High on a bluff above McNary Golf Club is a tiny, old cemetery. It is located off Wheatland Road at the end of a narrow lane with the impressive name of Bolf Terrace. The entrance to the lane is almost hidden by tall fir trees and is easily missed.
Some of the earliest graves in the Salem area are here in Claggett Cemetery, with the first being that of a four-month-old daughter of Alvis and Sally Pugh Smith, who settled on the 643-acre homestead October 20, 1848. No stone marks the tiny grave now, but it is located at the corner of the Smith plot at the very edge of the bluff which is eroded by over a hundred years of wind and rain.
The Smith log house and farm buildings were located in the same grove where the Fir Grove Farm buildings are now. In 1860 the Smith home caught fire and two 11-month-old Pugh twin girls, relatives of the Smiths, were burned to death in the blaze. They, too, were buried in the Smith graveyard, as it was called then.
Smith’s property included much of the lowland which is now the McNary Golf Club, and Smith pastured his cattle there by Ford Creek. (Later called Grierson Creek and now, Claggett Creek.) His hired man, a relative by the name of Northcutt, often stayed in a cabin down in the low area.
During the first week of December 1861, the year following the fire, Smith got word that the Willamette River was rising rapidly and he sent his son john to tell Northcutt to bring the cattle up to the high ground immediately. The 12-year-old boy and Northcutt couldn’t get the cattle rounded up before dark, so John stayed overnight with the hired man. In the morning they awoke to find the floor board floating. John made his way beck while Northcutt tried again to save the cattle. Northcutt, his horse, and the cattle were drowned.
The Oregon Statesman reported on the flood damage in early 1862, saying, “The flood of 1861 went down in history as the most disastrous ever experienced in the Willamette Valley. The prairie at Mr. Ford’s is a perfect scene of wreck. Houses, furniture, clothing, and all description of utensils, horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens, lumber, and fencing are piled in heaps, and scattered everywhere.”
This is about the same area near the track field at McNary High School on the Ford donation land claim where houses, appliances, furniture, clothing, toys, etc., again “piled in heaps and were scattered everywhere” during the flood of 1964, just over 100 years later.
Everyone who had land in the Keizer lowlands was hard hit by the flood of 1861. After struggling for a few years to recoup his losses from fire and flood, Smith found it necessary to sell off part of his land, and in 1865 sold 66 acres to Charles Claggett for $525 and 23 acres to his neighbor to the north.
Nine years later, on January 24, 1874, Alvis Smith deeded the one-acre to his trustees of the Smith Cemetery. He was one of the trustees; the others were John M. Pugh and Hugh L. McNary, who now owned the 66 acres purchased by his father-in-law, Charles Claggett.
Gradually over the years the Smith Graveyard became known as the Claggett Cemetery. One explanation is that the tiny burial ground was located on the northeast corner of the acreage purchased by Claggett and that he agreed to maintain it provided the name was changed to Claggett Cemetery. However, the land sold to Claggett was immediately south of the bluff and did not include the cemetery.
A better explanation might be that for years the largest tombstone in the graveyard was that of another Charles Claggett, who was buried there in 1858.
There were many graves there by the time Smith began selling off his land. Emma Harris and Mary Pugh and her twin were buried there in 1860; Maria Conser and two-year-old William Goodrich in 1864. Nancy and Silas Jones buried a two-year-old boy in 1861 and another in 1863. The Ruggles family plot already had six graves in it. The mother had died in 1860 and three of the children died within five weeks of each other in 1863, supposedly of ptomaine poisoning from hone-canned green beans. Then in 1868 Alvis Smith buried his wife, Sally.
These graves are still marked, but vandals have removed or smashed many of the old grave stones. Fire swept through part of the cemetery in the late 19th century and burned up many of the wooden markers.
The caretaker of the cemetery, Henry Beir, points out the last resting places of some of the old pioneers of which the only visible sign is a depressed, coffin-sized area. He also indicates the location of the first Smith graves and that of Northcutt, the hired man.
