Grave matters 

Giving voice to the dead at the Missoula City Cemetery

Cemetery officials are disappointed with the weather, though some would agree that rainy days are the best for visiting, most conducive to thoughts of The Spoon River Anthology and dim recollections of cantos from Edmund Spenser: Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas, ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please. It’s not everybody’s bag to wonder what lies beyond, but it’s hard to wander a necropolis without at least wondering what lies between—you and this place, you and the rock they carve your name on. No less so when some of the residents seem to be up and about again and ready to socialize, eager to pull you aside and chat you up with everything that happened to them. It would all be stranger still if the walking dead weren’t wearing nametags.

The Missoula City Cemetery has hosted its annual Stories and Stones event since 2001, drawing on the research and theatrical talents of area teachers and historians to give flesh and voice to its most famous internees. A few of the participants—descendents and educators discussing cemeteries generally—appear as themselves. Most are actors, at least for today, wearing period dress and sitting patiently on folding chairs at gravesites marked with green and yellow balloons pressed low to the ground by the intermittent rain.

The Missoula City Cemetery became the first modern cemetery in Montana when it opened in 1885. Originally a private burial ground, it was sold to the city for $1 in 1901 by a consortium of local landowners, many of whom went on to be buried there. Platted just outside the city limits, the cemetery was also Missoula’s first public green space—before Greenough Park and the UM campus—and a popular picnic destination for Missoula families. Today its 70 acres, arranged like a miniature city of blocks and neighborhoods around a curvilinear thoroughfare to account for the gentle slope of the hill, are home to some 20,000 permanent residents, including Montana senator and governor Joseph Dixon, senator Jeannette Rankin, architect A.J. Gibson and brawling Front Street brothel-keeper Mary Gleim. Emma Slack Dickinson looks like she could do with a cup of tea and a warm bath.

“I was Missoula’s first schoolteacher,” she says, having arrived in Western Montana at the invitation of a brother in Corvallis. The trip from Baltimore, by horseback, rail and river, took two months. She was overwhelmed by the sight of her first buffalo herd from the steam-powered paddleboat that brought her up the Missouri, amazed when a Crow war party crept on board with Sioux captives in tow and celebrated for three days. Bitterroot residents offered her $90 a month to teach their children; Missoula outbid the Bitterroot’s offer by $10 per month and secured her services for the three-month school year, which used to be in the summer. Her first class consisted of 15 pupils. “I don’t know how teachers today do it with 30 kids,” she sighs.

At 30 years old, Emma Slack suspected she was already well on her way to spinsterhood but found, to her advantage, that marriageable women in the Montana of the late 1860s were in short supply. When she married W.H.H. Dickinson after three summers of teaching, she had to give up the post—married women weren’t allowed to teach. Three of their five children, a boy and two girls, survived to adulthood and were educated at the University of Montana when it was still in Helena, then a small mining town. Dickinson—at least this version, played by Evelyn Widhalm—has few regrets.

“I got to see a lot of change in my lifetime,” she recalls, noting that the area around Great Falls was nearly uninhabited when she first passed through it. “I got to see Montana grow. I understand they named a school after me—it’s closed now, but I’m still honored. And maybe it will open again. Missoula is still growing.”

A few monuments away, Tomme Lu Worden is also speaking in the first person, but for herself. Her husband’s grandfather was Francis “Frank” Lyman Worden, one of Missoula’s first businessmen. At 36, he married Lucretia Miller and the couple had seven children, “all of them with beautiful educations, all of them sent away.” One of the daughters, Caroline, married the Wordens’ Pine Street neighbor and future senator Joseph Dixon. Worden girls, says Tomme Lu, made good catches.

Frank Worden died of a heart attack in 1887, aged 57. “He wasn’t much of a businessman,” says his granddaughter once-removed, “but he was a wonderful citizen.”

Lucretia Miller Worden died in 1913. Today, only Tomme Lu’s two sons carry on the family name. In this, however, the Worden bloodline has fared better than that of another former Missoula dynasty, the Higginses.

“You’re standing on me right now,” says family patriarch Captain Christopher P. Higgins, portrayed by Historic Fort Missoula director Bob Brown. Higgins co-founded the city of Missoula in 1862, and here we’ve cloddishly traipsed right across his final resting place. He’s not mad, though.

Higgins had nine children—the streets in the University area are named after them. Maurice died in a duel, during a fire, after being struck in the head with a bullet and never regaining consciousness. Frank, who eventually became mayor of Missoula, raised a unit to fight in the Spanish-American War and made it as far as Georgia, where he caught a mysterious disease—possibly typhoid—from which he never fully recovered. Higgins ran a grist and flour mill with Frank Worden, and later a bank, but, says Bob Brown, most of the money was gone when he died in 1889.

“Thanks to that man,” he grumbles, pointing accusingly at a headstone inscribed “BONNER” some 50 feet away. Unfortunately, Bonner isn’t around to defend himself today. If the cemetery finds him for next year’s event, they could have a lively debate on their hands.

When we find Ritchie Doyle just down the hill (it’s hard to miss him, since he’s the only person in the cemetery—living or, presumably, dead—brandishing a spear), he’s apparently been contemplating the broken column atop a Masonic monument for the last 15 minutes. Ritchie, or rather his historical alter ego William Clark, is on hand today to discuss “lonesome graves.” As Captain Clark, he’d have seen a few of them—those of Sergeant Charles Floyd, the Corps of Discovery’s only fatality, and his co-captain Meriwether Lewis, buried on the Natchez trace after dying under mysterious circumstances—but right now he seems more perplexed by the symbols of Freemasonry.

“I think it’s supposed to symbolize a life cut short,” he says, tracing the ragged end of the column in the air with his forefinger. Actually, he says this at least four times while we’re standing there, like an actor still trying a line on for size even after the conversation has moved on. As Montana’s—perhaps the country’s—pre-eminent William Clark impersonator, Ritchie’s schedule has been filling up as Montana’s corner on the Lewis and Clark bicentennial approaches. It wasn’t always easy before, but now it’s practically impossible to tell which of the words that come out of his mouth are Clark’s and which originate in the misty caverns of what he calls “Ritchie thinking.” One lonesome grave he’s been thinking about a lot lately is that of fur trapper Lawrence “Lolo” Rence, for whom the town of Lolo is supposedly named. Historians have been trying to locate it since it was obliterated by logging activity in the 1950s.

“I guess a lonesome grave is a grave no one ever visits,” Ritchie says. “Like Lolo’s. Luckily, mine isn’t one of those. I’m kind of homesick to get back into it, actually. I have a bigger column on mine than Lewis has on his.”

  • Email
  • Favorite
  • Print

Readers also liked…

More by Andy Smetanka

Today | Wed | Thu | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon
VFW Tuesday Trivia

VFW Tuesday Trivia @ VFW

Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

© 2017 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation