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History comes to life through museum's cemetery tours

Tours also offered of Historic Downtown


A cemetery is a quiet, peaceful place, but Gresham History Museum walking tours through Gresham’s pioneer cemeteries bring history to life.

Miyo Iwakoshi is buried in the Gresham Pioneer Cemetery, across street from the White Birch Cemetery, the city’s two pioneer cemeteries. According to the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, Miyo was 27 years old when she moved to Gresham in 1880 with her Scottish husband, Andrew McKinnon, and their adopted daughter, Tama. She was the first Japanese immigrant to settle in the state and was known as the “Western Empress” for her generosity and aid to later arriving immigrants, according to a Gresham Historical Museum pamphlet.

McKinnon, a sea captain, farmer and teacher, built a steam sawmill near Gresham and named the area Orient, in honor of Miyo, and is reflected today in Orient Drive and East Orient Elementary School. Her final resting place is under a Japanese maple tree, said Dorothy Douglas, president of the Gresham Historical Society.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Dorothy Douglas, president of the Gresham Historical Society, pauses by a gravestone in the Gresham Pioneer Cemetery.There was some debate as to whether she could be buried there because of the anti-Japanese attitudes of some at the time, and it wasn’t until 1988 that an official marker was placed on her grave.

That tidbit of Gresham history is only a snippet of information that museum volunteer and tour leader John Andersen imparts as he leads from 10 to 20 people through the city’s oldest cemeteries and downtown streets. Andersen and his wife, Mandy, also a museum volunteer, moved to Gresham only in 2013, but since he had conducted historic tours in Portland for more than a decade, he quickly offered his services to the museum.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: BEVERLY CORBELL - The gravestone of Jackson Powell states he came to the area in 1847 and discovered Powells Valley in 1848.“John has a deep interest in history and has a huge knowledge and he’s traveled all over the world,” Douglas said.

Andersen began with two cemetery tours last year and doubled that to four this year, with the last one scheduled for Aug. 17. He also conducted more than 10 tours of Historic Downtown Gresham this year, with the next ones set for Aug. 10 and Aug. 31. The tours are free, but call the Gresham Historical Museum at 503-661-0347 to make a reservation.

Although he’s not a certified historian, Andersen said he uses only viable information to pass on to his tour groups.

“Everything I say is documented, and I carry notes with me, with the documentation, of where I got it from,” he said.

There are many mysteries at the Gresham Pioneer Cemetery, like a simple stone marker at ground level with no dates, only the name Linda C. Choquette, and the number 139 in the corner. Several yards away, under a tree near the back of the cemetery, another headstone gives more detail about the history of another pioneer: “Jackson Powell. March 2, 1816-July 22, 1890,” it reads. “Pioneer of 1847. Located Powell’s Valley in 1848.”

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: BEVERLY CORBELL - Some headstones at the Gresham Pioneer Cemetery are mysteries. That of Linda C. Choquette has no birth or death date, only the number 139 in the corner.In Andersen’s walking tours of downtown Gresham, the buildings instead of gravestones are the markers of the city’s past, and each has a story, including the history museum at 410 N. Main Ave. where the downtown walking tours start. Andersen said the museum was built as the city’s first public library in 1913. He quoted Marion Dean Ross, noted art historian at the University of Oregon for many years, as saying to his students that they should make a trip from Eugene to Gresham to see “the finest example of English Tudor architecture in the county.”

The library was one of more than 2,500 libraries built between 1883 and 1929 by businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, but the city had to come up with matching funds of $2,500, a fortune at the time. The citizens of Gresham rose to the challenge, according to Andersen.

“It wasn’t easy to get it built, but that’s what a real community is all about, people pitching in,” he said.

Andersen has certainly “pitched in” as a museum volunteer, but said he also gets a lot of personal satisfaction from the tours.

“The people who come here are very knowledgeable often, and I enjoy having meaningful conversations about history and meeting them,” he said.

To learn more about Gresham’s history, visit the museum or log onto greshamhistoricalsociety.org.

Museum needs more volunteers

The Gresham History Museum is a popular place, but it’s open only three days a week, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

Museum leaders would like to open the museum on Fridays as well, but they need help — more volunteers to help curator Christy Weaver keep the doors open an extra day.

“We can’t open with just one person, and we will take anyone who would like to volunteer regularly,” said Dorothy Douglas, museum president. “We also need someone to come in on Tuesdays.”

Volunteers at the museum may act as docents, talking to visitors and answering questions, but there are always projects that could use extra hands, she said.

“They could organize files, staple booklets, easy work but essential to our projects,” she said.

Museums are about more than exhibits of old items, and the collection at the Gresham History Museum is constantly growing as people bring in artifacts, especially tools, from another era, and each has a story attached. Those stories stay with the objects, but someone has to write it all down.

“Items are always coming in, and we give the person’s name and tell its history and take it all down and keep with the item,” Douglas said.

The museum also has many old newspaper articles from the Gresham Outlook and the Oregonian, as well as large research files. It uses a special research program for museums called Past Perfect, she said, but help is also needed with data input.

“We are still working on registering old archives,” she said. Help is needed in other areas, and the museum is continually adding new programs to enhance visitors’ participation in their history. For example, the museum recently received a grant from the city of Gresham to record the oral history of Gresham residents about “growing up, working and playing here in Gresham.”

But you don’t have to have any kind of super skills to volunteer for the museum, and anyone who can give a few hours on a regular basis is welcome. To learn more, call the museum at 503-661-0347 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .