Some Lost River Valley history is at risk of being lost and members of the Big Lost River Cemetery District board are trying their best to prevent that from happening.
The board is asking for help to identify the unmarked graves in the Houston Cemetery, south of Mackay. That pioneer cemetery was established in the 1800s. Board members know the locations of about 90 graves in the Houston Cemetery. Many are marked with headstones of all types — large engraved stones, wooden signs, some military markers. Some are clearly hand-made while others showcase the work of master rock carvers.
But too many are not marked, board members know, and that’s a concern for them.
Until all the gravesites can be identified and marked, board members are reluctant to allow more burials at the Houston Cemetery, district Clerk Holly Sayer said in an advertisement the board purchased in the Messenger last winter.
Burial records were burned in a fire decades ago, cemetery district board Chairman Ken Day said, so historical records are missing. Records from a subsequent mapping project can’t be found.
“The last caretaker may have had a map, but we can’t find it,” Sayer said.
“We don’t know what happened to the documents,” Day said. “I’ve never seen them. So we are trying to find out who was buried where. If I take the limited information we have now, we can create a map for Houston Cemetery,” but it will be incomplete.
Not only do the sites need to be identified to avoid any potential disturbance if a new grave is dug, Day and the other board members want accurate maps of the cemetery and want to install markers at unmarked gravesites, with names and dates of birth and death of the people buried there.
It used to be that the sites with no headstones or markers were identified by rock outlines, Sayer said, but the rocks were moved relatively recently and piled into one area. “That really threw us for a loop,” she said.
The Houston Cemetery isn’t the only Mackay cemetery with records lost in a fire, Day said. Records for the Mt. McCaleb Cemetery were also destroyed when Mackay City Hall burned. But people worked to re-create those records, he said. Today, all the cemetery records that the board has are safely stored in a fire-proof vault, he said.
In an attempt to gather more information and complete the records, Day and fellow board members are asking for the public’s help. People with any information about the Houston Cemetery may contact Ken Day at 208-309-0712 or Mackay City Hall at 208-588-2274 or mail a letter to the district at 4050 W. 4200 N., Mackay, ID 83251, to share their stories.
“Sometimes people have history and don’t know what to do with it,” Sayer said. If that’s the case for the Houston Cemetery, she’s hopeful people will reach out and help the cemetery district board members complete their project.
“Even small pieces of information will be helpful,” Day said. “If someone remembers their grandparents were buried on the hilly side of the cemetery, that helps us.” Maybe someone going through boxes stored in their parents’ attic finds old cemetery deeds. Those would be incredibly helpful to the board, he said. So would obituaries or funeral programs.
The Houston Cemetery hasn’t been watered, but has been maintained during the years even though it’s seen little use recently, Sayer said. It’s probably the oldest cemetery in South Custer County, which is home to many pioneer cemeteries, Day said. In the last two years people have been buried at all those cemeteries, except Battleground, near Mackay Reservoir, he said.
The town of Houston, which has long been gone, was probably a thriving community in the 1880s, Day thinks. It disappeared when Mackay was established at the end of the railroad line. People picked and up moved into Mackay when that happened, he said.
“They say even a couple houses were picked up and moved,” he said.