Another tombstone he points out reads “Father 1857-1925” and starting between the two dates are three vertical rows of Chinese characters. This is the grave of Hop Lee, who in the early 20th century acquired most of the original Smith homestead, except fore about 100 acres. When he died, his widow, who was quite a bit younger than he, decided not to go to the expense of purchasing a cemetery plot, so she buried her husband on his own property just north of the cemetery fence. Years later, the broken-down fence was removed and brush which had grown up was cleared away. The land was surveyed, and lo and behold, the grave of Hop Lee was found to be a least 100 feet inside the cemetery.
Local youngsters who happened to be just over the bank of the cemetery on one Chinese Memorial Day were thrilled to see a number of Chinese come to the grave, don paper masks and perform a ceremony in which food was placed on the grave to appease evil spirits.
The Smith Graveyard was located at the south and east line of the Smith donation land claim which adjoined the John Zieber claim which lay between the cemetery and the road. The Ziebers had crossed the Great Plains in 1851 and purchased squatter’s rights to the land adjoining Smith’s on the east. Later they filed for a donation land claim and settled it in 1854.
In November 1874, the same year that Smith deeded the land to the trustees of the cemetery, John and Eliza Zieber followed suit with another acre of land, doubling the size of the little cemetery.
The Zieber family did not use the graveyard, but had a plot miles away in the Pioneer Cemetery south of Salem where their daughter, Eugenia Zieber Bush, was buried. However they and their descendants permitted access to the Smith Graveyard over their land, and around the turn of the century, dedicated the lane from Wheatland Road (then called River road) to public use.
In 1950 when Nick Holoboff acquired the acreage on both sides of the lane, he discouraged use of the road. However, to ensure the public’s right of access, the trustees of the Claggett Cemetery decided to purchase the land necessary for a road and turn-around area.
On Memorial Day in 1954 Henry Beier stood at the gate and explained the problem to the families who came to honor their dead. He was able to raise the required $1,100 to purchase 1.48 acres of land, including a 30-foot roadway from Nick and Mary Holoboff. In 1956 the Holoboffs and the Edward Bolfs, who had purchased land adjacent to the cemetery, donated to Marion County sufficient land to make the roadway 60 feet wide.
Josephine Bolf recalls that at the time the bought their land they found a wooden marker in the cemetery identifying the grave of an 18-year-old woman who had died in 1842. Bolfs speculated that she had died in childbirth. No wooden markers remain in the cemetery now.
In 1958 in response to a notice from Marion County that the private cemetery would be assessed for taxes, a nonprofit corporation was formed with Orel Garner, Henry Beier, Delbert Bair, and Bob Massey as the Board of Directors, and Fanny McCall as the Board’s secretary.
To clear up the name, on May 22, 1962, Robert Massey, Rosa Cole, Sam West, Delbert Bair, and Henry Beier, as trustees for the Claggett Cemetery Association, paid $10 for a bargain and sale deed to the Smith Graveyard and Claggett Cemetery Association.
Many of the early families in the community used the burial ground: Garners, Pughs, Masseys, McNary’s, La-Follettes, Savages, Harolds, Bales, Hammocks, Bairs, Reeds, Northcutts, and others. They did the necessary digging, buried their dead, and maintained the plots. But when Henry Beier agreed to mow the grass for Memorial Day in 1952, he didn’t realize what he was getting into. For the next 26 years he helped the other trustees mow the grass, but he also dug graves and maintained the records as the official, but unpaid, caretaker of the cemetery.
In 1978 funds were made available for hiring the mowing of the cemetery, but Henry Beier can still be found in Claggett Cemetery digging the graves, precisely and painstakingly by hand, and stopping in his labor to discuss plots or the cemetery’s history with anyone who expresses an interest.
Published October 31, 1979
Written by Keizer resident Ann Lossner