Talking Tombstones breathes life into the history of Oregon and the dead of Clatsop County
Story by ERICK BENGEL • Photos by JOSHUA BESSEX
One hundred and fifteen years after his death, Charles McGuire has risen from the grave.
On a gray and gusty Sunday morning, the honorable judge and gentleman’s scoundrel pounds his gavel on a stump near his headstone in Warrenton’s Clatsop Plains Pioneer Cemetery, then plunges into his life story before a crowd come to see the local legend in the flesh.
The way McGuire tells it, he was the proverbial pillar of the community — a family man who founded hotels and businesses in Astoria and Warrenton and, along the way, became a Clatsop County Commissioner and Astoria City Councilor.
Oh sure, he had his unsavory side. McGuire’s road to riches involved marrying twice into the same wealthy family. His second wife accused him of having inappropriate relations with their maid and patronizing the houses of ill repute on Astor Street. And he helped get the mayor of Astoria ousted from office for alleged “dirty dealings” that may never have happened.
But: “I want to remind you that the good people of Clatsop County saw fit to elect me Clatsop County judge in 1890 at the age of 61. And I remained in that position for 11 years until my death in 1901,” he boasted to a round of applause.
OK, so maybe it wasn’t McGuire himself speaking, but it was the next best thing: David Reid, an Astoria resident, dapperly dressed in a suit jacket with bow tie and evoking a 19th century dignitary for “Talking Tombstones XII: A Serious Undertaking.”
An annual living-history event hosted each October by the nonprofit Clatsop County Historical Society, Talking Tombstones enlists a handful of volunteers to portray the county’s late citizens in brief vignettes, staged mere feet from their final resting place. Visitors tour the selected cemetery — which changes every year — moving from gravesite to gravesite and watching as reenactors “become” the deceased, a transformation born of serious research and a playful imagination.
The historical society rummages through records for interesting lives and colorful characters, names notable and obscure. There is the story of an Astoria cannery worker who fell through an outhouse and drowned in the Columbia River. And the county sheriff who took up bootlegging during Prohibition. And the British immigrant who sent for his favorite plants from England, including the lovely Scotch broom he generously seeded along the roadway and that, a century and a half later, has become a notorious yellow nuisance.
They came from different classes, took different journeys and met different fates. But they all lived in Clatsop County, and they’re all dead, interred in a county cemetery. And that makes them fair game for the Talking Tombstones treatment.
I see dead people
“Not everyone was a boisterous, outgoing person in history. There were mild and meek people; they’re a big part of our culture and history here,” said Steve Nurding, a local engineer who participated in Talking Tombstones for a decade.
The historical society chooses figures from the rich tapestry of Oregon’s history: soldiers and pioneers, housewives and entrepreneurs, doctors and prostitutes, bar owners and Columbia River bar pilots.
Some characters died of old age, others died in gunfights or in the 1918 influenza outbreak; some dropped dead after crossing the plains, others perished in the Spanish-American War or in World War II. The region’s household names — the Gimres and Shivelys, the Flavels and Van Dusens — are presented alongside families who left no local legacy. The giants of Oregon’s past share the stage with lives filed away as footnotes, unremembered and unsung.
Armed with information dug up by Liisa Penner, the historical society’s archivist, the actors prepare a loose script. Sometimes the museum hands them reams of information compiled from obituaries, cemetery records, Census Bureau data and biographical books; sometimes the actors have to build a character from nothing but a newspaper clipping.
“They didn’t really make full-blown obituaries in the 1870s unless it was somebody who had a lot of money or was really important in the area. Mostly, it was just, ‘So-and-so died of something-or-other,’ and that was about it. Not much more,” Penner explained. “The actors just try to breathe life into it somehow.”
And the actors have a lot of creative license.
Nurding acts in full period attire and constructs elaborate set pieces to serve as interpretive tools. When he played the hapless cannery worker — “just a happy-go-lucky soul that fell through the toilet into the river” — he built a prop outhouse and climbed up out of it for the show while a recording of barking sea lions rolled in the background. Two years ago, he played Thaddeus Trullinger, the electrician who wired up an electrified gallows for Astoria’s last hanging — so, naturally, Nurding built a prop gallows.
