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Dead Men Moving

The relocation of Boise's bygones


It is no longer easy for Oliver Bench to switch out the dried, brown chrysanthemums for the new, vibrant yellow ones he picked up at a Fred Meyer on his way to the cemetery. The knee replacement surgery he underwent last fall makes it difficult now for him to get down on the wet grass next to the double headstone and even more difficult to get up.

With a resigned sigh, he says, "The day's coming when I'll have to bring my daughter with me to do this. Or one of my grandkids, maybe. But then, if you're telling me the truth, I won't be visiting nearly as much, I suppose."

Oliver, or "Ollie" as his friends and family know him, is "visiting" in Pioneer Cemetery, the oldest surviving cemetery in Boise. Since his mother's death in 2003, he has tried to attend to the twin graves of his parents once a month. Noticeably out of breath, he leans against the common marker that tells where Blanche and Herbert Bench have come to rest.

"She didn't last long after Dad passed. Two years, that's all. They had almost 60 years together, but that wasn't enough for her, I guess." Ollie chuckles, more to himself than anyone near. "I think she just decided to go see what he was up to."

Before he leaves, he makes his usual rounds through the maze of ornate monuments to where his grandparents are buried, then on to where his great-grandfather lies. Three generations of the Bench family are in Pioneer Cemetery.

"That's how it is. My great-granddad Oscar came out here from Iowa in 1869. He was just 19. Came for the gold but he never found any. Instead, he figured out a way to irrigate some farmland not far from the river, and he sold beans and corn to the Army. A few horses, too. He did OK with it. Tell you the truth, this valley, this town, has been good to the Bench clan. I hate like heck to think they're all going to end up out there in that darn dry desert."

He was referring to what he had learned this very morning, that the property Pioneer Cemetery has called home for at least 150 years has been sold to a private concern, and that the Bench clan, along with the entire population of this cemetery—and that of Morris Hill Cemetery as well—is to be disinterred and reburied on a 350-acre plot south of I-84, midway between Boise and Mountain Home. All so that some of the most desirable real estate within Boise city limits can be put back to work in a more lucrative fashion.

An Offer the Dearly Deceased Could Not Refuse

The final contract relaying ownership of the land on which Pioneer and Morris Hill sit was finalized in December. However, confidential negotiations with representatives of the City of Boise had been ongoing since at least the summer of 2008, when Lawrence T. Donnwiddy of LTD Options Inc. approached individuals in the current city administration and pushed his offer to purchase the property.

Said one Boise council member, who would speak to BW only on condition of anonymity, "Larry Donnwiddy can be one persuasive pest, let me tell you. I first met him at a lawn party at Bernie Heck's place up in Ketchum, and as soon as he found out I was on the city council, he came at me like a house on fire. I'm convinced he's been thinking about this cemetery deal since the day he moved to Idaho."

Originally from Arizona, Donnwiddy has made a significant impact on the local skyline since relocating his company to Boise in 1996. LTD Options Inc. was behind the planning and construction of the eccentric Klapp Building in east Boise, as well as the chi-chi MoorHaus shopping center outside of Eagle. Donnwiddy is also a senior partner in at least eight of the boutique hotels that have risen in the high-traffic areas around Milwaukee Street, Eagle Road and Parkcenter Boulevard.

Though new construction in the Treasure Valley is relatively stagnant at present, Donnwiddy's company is poised to come out swinging hard when the recession loosens and the economy reheats. He has acquired more than 200 acres in Canyon County on which he hopes to complete a family theme park with a special interest to people of the Nazarene faith. He has also assembled a partnership of some of the most hyper-juiced players in the Boise real estate scene. The partnership calls itself the Hi-Away 21 Group, whose goal is to build and lease luxury apartment housing on the hillsides that overlook some of the most picturesque aspects of Lucky Peak Reservoir. They have retained one of the Northwest's most prestigious law firms (Kerain, Pule & Smitt, headquartered in Seattle) to negotiate with the Bureau of Land Management for long-term leases.

It would seem, though, that the projects most dear to Donnwiddy's heart are the high-rise structures he intends to put up on the land where now lie so many of Boise's deceased citizens.

