Since 2007, LindaMae Nuessle has been organizing efforts to restore the heritage of the Westfall Cemetery. She sits on June 16 among tombstones for notable Westfall residents such as Jasper Westfall. (The Enterprise/ISAAC WASSERMAN)
WESTFALL – Slender fingers release the chain allowing the steel gate to sweep open. LindaMae Nuessle passes across the threshold into the Westfall Cemetery.
The light sound of her footsteps can be heard over the gentle wind that brushes hair off her face. Nuessle settles on a bench under the cemetery plot map and information board — a friendly smile spreading across her face.
While most visit the historic cemetery to pay respects, Nuessle visits to repair and restore it. When Nuessle moved to Westfall in 2001, the outpost about 30 miles west of Vale had already been a ghost town for 40 years. She came from Colorado, where she was a mail carrier and worked in construction fixing houses.
She and her partner at the time decided to move to the old homestead where he wanted to make high-quality cowboy gear. When she visited Westfall and saw the old general store for sale, she knew she would stay.
“I kicked the door in, and it was love at first sight,” said Nuessle, now 75.
When she ventured up to the cemetery one day in 2007, she was shocked. Cows had gotten through the flimsy fence and the site was in disarray. Gravestones had been trampled, the fence was mangled and tall grass buried the heritage that laid there.
“I cried,” said Nuessle. “We were just devastated to see the condition.”
Nuessle not only felt peoples’ legacy had been damaged but the legacy of Westfall too. Nuessle said she felt “shame that it had been allowed to happen.”
She went to work. She applied for grants and organized a team of volunteers, Scout Troop 400 and a Malheur County community service team to help.
Less than a year later, new signs had been put up directing visitors to the historic cemetery, and a fence made from railroad ties and fencing protected the graveyard. A new plot map to inform visitors and honor the people buried there now stands, looking over repaired gravestones. When those projects were completed, “It was just wonderful,” she said.
Now, Nuessle is embarking on another repair mission.
In May, she requested $2,415 from the Oregon Heritage Plan, an Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department initiative to increase access to Oregon heritage, promote heritage values, include more voices and pursue best practices. Trish Veigel, who lives near Westfall, has worked closely with her to get the new restoration projects off of the ground.
Plans call for building a pavilion with benches for visitors, marking unmarked graves, and putting up an illuminated flagpole to honor the service members buried there.
The cemetery reveals a detailed history of the rise and fall of the town and the special anecdotes that gave the town its personality during its prime.
“You read the Westfall history and you realize these names have a life,” said Nuessle.
Though the land for the cemetery was not officially designated for its current purpose until 1885, the cemetery started earlier that year with the first burial — of Mary Strickland. Her weathered gravestone is barely legible.
Strickland was part of an emigrant train that traveled through the area. From the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s Westfall boomed with the migration of folks like Strickland who traveled on stage routes. The town got an expansive hotel in the early 1890s to accommodate its flow of visitors.
Other gravestones, such as for the Westfall family, reflect the town’s settlement and prime.
The modest gravestone of Levi Westfall hugs the ground and tells a story of homesteading. Westfall settled there in 1870, establishing what would become the town of Westfall. The post office started in 1882 and the townsite was officially plotted by the county in 1899.
He and others were able to live off the plentiful land. The soil was rich, and grasses were tall. According to historic accounts, sheep, cattle and horses all thrived in the valley. Additionally, crops such as potatoes, alfalfa and hay flourished. In 1910, the U.S. Census showed, 140 people lived in the town which had a candy shop, three saloons, two hotels, a blacksmith and three general stores.
The much taller gravestone of Levi’s nephew, Jasper Westfall, was placed in 1912 during the largest funeral the town had ever seen, according to historic accounts. Westfall, the town marshal, was shot and killed in classic western fashion. The accounts tell of a drunken saloon shootout that left blood on the street, a body on the saloon’s pool table and a beloved, mild-mannered marshal dead.
Oliver Finley Beeson, a soldier in Company G of the Confederate Army’s 2nd Missouri Cavalry is also buried there.
As railroads came into Malheur County, travel and trade routes through Westfall became obsolete. According to the National Register of Historic Places, residents moved to nearby Harper as buildings were demolished, the open ranch land was fenced off and the schoolhouse closed. By 1960, all that was left was a ghost town.
The last person buried in the cemetery was Carl Russell Sevey in 1994.
Nuessle is sure that she does not want to be buried there one day. But she is leaving her legacy in Westfall.
On the bottom right corner of the plot board in handwritten permanent marker reads the only ode to Nuessle’s work, “Please submit any additions or corrections to Linda N. at the old general store in downtown Westfall.”
Her contributions and devotions don’t go unnoticed or unappreciated, though.
“I’m almost without words with what Linda has done,” said Herman Hart, a former Westfall resident who visits the graves of his father and uncle a few times a year.
Though many of the buildings in Westfall are gone and few visitors travel down the road anymore, with Nuessle’s help, the little pioneer cemetery helps the ghost town’s heritage live on and honors the people who settled and passed through.
“It was just wonderful. I was in tears,” said LindaMae Nuessle after the Westfall Cemetery was repaired after years of neglect. She sits in front of the repaired a plot map and information on June 16. (The Enterprise/ISAAC WASSERMAN)
LindaMae Nuessle looks at photos of the Westfall Cemetery in her home office in Westfall on June 16. Since 2007, Nuessle has been coordinating efforts to restore the historic site. (The Enterprise/ISAAC WASSERMAN)