By Capi Lynn
Statesman Journal, Thursday, July 26, 2007
Section C, pgs 1;4
Photos by Timothy J. Gonzales | Statesman Journal
Hidden beneath a canopy of oak and redwood trees and a carpet of ivy and periwinkle, on a hill east of Salem, is a small pioneer cemetery.
Narrow trails wind through the dense growth, guiding the rare visitor to eight grave markers. A few more exist but are nearly impossible to find this time of year.
Eoff Cemetery is one of 18 cemeteries in Marion County -- out of 130 -- located on private property, according to the "Oregon Burial Site Guide."
"This one is a little unique," said Tracey Saucy, a local cemetery researcher. "It's right along their driveway."
But visitors to the home of Craig and Nancy Smith would never guess a 155-year-old cemetery lies next to their circular drive, unless they started ducking under branches and poking around vines.
The Smiths like the camouflaged environment. They are protective of the site and purposely don't groom the area because it might attract unwanted attention.
"It was vandalized a lot when people knew it was here," said Craig Smith, the vice president and chief financial officer at Chemeketa Community College.
Unlike some cemeteries that have been razed over the years by development, Eoff Cemetery (pronounced Oaf) may have been preserved because of the subdivision that was constructed around it in the 1970s.
Today, the cemetery is sandwiched between two suburban residences east of Salem off State Street.
Walt Hager of Salem was the developer who once envisioned creating a park-like setting around Eoff Cemetery. But after going round and round with Marion County over taxes on the cemetery property, he eventually sold it to the Smiths.
"I'm glad somebody is looking after it," Hager said.
The Smiths, who have three adult children, appreciate the cemetery's history. There are 31 documented burials, including three Eoff brothers. Most of those interred are farmers, their wives and their children.
"These people were the ones that settled this area," Craig Smith said.
The Eoff brothers -- George, John Leonard and Fleming -- are ancestors of the family that founded Eoff Electric Co. John Leonard's great grandson, Asel Eoff, opened in 1919 a small retail establishment in Salem that grew into what today is a multimillion-dollar wholesale distributor. The Eoff family no longer is involved in the company.
George Eoff originally owned the land where the cemetery was established. The oldest known burial was in 1852. The last known burial, of George's wife, Nancy, was in 1900. The couple share a headstone.
Five Eoff children, ages 3 to 16, are among those interred.
In addition to the Eoffs, other surnames etched on markers include Bodemer, Duncan and Janz.
Every couple of years, someone stops by the Smith home and asks to see the cemetery, perhaps because they grew up in the area or they simply heard about it and are curious. Some have left copies of old news clippings referring to the Eoffs and the cemetery.
The August 1994 news quarterly of the Marion County Historical Society published a profile of the Eoff family history revealing that Asa Eoff, John Leonard's grandson, was an accomplished sheep breeder and that a young Clark Gable used to pick strawberries on the Eoff farm, where the future Hollywood star lived for a short time in one of the shacks.
A story that ran in April 1968 in the "Sunday Oregonian Northwest Magazine" was paired with a photograph of a large wooden cross not far from the headstone shared by George and Nancy Eoff. The cross is nowhere to be found today, and the Smiths don't remember it being there when they moved here in 1985.
A June 1974 article in "The Oregon Statesman" -- about the time Hager was beginning to develop the area -- reported there were 20 stone markers, a dozen more than what was visible during a recent visit.
Saucy and her husband, Paul, visited Eoff Cemetery about a year ago to transcribe it for their Web site, www.marioncountycemetery.com.
"It's not a nice, grassy knoll," she said. "But it's not in bad condition. It's kind of charming."
They were unable to locate a couple of markers that have been documented in years past, despite prodding the dense undergrowth with a pole. One memorialized the Short children, Alvin and Elvin, who died a year apart in the late 1890s, both at the age of 1 day. Their headstone reportedly had faint lettering across the bottom that read: "Sleep Babies Sleep."
Some of the headstones that remain at Eoff Cemetery are etched in detail, down to the number of years, months and days the person lived.
Craig Smith incorporated that into a lesson for his children when they were growing up, reminding them it's not how long you live, but how you live.
Nancy Smith, a fourth-grade teacher, uses the cemetery as an educational tool. She brings her students out every spring, assigning each to choose a tombstone, make a rubbing of the inscription and write an essay about what it might have been like to be that person.
Although the Smiths don't tend to the cemetery, they watch over it appreciate all its history. Craig Smith figures the wild roses and the trees were planted many years ago in remembrance of loved ones.
"We call it God's acre," he said.