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The dead bring history to life


Daily Astorian

It’s not every day that an antenna rises next to a granite memorial spire in the midst of a graveyard. Or that a man and a woman in Ozzie and Harriet-era attire set up their living room with a white wicker settee and table in the grave marker’s shadow.

But Sunday wasn’t ordinary at the Pioneer Cemetery in Astoria, as nine departed souls returned from the great beyond for Talking Tombstones VIII, a Halloween tradition put on by the Clatsop County Historical Society with sponsorship from Astoria Granite Works.

Former citizens, portrayed by actors and actresses, stopped in for graveside chats with living visitors. This year’s theme, “Diggin’ It For 200 Years,” paid homage to Astoria’s Bicentennial.

Steve Nurding and Mandy Brenchley used props and put on a skit to tell the story of how Leroy E. Parsons developed the first cable television system in the United States in 1948. Parsons, who owned KAST radio station, returned home to discover his wife had purchased a television set, but couldn’t get any shows because the broadcast signal was too weak.

Parsons ran a large antenna from the roof of the Astor Hotel to reach the signal from the nearest television station, in Seattle, and then ran coaxial cable across the street to his home. As the only ones in town able to see television, they were bothered by constant guests – prompting Parsons to create a community television antenna and extend cable serve to customers for a $125 setup fee and $3 a month maintenance fee.

Nurding and Brenchley mixed humor into their history lesson. At one point, as she bent over to fiddle with the “rabbit ears” on top of the set, the bemused husband commented, “At least I can catch the tail end of the show,” getting giggles from his audience.

After each graveside presentation, observers were invited to ask questions. When one of the observers, Edith Henningsgaard Miller, commented that her husband Blair had invested in the cable TV system, Nurding kept character. He could use an infusion of cash now, he told her.

Some of the visiting spirits had lives in common. Donald McTavish, chief executive officer of the Northwest Trading Co., told of meeting the flaxen-haired wench Jane Barnes at a pub in Portsmouth, England, and inviting her on the 13-month ocean voyage to Astoria. Elsewhere in the cemetery, Jane Barnes recounted her version of meeting McTavish  at the bar where she worked.

“I enjoyed charismatic debates with the gentleman as they drank their ale,” said Barnes, portrayed by Angela Sidlo.  “I also was a girl who could take care of herself,” and she agreed to the adventure as long as she was paid, and not as a kept woman. The only woman aboard the ship, she hired on to do needlework for the crew for 30 silver shillings a year.

Already sold

Arriving in Astoria in 1814, they discovered John Jacob Astor’s men had already sold out to the British company, so they renamed the place Fort George, after their king. (A few trees away, Gabriel Franchere, a clerk with the Astor trading company played by Matt Hensley, told his version of the company takeover – see related story).

 McTavish, played by Cliff Larson, said Astor’s company was a mess and at odds with the natives, so he went to work organizing the operation and building relations. He assigned a company clerk, Alexander Henry, to watch over Barnes.

But just a month after arriving, McTavish drowned when the boat he was riding in capsized. He was buried in one place, although his body was dug up and moved twice, finally to somewhere on the bluff above town. His headstone, one of, if not the oldest in the Northwest, was taken to Portland and later returned to Astoria and is now displayed in the Historical Society’s museum.

He lamented an “unending past life of being moved and moved and moved and no rest. I never did get to retire to my estate in Scotland.”

Barnes, for her part, said she grieved the loss of the two men until a doctor took her in as his companion. But she was troubled by a Chinook prince who was infatuated with her. When he threatened to no longer do business with the trading company, Barnes was sent back to England without pay. The ship stopped in Alaska, Hawaii and China. She said she met and married a military man in China and had two children. She returned to Astoria in 1818 to pay her respects to her two benefactors before going on to Montreal, where she finally got the company headquarters to pay her.

“I was the first lady of Astoria,” she boasted.

Accident takes lives

In another corner of the cemetery stood Susan Pitkin, a mother of three with a story of sadness and a warning to the living. Pitkin said the memory of  March 21, 1885, is as vivid now, 126 years later. Her husband was at work, her daughter at her job as a typesetter for the newspaper, and her sons out for spring break, and she was enjoying a rare late morning nap when she wakened to horror.

She learned that her sons had been rowing by  the mill when their boat capsized and they were they carried by the ebb tide beneath the wharf. They could not swim and drowned. A cannery worker later told her that he’d heard the boat smash and their cries for help, then silence.

It was too much loss for a mother to bear, and she became a recluse.

“I heard you have a natatorium, or what you call a swimming pool. If you go out on boats, do learn how to swim,” said Pitkin, adding that she’s been known to haunt people who don’t. “I’m asking you just to be safe.”

Lindsey Beal, a recent transplant from Seattle, portrayed Pitkin. Although she has no children, she drew on her studies as a theater major to give voice and emotion to Pitkin. Unlike some of the other featured souls who have had books written about them, all Beal had to go from was an obituary about Pitkin.

David Reid took up a hammer and pounded on tin as he portrayed Henry Sindlinger, a tinsmith who shot himself in the head in his shop in Astoria in 1879. The pinging of hammer on tin reverberated through the cemetery.

Caelan Hensley and Helen Johnson took turns playing Emma Burke, a 17-year-old girl killed with her father by a falling tree on June 7, 1879. Her father, John Burke, had helped clear land and build Fort Stevens.

Colorful lives

Rachel Fackler brought to life Lillian Hendrickson, a 17-year-old girl who was one of the first woman cannery workers but was shot to death by a twisted, much-older wannabee suitor.

Susan Wentworth  played Laura Ferrell, the mother of 13 children whose third husband, Ferdinand Ferrell, built and operated the Astoria Steam Sawmill that supplied lumber in the 1870s for many buildings, some that still stand today.

• More photos online at www.dailyastorian.com

This story originally appeared on dailyastorian.com.