“If you want more facts, go to the library. Go to the Internet. If you really care about where that person went to school, that’s where you go get that information,” Nurding said. “But you come to Talking Tombstones to be more entertained and get a flavor for the history at the same time.”
Matthew Hensley, a veteran Talking Tombstones actor, doesn’t go for costumes and props, preferring to keep his character the focus of his performance.
A history teacher at Astoria Middle School, Hensley knows that delivering dates and dry details doesn’t make for rousing family entertainment. So he finds a hook — a theme to wrap the character around.
In October 2015, for the 12th Talking Tombstones, Hensley played John Thomas, a British Islander from South Wales who relocated to Clatsop County in the early 1850s and acquired a large donation land claim that stretched from Cullaby Lake to the seashore. After Thomas fought in the American Indian Wars, he sold his claim and bought a modest piece of land and a few cows, planted a garden and began writing verse (some of which appeared in the early pages of The Daily Astorian).
Using a handful of Thomas’ poems and a bare-bones biography from the historical society’s quarterly journal, Hensley got acquainted with the long-dead soldier-turned-poet. Then, with Thomas lying buried underfoot, Hensley introduced him to Talking Tombstones attendees.
“You try to give people the experience of actually having met that person,” he said. “That’s the goal.”
He interpreted Thomas’ story as that of a man driven to make a name for himself, pursuing one auspicious enterprise after another until the taste of warfare convinced him to take a different path. Perhaps, Hensley said, the forgotten bard eschewed his great wealth and luxury so he could adopt a simpler way of life, communing with nature as a humble man of letters.
“You kind of read between the lines,” Hensley said. “He had 325 acres — why did he sell that and build a little shack? And what I kind of extrapolated is: He does that as soon as he comes back from the Indian Wars that he’s fighting in. And I would imagine that fighting in those wars changed him.”
As a first-person interpreter, Hensley’s job is to help people understand what his characters felt, why they behaved as they did, and how history shaped them and their decisions.
“Nobody’s going to know him. Nobody’s going to know about him. There’s not going to be any relatives here, because he apparently never married — at least, there was no record of a marriage and family and kids,” he said. “I want (visitors) to feel like that person must have had a passion about their life, so I have to have a passion about their life.”
The dearly departed
Scores of people turn out each year to spend quality time with the ghosts of Clatsop County’s past.
“Once upon a time, cemeteries were parks — they’re outdoors — and it was a place where families would go to picnic and reminisce and reconnect with a lost loved one,” said McAndrew Burns, the historical society’s executive director.
In the last century, cemeteries suffered a serious reputational blow. Thanks to popular culture, cemeteries have taken on a creepy connotation; the presence of the dead now fills the living with fear and disquiet.
“We’ve seen too many scary thriller movies,” Burns said.
The historical society seeks to resurrect the old feelings of fondness, and it may be working: As few as 400 and as many as 700 visitors have attend the free event each year.
“If it’s raining on us, we don’t reschedule. We go no matter what,” he said. “On a rainy, windy, cold afternoon in October, it’s pretty amazing to have that many people standing in a cemetery.”
After each presentation, audience members are invited to ask questions, which often bridge the past and present, Burns said.
An actor playing Sven Gimre, founder of Gimre’s Shoes, might field a question like: “Mr. Gimre, when you founded your shoe store, did you think it’d still be around more than a century later?” The actor may know the answer, and he may not, but he must answer in character.
The goal is to get people excited about the region where the Talking Tombstones personages lived and loved, struggled and schemed, multiplied and died — and, in the process, laid down the culture, texture, and traditions of Oregon’s North Coast towns.
And it is to tell the tales of folks no longer around and to tell them in person — tales that few people may have heard, and even fewer now hear. After all: “There’s no other way for that person to reach out and tell their story,” Reid said.
“We tend to forget that these cemeteries … People are buried there, they led lives, and they have stories,” Burns explained, “and this is a way to remember that.”