Tim Woodward: The pioneers we never think about

A long-forgotten observance is briefly resurrected to honor folks buried in Boise who have stories behind their names.

June 8, 2014 

Talk about memories. A recent Statesman story about Decoration Day brought a virtual tsunami of them.

Before that, the last time that the term "Decoration Day" appeared in a news story, I probably hadn't started shaving yet.

Boise's Columbian Club, the East End Neighborhood Association and Boise Parks and Recreation put it back in the headlines by observing the once-popular May 30 observance at Pioneer Cemetery. For those who missed the news story and aren't familiar with it, Decoration Day was the predecessor to Memorial Day, the day reserved for taking flowers to cemeteries to "decorate" the graves of loved ones.

When I was small, my folks would no more have missed the annual observance than they'd have skipped Christmas. It was a big deal. We'd load the car with flowers from my mother's garden, a picnic basket and a cooler filled with soft drinks and make the annual pilgrimage to Star, where my mother's aunt and her family lived.

That would be my great Aunt Amy, her husband, Adolph, and their son, Weldon. Their farmhouse, old even then, was between Star and Middleton on what has long since ceased to be farmland. Aunt Amy would enlist me to help her catch chickens in the barnyard for making what to this day is the best fried chicken I've ever tasted. After lunch, we'd drive to the Star Cemetery to decorate the graves of relatives I never knew and even now think of as historical figures rather than actual people.

The same could be said of most of the people buried in Pioneer Cemetery, Boise's oldest in continuous use. The only ones that I actually knew were three-term governor Bob Smylie and Merle Wells, the state's late, great historian emeritus. When you asked Dr. Wells about a figure from Idaho's distant past, the answer could take half an hour or more and leave you with the impression that Wells knew him or her personally. It was Idaho's loss that, when he died in 2000, the technology didn't exist to download his brain.

But the other folks buried there were, to me as to most Idahoans, little more than names in history books, relics from the past. They were, that is, until I took one of the Decoration Day tours with the Columbian Club's Janice Stevenor Dale.

Most of the cemetery's residents were, as its name attests, pioneers. Many of the dates on headstones there are from the 19th century. So it was a bit of surprise to encounter Karl William Seyb - July 27, 1994 to April 9, 2011. His grave was decorated with petunias, roses, two baseballs and a batter's helmet.

"He was on the Boise High School baseball team," Stevenor Dale said. "He was killed in a car accident."

Seyb, 16, was a standout hockey player and student as well. A gifted young man gone too soon.

One of the cemetery's sadder burials was that of Corilla Robbins, who owned the city's first residential telephone, rode in the first airplane to land in Boise and the first automobile to come to Idaho, and was a force in the women's suffrage movement. The grave of her second husband, Orlando Robbins, is adorned with one of the cemetery's most opulent markers.

"He erected this monument to himself and left nothing for her," Stevenor Dale said. "She was buried in a grave that wasn't even marked. All we know is that it's somewhere near his."

A lot of important people are buried in Pioneer Cemetery, including 11 mayors and four governors, but few had more impressive resumes than former mayor James Pinney. He's credited with, among other things, the city's first sidewalks and sewer system, Morris Hill Cemetery, the Boise Independent School District, the Natatorium and a beautiful old theater, the Pinney, that was torn down in the 1970s to put up a parking lot that remains to this day.

"He also predicted that automobiles would become a big thing and invested heavily in our streets," Stevenor Dale said.

Some of the gravesites convey the grief felt at a loved one's passing more than a century after the fact. Elizabeth Goad's, for example. When she died, in 1903, her survivors commissioned the following inscription for her headstone:

"A light from our household is gone.

"A voice we loved is stilled.

"A place is vacant in our hearts

"That never can be filled."

I could go on about the folks buried in the old cemetery, but their stories would fill far more than a column. They'd fill a book, with stories left over. The important thing is that, thanks to the Columbian Club and others, they - and Decoration Day - have gotten some long overdue attention.

"A lot of people today don't even know what Decoration Day is," Stevenor Dale said. "We thought that this event would call attention to it - and to all the pioneers we drive by every day and don't even think about."

Tim Woodward's column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Monday. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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