Oregon Legionnaire rescuing 1880s cemetery from time and neglect

This is the forgotten resting place of 10 members of the Scheel family and three other people whose relationship to the little private cemetery remains a mystery. Four-day-old Emma Scheel was the first to arrive on an unspecified date in 1888. Edward Scheel, who died in 1977 at age 81, was the last. 

It’s not clear why burials ended here more than 40 years ago or who owns the overgrown half-acre lot about 50 miles west of Portland, Ore., where time, weather, and vandalism have taken their toll. But Jim Moriarty, commander of American Legion Carl Douglas Post 74 in Estacada, is determined to restore it on behalf of the community he adopted three years ago. “I’m trying to bring this little piece of history from the 1880s to Estacada,” he says.

An Army Reserve veteran and retired Border Patrol agent, Moriarty discovered what’s known as the old German Hill Cemetery or the Scheel Family Cemetery about a year ago while researching how many veterans are buried in the area. Not only is he chairman of the Estacada Cemetery District Board – which oversees nine other historic cemeteries – he grew up in a family with a passion for the past. His father, an Army veteran, taught U.S. history for 37 years. His great-uncle Mac was doing genealogy before Ancestry.com was a thing. “I’m from Massachusetts,” Moriarty adds. “We have the oldest cemetery in the United States. Miles Standish is buried there.” Standish is the English military officer who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 and became the military leader of the Plymouth colony.

Moriarty spent countless hours trying to figure out who owns the cemetery, contacting adjoining property owners, placing letters in the mailboxes of everyone who lives in the area, and putting out a call for information on social media. He found two Scheel descendants through Facebook – one living in Estacada and another in nearby Sandy. But he still hasn’t been able to figure out who owns the land. So in January, he obtained a permit from the Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries that allows him to clear the underbrush, remove the moss from the headstones and repair a monument damaged by vandals.

His willingness to restore a private cemetery he has no connection to is unusual. “I work with people three or four times a year who are interested in caring for cemeteries that are abandoned,” says Kuri Gill of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the state’s historic cemeteries program. “It is rare that we have someone who has completed the research to find the owners, didn’t find any and applied for a permit.”

There aren’t any veterans buried at the Scheel cemetery even though it originally was part of a 160-acre acre plot the federal government deeded to Union Army and Civil War veteran Josiah Suter in 1874, Moriarty says.

The area attracted German immigrants, including the Scheels, who cleared forest land and built small farms on the west side of the Cascades. The resulting settlement became known as The German Burn after a substantial fire swept through the area in the 1880s. Nicholas Scheel was in charge of one of the two original post offices. His wife mailed herself letters to ensure it remained part of the settlement, according to a story in “The (Molalla) Bulletin.”

Details about the cemetery’s ownership have faded with time and multiple real estate transactions. Even the two members of the Scheel family Moriarty connected with are unsure who owns the property. No matter. Everyone is grateful for Moriarty’s effort to restore it.

 “I’m pleased as punch,” says Donna Scheel Boehm, an Oregon native who moved to Estacada 27 years ago and worked for the U.S. Forest Service. “I can’t do that kind of physical labor.”  Boehm remembers her father showing her the cemetery in 1994. Even then, vandals had knocked over a large monument. “I hope it gets cleaned up and taken care of properly.”

Mark Scheel, who lives in Sandy, was a pallbearer for his grandfather Edward’s funeral in 1977, the last burial at the site. And when he was a kid, he participated in periodic family cleanups of the cemetery. His late cousin, Ron, repaired the damaged monument Boehm saw in 1994 – which Scheel notes has been vandalized again.

Scheel also is grateful for Moriarty’s efforts, which includes restoring the monument, and plans to join the volunteer cleanup day Moriarty has organized at the cemetery for June 5. “He’s put a lot of time into this,” Scheel says. “I think it’s great.”

For Moriarty, the community response is its own reward. The German American Society of Portland donated funds to help rehabilitate the cemetery and nearly two dozen people have volunteered to help with the cleanup. “It’s amazing, the amount of support,” he says. “I’m excited to see the effort of the community.”