Sounds of the Underground

MYRTLE CREEK — On job sites, onlookers often ask Reid Davis if he's looking for gold or Jimmy Hoffa as he operates a radar machine that sounds out objects buried underground.

On a recent Friday, the GPR Data employee slowly walked a red antennae cart resembling a lightweight lawn mower back and forth on top of an oak knoll in Myrtle Creek.

Although he wasn't searching for missing Teamsters, he was looking for graves.

The Myrtle Creek Pioneer Cemetery Committee brought in GPR Data, a family-owned company out of Eugene, to locate unmarked gravesites.

Over the last four years the Pioneer Cemetery received some much-needed TLC after vandals toppled and broke more than 70 headstones on July 24, 2006.

"I can't tell you how awful it was to see all the stones lying on the ground," said Norma Davidson, who has ancestors buried there. "I just sat down and started to cry."

Davidson joined the volunteer restoration effort.

It's estimated that almost 500 hours have been logged over the last four years to fix and reset the stones and care for the grounds.

After using grants to invest in a brand-new fence, an ornate locking gate and an information board, the committee rededicated the repaired place of rest in May 2008.

But there were memorials the group couldn't replace.

As the rumor goes, a well-meaning boys group held a work day at the historical cemetery, Davidson said.

At the end of the day, adults noticed the young boys had accidentally piled up rotted and fallen wooden crosses along with the brush.

That was in the '70s, and volunteers say there's no record of where those gravesites are, although clues turn up now and then.

"In pioneer times they didn't bury people 6 feet under, they're buried just below the surface," Davidson said. "We actually hit a grave with a shovel."

In April 2008, Davidson's daughter, group secretary Elizabeth Banducci, started researching ground-penetrating radar as a way to locate the pine boxes so the committee could place markers over each one.

Banducci said the group's amateur historian, Blanche Newton, spoke of a picture in which it appeared hundreds of crosses filled the now bare spots in the graveyard.

"In my mind I'm thinking, 'Where did they stuff those people?' " Banducci said. "There's not a lot of space."

The conservative guess is that between 50 and 75 unmarked graves are among the 100 headstones and footstones.

Expecting a much higher price for the 3D imaging, Banducci was quoted a $3,000 cost by GPR Data owner Mike Edwards in 2008. He told the Sutherlin woman the price would stand until the nonprofit group could raise the funds.

Most of the restoration work was made possible through grants and in-kind donations from local companies and organizations.

GPR Data will be paid out of a $7,122 restitution fund collected from a man charged in the 2006 vandalism. The damage from the incident totaled $14,245.

On this day, Davis and co-worker Francisco Wenzel had laid out a bright yellow and orange string grid and were calibrating their machine by walking over graves with headstones to record the radio waves bouncing back.

The waves appear as ripples, or inverted hyperbolas, on a striated screen. These will be compared with recordings from areas devoid of markers in the quest for similar signatures.

Though using a known factor such as marked graves, Davis said the ripples don't definitively mean graves — the trees and their thick roots could be creating false targets.

"All we know is it's something in the earth that's creating a reflection," he said. "And we're not accepting that the headstones are accurate."

An initial run-through recorded strong results about 4 feet down.

"I'm excited — get me a shovel," Davidson said, as she looked at the antennae cart's small screen.

But Davis urged caution.

"What we're saying is we're getting a really good reading right here and hopefully it'll be that way the whole time," he said.

Banducci said the group is designing a marker that will be used to mark the sites once GPR Data's report arrives.

The committee has taken over upkeep for the cemetery, which belongs to the city. Committee officials say the South Umpqua School District held the deed previously and gave it to the city in 1980.

Trudy Thompson, Newton's daughter, sat quietly on a bench, watching the activity as the radar waves bounced around members of her family buried on the oxbow that overlooks the South Umpqua River.

She has been amazed by the activity around the once-neglected graveyard that brought her and descendants of other pioneering families together and closer with their pasts.

"What's so interesting to me is how connected we really are," she said. "You feel like you really get to know each and every one of them. Once you read the history of them, they become even closer."

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