Boise Weekly was sent the following e-mail, ostensibly from Donnwiddy to an unidentified city official, and forwarded to BW's office by an anonymous source. If it does not reflect the exact nature of the negotiations that have taken place since 2008, it at the least demonstrates the pressure Donnwiddy has been exerting on people in a position to influence the outcome.

"We need to clear the past out of our ears in this town. Here we got a great spot down there at Pioneer, eight or nine bocks [sic] from downtown, six blocks from the river and the green Belt and all that s***, right there on Warm Springs. Can there be a better spot for some executive office suites and high-end penthouses? No. Hell, no. It's the best poperty [sic] in Idaho.

"And what about Morris Hill? We put up condos and the owners could see all the way to Cascade Lake from the upper floors. It's perfect. I have friends from Flagstaff who would move here just to live in places like that. And believe me, those people have money running out their a**es. Keep thinking about it!!!!--LD"

BW tried repeatedly to speak to Donnwiddy—or if not him, someone of managerial status in LTD Options Inc.—but with no success. Mr. Donnwiddy always seems to be away on other business, and the receptionist in the company's main office flatly stated that no one involved with the company had any interest in meeting with the press.

As of press time, it is not clear what sort of price was agreed upon, but there have been persistent rumors within Boise's close-knit development community that if the money was significant enough, the city might come out of the arrangement with a new soccer park and a possible expansion of Zoo Boise.

To further sweeten the pot, LTD Options Inc. has purchased the 350 acres of desert land and is presenting it to Boise city as a gift, complete with the expenses involved in disinterring and moving thousands of caskets and accompanying headstones. All Donnwiddy asked in return was that the state Legislature grant him a partial exemption of property taxes on his company's holdings, and that the new cemetery be named L.T. Donnwiddy Memorial Park.

150 Years of Accumulated Corpses

Pioneer Cemetery was already more than 40 years old when Ollie Bench's great-grandfather, Oscar E. Bench, was buried in 1903. The oldest stone in the cemetery on which one can still make out the epitaph belongs to Carrie Logan, who died at the tender age of 5 years, 11 months. Her death in 1864 came less than a year after Idaho was granted territorial status.

However, young Carrie was far from being the first to be laid down in Pioneer. It is impossible to know when the first settler was put to rest there, as the inscriptions on many of the very oldest markers have long since worn away to illegibility. Even worse, some of the earliest graves were marked with wood, and by now, those identities, if not what remains below, are lost to history.

At one time, Pioneer was known as the Masonic Cemetery. Early on, it had been purchased by two fraternal organizations, the Masons and the Odd Fellows, for the eternal occupancy of their deceased members. Since 1920, ownership, management and maintenance of Pioneer has been in the hands of the City of Boise.

Morris Hill cemetery doesn't go back quite so far as Pioneer. With $2,000 of city funds, Boise Mayor James Pinney bought the original 80 acres from William Ridenbaugh (for whom the irrigation canal is named) and widow Lavinia Morris in January 1882. Before that year ended, territorial Idahoans were ending up there for such causes as "... snow slide, gunshot, murder, dropsy, consumption, poison, falling tree, falling rock, and rickets gathering in the head," according to the Morris Hill Cemetery Web site.

What Morris Hill lacks in history, it compensates for in the combined esteem of its residents. Pioneer has a slight edge over Morris Hill in the passed-on Idaho governor tally. Morris Hill is home to the mortal coils of four; Pioneer has five.

Yet Morris Hill is the clear front-runner in terms of being the final resting place for other luminaries. Harry Morrison and Morris Knudsen (founders of Morrison-Knudsen, at one time the largest construction company in the world), Jack Simplot (founder, J.R. Simplot Company), Joe Albertson (founder, Albertsons Corporation), and C.W. Moore (founder, Idaho First National Bank) are all neighbors in that green sward overlooking the town they were so instrumental in building.

Frank Church and William E. Borah, Idaho's two most revered senators, lie in Morris Hill, as well as some of Idaho's most notorious characters. After John Jurko was hanged for murdering his mining partner in 1926, his remains were taken to Morris Hill, as were those of Harry Orchard, who died in 1954 after spending half a century in prison for the assassination of Gov. Frank Steunenberg. James Angleton, the legendary C.I.A. director of counterintelligence (portrayed by Matt Damon in the movie The Good Shepherd) is there. Of ironic interest is that Frank Church, before whom Angleton testified regarding CIA malfeasance, is buried no more than 100 paces from Angleton's grave.

