The Sherman Church, surrounded by farm country in Eastern Washington’s Lincoln County, is next to the small Sherman Cemetery where Julie Muhlstein’s grandmother is buried. The old church still holds a Memorial Day service and gathering every year. (The Wilbur Register photo)

On Decoration Day, the past becomes present

My grandmother called it Decoration Day, not Memorial Day. When I was small, it was observed every May 30, which rarely made for a three-day weekend. For my family, it always meant a drive through Eastern Washington’s farmland to Sherman.

You won’t find Sherman on many maps. Today, in the midst of rolling hills under blue skies, it appears on the landscape like a dream from the distant past.

Sherman is real, though, with its steepled country church north of U.S. 2, not far from Grand Coulee Dam. In the wheat country of Lincoln County, it’s the site of a former settlement. Online, Sherman shows up in a blog about “Eastern Washington Ghost Towns.”

Today, all that remains is that old white Sherman Church, no longer used for Sunday services, and the Sherman Cemetery.

My maternal grandmother, Loraine Lavigne, born Loraine Haas in 1898, is buried at the Sherman Cemetery, along with her parents and other kin. The woman I grew up calling “Nan” was raised on a farm near the Columbia River. She spent most of her adulthood in Spokane, but rugged country life was always a part of her.

Even in her later years as a widow, she rode horses and took trout-fishing trips to Montana. She was a wonderful from-scratch cook, too, a skill that figured into our Memorial Day tradition.

Memorial Day — Decoration Day to Nan — started early when I was a child. We piled into the car for the drive to Wilbur, an hour west of my hometown of Spokane. My mother’s cousins lived there. From Wilbur, we’d join a caravan of relatives. Between Wilbur and Creston, there’s a Sherman Road turn-off from U.S. 2 leading north to the church and cemetery.

There was always a Memorial Day service at the church. We decorated our ancestors’ graves with lilac blooms, which my mom and Nan brought from home in coffee cans. It was the only time of year that we saw my mom’s Wilbur relatives.

After church and the cemetery gathering, a potluck picnic was a chance to run around and play with our country cousins. My grandmother and her siblings talked about the old days. Sometimes those picnics were at a park near the Keller Ferry on Lake Roosevelt. Women brought the best of their country cooking, potato salads to homemade pies.

On the drive home, in those days before air-conditioned cars, we three sunburned kids were hot and sleepy in the back seat.

I haven’t been back to the Sherman Cemetery in decades. My parents, now 94, make the drive from Spokane every Memorial Day weekend. My mom plants geraniums at my grandmother’s grave site.

To me, those gatherings are just memories, childhood scenes from a long-gone past. But no, farm families will be together at the old Sherman Church again this Memorial Day, as they have for years and years.

On Friday, I spoke with Jim Jones, the Sherman Cemetery’s 66-year-old caretaker. The Wilbur man has had the task for eight years. It’s a service his family has provided for generations. “My grandfather Ellsworth Jones helped take care of the cemetery for 50 years, and my dad, Robert Jones, did it 27 years,” he said.

More than 200 people are buried in the Sherman Cemetery, Jones said. Records at the Lincoln County Courthouse in Davenport show the cemetery was incorporated in 1893. Its founders were C.T. Blackfan, a state representative in the 1890s, and G.W. Sherman. Among its first burials was a Blackfan baby in 1893.

“It used to be a town a long time ago,” Jones said. “It had a post office, a blacksmith shop and a store.”

Jones will be master of ceremonies when the church doors open Memorial Day. “We’ll sing patriotic songs, and Boy Scouts will present the colors,” he said.

“Every year they feature one pioneer family. This year it’s William Robinson,” said Frank Stedman, 76, owner and editor of The Wilbur Register weekly newspaper. “And they do a stand-up, to see which family has the most relatives there.”

Jones said it’s “an old country gathering, with really good food.” He said I’d be more than welcome to join the 100 or so people who’ll sing and say prayers at Sherman on Monday. Not this year, but some day — some day for certain.

Sitting in traffic or rushing here and there, I often think everything has changed since my childhood. How lovely to know some traditions outlast even our memories.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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