KNAPPA — On a rolling hillside along Knappa Dock Road is the Prairie Cemetery, a 140-year-old burial ground holding several generations and more than 800 locally connected people.
The nonprofit Prairie Cemetery Association of Knappa has turned a project to replace a flagpole at the burial grounds into a two-year renovation to add a parking lot, pavilion, interpretive center, fencing and veteran’s memorial.
The Prairie Cemetery dates back to 1878, when local pioneer Daniel C. Ramey donated a 1-acre plot to Knappa, according to an account in The Daily Astorian. The cemetery has since grown down the hillside from Knappa Dock Road to encompass about 3 acres, including several distinct sections for early pioneers, prominent families and plots for cremated remains.
The cemetery association, started in the early 2000s to support maintenance, has over the past three years built a new sign, repaired or straightened 40 headstones, subsidized new headstones for unmarked graves and contracted a groundskeeper.
Steve Burke, the association’s secretary and, like most volunteers, a family member of many buried at the cemetery, said the association was looking to replace a flagpole farther away from power lines when volunteers started thinking bigger. The plan evolved to moving the flagpole to the low ground in the middle of the cemetery, while adding a parking lot and community gathering place.
“We found that people don’t want to be buried in the low part of the cemetery, because they think that there’s going to be water entering the graves,” Burke said.
With an ideal location for a community gathering place amid the graves, the association started raising money. Since last year, the association has gathered more than $30,000 toward a goal of upward of $50,000 to complete the restoration and add the amenities. It received a nearly $6,900 grant in July from the state Commission on Historic Cemeteries.
Numerous donations have streamed in from current and former community residents with family buried at the cemetery. Local businesses and volunteers have voluntarily excavated for the parking lot, provided rock and hauled it in.
Among those buried are around 100 veterans, including at least two from the Civil War. The association hopes to build a pedestal honoring veterans, Burke said. Under the pavilion’s cover, the association plans to install a columbarium with 1-by-1-foot niches for holding cremated remains in urns.
“In talking with some of the mortuaries, there’s a high demand for those,” Burke said. “People like the idea of being buried in a niche as opposed to in the ground.”
The cemetery has so far sold more than 1,400 burial sites, but has only recorded 881 burials, Burke said. Some of the sites are reserved by family members who buy plots in advance. Some were unmarked or used wooden headstones that eroded over time in the moist environment.
The association is still in the process of identifying unmarked graves through visual surveys, probing the ground and dowsing.
Patti Van Osdol, the association’s vice president and former owner of Granny Patti’s Trading Post farm and feed store in Svensen, has been digging through marriage records, death certificates, diaries, newspaper articles and other historical records, whittling down the number of unmarked graves at the cemetery to less than 200.
“We have a lot of unmarked graves, and I have a lot of known community burials,” she said. “It’s putting the cemetery together.”
The association plans to finish the parking lot and a concrete slab for the flagpole and veteran’s memorial this year. Next year, it will construct a kit pavilion, add disabled-accessible parking, install the veteran’s memorial and add the columbarium. The goal is to finish by the end of next year.
“With a little bit of cooperation with the weather and our volunteers, we can have a flag-raising here Veterans Day,” Burke said. “That’s my goal.”