And if one ever wanted to know what happened to "Peg Leg" Annie Morrow, the gold rush-era madam in whose homage one of Boise's most popular restaurants was named, she's lain in Morris Hill since 1934.

Mayors and industrialists, soldiers and artists and spies, senators and governors, and just plain folk. Taken all together, the people that rest beneath the sod in Pioneer and Morris Hill cemeteries are the Who's Who of Boise's history, as well as much of Idaho's.

Still, their journey is not over. Their final rest is yet to come. The sod above them has been sold, and barring any disruptions to the plans in progress, by the summer of 2013, they will have been relocated, grave markers and all, to that plot off the road to Mountain Home.

"A Reality of Modern Life"

Get off I-84 at Simco Road (exit 74), drive four miles south, then another three east, and you find what will soon be L.T. Donnwiddy Memorial Park. It doesn't look like much now. Earth movers have shifted some of the sandy soil down from the higher elevations, and there are survey stakes driven into the ground everywhere. A drilling rig is up and running, hoping to find the water it will take to green up this place and keep a few shade trees alive. Other than the drilling crew, no one is around.

"It won't take much to get this place going. A few access roads, some sprinklers and some sod, and they'll be ready for business," said Len Harwick of Harwick Wells & Post Holes. "From what I've heard, they're going to get all the coffins and stones in place before they sod. That makes sense. No use in putting grass down, then digging it back up, is there?"

Exhuming the dead to make room for more current activities is a practice that goes back to when cities outgrew their modest origins. As the Industrial Age set in, rural populations migrated to urban settings for employment in huge numbers, and in a relatively short time, city leaders and planners realized the lands that had been set aside for the deceased had become an inconvenience, and more tellingly, an impediment to commerce.

In France in 1786, officials in Paris closed the Cimetiere Des Innocents (Cemetery of the Innocents), which had been in continuous operation since the fourth century, and moved out an estimated 6,000,000 remains, dumping them rather unceremoniously into a mine shaft that was eventually converted to that city's famous catacombs. By the time such a drastic move had to be taken, the Cimetiere Des Innocents was in the very center of Paris and was far too valuable a piece of land to be left exclusively to the dead.

The practice continues. St. Johannes Cemetery in Chicago has been fighting O'Hare International Airport over the relocation of graves so that the airport can expand. In West Virginia, cemeteries are relocated to accommodate mountaintop removal mining.

From Singapore to Israel, Nashville to Boston, or anywhere crowded people feel they are running out of room—and anywhere the ground has become more coveted than hallowed—cemetery properties are being converted to new development. There are even archeologists, usually on the payroll of the developers, who specialize in cataloging the items that must be relocated.

Fred Allen is a Florida State University-trained archeologist employed by commercial interests in Atlanta, Ga., to examine and sort out anything that comes from the ground during these disinterments. He speaks candidly about the inevitability of his work.

"It's going to happen. It's just a reality of modern life. My job is to see that it gets done in an orderly and respectful way. That the right headstone goes with the right casket, that kind of thing. Sometimes, those old pine coffins come apart like a worn-out shoe when they're being moved, and I feel a deep obligation to get those remains back into the ground in one piece, if I can. Or if I can't, at least in one container."

Mixed Reactions

City officials had set the announcement of this agreement for later this year. According to one source (who did not wish to be named for fear of retaliation), the Municipal Office of Burial Properties Administration (MOBUPRAD), the agency charged with managing and maintaining all city-owned cemeteries, had considered the Friday before the long Memorial Day weekend to be an ideal time to release the news. A confidential source cites Umberto Ferdinantes, administrative officer of MOBUPRAD, as saying, "This is going to get a lot of these old Idaho people all fired up, no matter when we announce it. But if we do it just as people are getting out of town, heading out for McCall or the hills, maybe they won't be so wild-eyed when they come back."

However, that stratagem will likely have to be radically adjusted after this article is published. Word of the deal was leaked shortly after the first of the year.

