Close your eyes and try to picture for a moment living when there were no cellphones, no cars, and no online retailers promising two-day shipping. The people who helped create the area we now call Taft lived that way; many of them are buried in the Taft Pioneer Cemetery.
Two weekends a year, these early settlers stand up and tell the impressive and fascinating tales of this rugged life right beside their graves during A Tour to Die For, when actors channel their spirits using historical knowledge collected by local researchers.
For this fourth season, running from Friday, Sept. 27, through Sunday, Sept 29, and Friday, Oct. 4, through Sunday, Oct. 6, the stories will include that of Sissie Johnson, a Native American woman who was born in 1855 to one of the Southern Oregon tribes forced to relocate north.
“We’ve always wanted to tell a story of a Native American person because they were here first,” said director Lewis Smith. “They also had a lot to do with the development of this area and the early businesses. Sissie Johnson is not actually buried in the Taft cemetery but she and her husband, Jakie, settled a lot of land here in Taft, and Mr. Bones, who donated the property for the cemetery, stayed at her boarding house.”
When there was no doctor, Sissie provided medical services that included delivering babies, and helped heal people using native herbs and remedies. She and Jakie taught new settlers how to thrive on the Oregon Coast, showing them where to find fresh water, how to find and eat mussels and crab, and how to cross the bay with a team of horses.
George and Nanie Parmele were two of the early settlers, and they’ll be telling their tale too. The couple were reunited in death after Nanie died from an accident; George didn’t follow until 11 years later.
The Parmeles started a post office in the Drift Creek area in1899. and created a town they named Johnson, after Sissie and Jakie. In 1904 they built a store there and were also a large part of the 1903 building of the first school in North Lincoln County.
Regardless of your thoughts on the afterlife, there should be some satisfaction in listening to the story of a man whose family burned all of his letters and documents after his death once they’d taken out the money hidden among them. The letters of Ben Bartow, born in 1896, included correspondence with President Truman and many other statesmen.
A perfect example of the hardiness of men of his time, Bartow once he took a job on a sailing vessel headed out of Seattle that got trapped by ice in the Bering Sea. He and the others aboard simply got out and traveled on foot across the ice to Kodiak, Alaska, carrying whatever they could. They lived with the Inuit for three months before the ice broke up and they were able to return to Seattle.
These stories and many more live in the archives of the North Lincoln County Historical Museum, which houses a bounty of local artifacts that provide a fitting backdrop when the museum is called to act as the backup site for the tour in inclement weather.
“The museum is a different experience but still a good one,” Smith said. “When we walk through all the historical props it really adds to the story telling. We’ll have the musicians playing there as well and the music reverberates all through the museum. It doesn’t have the creep factor of the cemetery but it’s still a pretty unique and fun.”
The live music at the cemetery and museum is provided by John Bringetto, head of the Lincoln City Pops.
“He’s bringing a surprise musician with him this year,” Smith said. “They follow the group and it creates a great effect.”
The tours start from the Lincoln City Cultural Center, where guest will be loaded up with cookies and cocoa and loaded onto busses.
“We’re very grateful to Chinook Winds for their donation of the busses and the drivers; we couldn’t do this without them,” Smith said. “The busses have lifts and the walkways in the cemetery are now paved, which makes it easy to accommodate everyone. We have had people with walkers and in wheelchairs every year and we are happy to bring the show to them.”
Lewis has a final piece of advice to help people enjoy their outdoor tour of final resting places: “Layer.”
All tickets are $25, including light refreshments at the cultural center, and can be purchased online at tourtodiefor.com. Tours run every hour from 5:30 to 9:30 pm from September 27-29 and October 4-6. The Lincoln City Cultural Center is located at 540 NE Hwy 101.