proposed in the master plan are extensive. On the structural level, they include installing new gates for vehicular and pedestrian access, repaving walkways and building plazas and memorial areas to make the cemetery more accessible to visitors.

“We want people to take a look at it; make it visible,” said Lango.

Meanwhile, the introduction of native plants such as shadbush and red ferns will reduce maintenance costs and evoke a timeless landscape.

“We try to have a light touch,” said Lango. “Because with the oaks and the gravesites and the rolling hills … we don’t want to take away from that historical character.”

According to the master plan, changes also include the installation of “plinths with art work of historic interpretive elements devised with the Hillsboro arts community to create a meandering experiences punctuated by benches and planting areas set within the gravel surface.”

The purpose of the new master plan is to encourage community involvement in the cemetery.

“Historically, cemeteries were used actively by city dwellers as a cooler area for gatherings and picnics,” added Lango. “So with the Pioneer Cemetery, it’s interesting a lot of people don’t know it’s there.”

As the cemetery’s manager, Ames has witnessed a recent surge of community interest in the cemetery.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve had lots of parents come in asking about scavenger hunts and interactive activities for their kids. Our parks department takes excellent care of the land and it’s close to downtown, so it’s a good addition to become a gateway to the city,” Ames said.

The fact that new plots haven’t been bought in the cemetery since the 1970s also encourages its use as a historical site.

Ames has looked to other cities as role models for gathering public involvement in cemeteries.

“Jacksonville Pioneer Cemetery in Jacksonville was a great example,” Ames said. “They are very active in the community and have great events going on.”

According to its description in the master plan, the Jacksonville cemetery hosts a community cleanup each Memorial Day. Volunteers are taught how to properly care for headstones, there are guided history tours and pamphlets for self-guided tours, and every October a costumed acting troupe re-enacts the lives of some of those who are buried there.

“I was talking with some citizens after the city council meeting and we talked about planning a re-enactment event in 2015,” said Ames.

Famous residents of Hillsboro’s Pioneer Cemetery include Oregon Supreme Court Justice Thomas Tongue; journalist Albert Tozier; the one-time oldest woman alive, Mary Ramsey Wood; and the town’s namesake — pioneer and politician David Hill.

However, Hillsboro citizens may have to wait some time before any of the master plan becomes a reality.

“We’re not moving forward on everything yet,” said Ames. “We’re still in the discussion phase to decide what our priorities are and what we’d like to tackle first.”

The total cost of the master plan is estimated at more than $1.7 million, which is segmented into sub-costs such as new gates, gardens and overflow parking.

“We developed the plan in such a way that all of the improvements can be phased in over time,” added Lango.

The city intends to apply for grants from state funds such as the Historic Cemetery Grant Program, Heritage Grant Program and the Preserving Oregon Grant, all of which would be used to cover the master plan’s expense.

“We’ve applied for grants for cultural resources through the state of Oregon,” said Ames. “We’ll be looking at all of those to see if we could qualify.”

While the road to renovation is a long and uncertain one, Ames is confident in its first steps.

“Now we have a framework from which we can narrow down our goals and start to move forward,” she said.

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