In so many ways, it seems unbelievable that such a transfer of municipal properties could have taken place without any news of it spreading to the general public. With that in mind, various people who would be in a position to have heard something were contacted to see if they had been asked for their input or alerted to any changes.

Malda Ygoruthanui, longtime president of the Idaho Cemetery and Mausoleum Preservation League (ICMPL), had heard nothing. "It simply can not be," insisted Ygoruthanui. "Either one of them, really, but especially Pioneer. We spent a whole year and a half dressing up that place for the Idaho Centennial in 1990. ICMPL put that pretty new fence around it, put up an information center, cut the weeds and cleaned the scum off the gravestones. I designed the Web page myself. It is just unthinkable that anyone with the city would sell off that land. Somebody is pulling somebody's leg."

Activist blogger Dave Frister, an ardent and dedicated observer of local government affairs, also refused to believe it. "No way this could have gotten by me. I sit through every City Council meeting, every planning and zoning meeting, every County Commission meeting, every ACHD meeting. I watch their body language for signs they're hiding something. I go through every taped proceeding, frame by frame. I dig out stuff people don't even want to know about. No ma'am, no way this could have gotten by me."

Others, though, found it more credible. Skip Welch, with the Boise State Institute on Public Plausibility, commented, "Frankly, it doesn't surprise me. The city needs money, just like everyone and everything else does these days. And really, when you think about it, it makes sense, doesn't it? You got, what? Two hundred acres? Three hundred acres of triple-A real estate, and once they sell off a burial plot, it doesn't earn another dime. Not for the city or anyone else. If that land were sitting out alongside the interstate, you know, next to one of the big exit ramps, it would be rented out for double-digit figures per square foot to some box store outfit. If it's true, I think it was a good move. Maybe now Bieter can get that trolley car he wants so bad."

Some of those interviewed were quite enthusiastic about the changes. Junior Chamber of Commerce member Elizabeth Stank, who owns and operates Stank Stationery four blocks down Emerald Street from Morris Hill, was particularly pleased with the news.

"I think it's great. No disrespect to those dead people over there, but this end of town has been dying for 20 years. Some nice new neighbors would really perk things up around here."

A 28-year veteran with the city's administration said in a phone interview, "Look, I'm not saying you're right. If we've sold off those boneyards, you didn't hear it from me. But let's just say it was true. Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that what you heard was true. What's so wrong with that? Government has no business being in the boneyard business. You let the free market decide what a burial plot should cost, and it wouldn't surprise me if you could pick one up for under 50 bucks. After all, we're only talking about a 4-foot by 8-foot parcel, not counting the 6-foot-deep part. It all depends on where the boneyard is, sure. Obviously, it's going to cost more to get into one on top of a nice hill over-looking the river than one in, say, Garden City, overlooking an RV dealership."

That city employee asked not to be identified.

Before making his way to his car, Ollie Bench returns to his parents' graves and soaks the new chrysanthemums from a bottle of Aquafina he carries in his coat pocket.

"You know, I hate that they're doing this. Seems to me that once you go through that 'dust-to-dust' speech, you ought to be able to stay put. Know what I mean? I mean, what are they going to do ... say it all over again when they rebury these folks out there in the sagebrush?"

Would Ollie participate in an effort to stop this transfer, if such a move were initiated?

"Probably not. I'm not much of what you'd call a firebrand sort. I signed a petition once, but I forgot what it was for. But this makes me plenty mad, darnit. It has to do with tradition, doesn't it? They should let certain things be. I know you can't fight city hall and all that, and that supposedly you can't fight progress either. But is this really progress? Really? That they can throw you out of your own grave any time a better deal comes along? What happens if they discover oil out there under that new cemetery? Or uranium? What are they going to do then? Move 'em all again?"

Ollie pours some Aquafina on a bird spot that has dripped down over his father's birth date and scrubs it off with a Fred Meyer receipt he finds in his coat pocket. "Besides, I was hoping to end up here, myself. You know ... when my time comes."

Dr. Axidea instructs senior citizens in the art of gravestone rubbing for the University of Idaho Extension Service and does investigative reporting as a hobby.

Have questions you'd like to ask Dr. Axidea? For today only, Thursday, April 1, she'll be fielding your inquiries on Questionland.