The history of Ashland is right before your eyes at the old cemetery on East Main and Morton streets.

The history of Ashland is right before your eyes at the old cemetery on East Main and Morton streets.

Year-round, visitors stop to read inscriptions on the carved headstones, some dating back to pre-Civil War times.

Genealogists come by, too, to piece together the past.

And on weekends through July 7, a stream of people will walk under the native oak trees, led by costumed actors portraying the life and times of some of the city's memorable characters.

A simple, flat headstone indicates the resting place of Lindsay Applegate (1808-1892), who created the advantageous Applegate Trail.

A few feet away is wife Elizabeth's grave, which is marked by a towering, cast-iron monument bedecked in ornamental garlands.

"Ashland's most important early settlers are buried here," says Victoria Law, director of the Ashland History and Railroad Museum and organizer of the annual Tombstone Tales tour.

In an hour, tourgoers will learn about 16 people who influenced Ashland, from Capt. Thomas Smith, a pioneer who befriended the Shasta Indians, to Black Bart, a gentleman highwayman who robbed stagecoaches but never stooped to stealing jewelry from women.

Clayton Gordon of Ashland will don a long, black coat to play William Powell, a cider seller who was called the "most well-known man in Ashland" in his 1913 obituary.

Patty Duggan, holding a Morse code key, will speak as Emma Howard James, the city's postmistress and a telegraph operator for Wells Fargo in the 1890s.

And Will Lowry, 10, and brother Steven Lowry, 13, will pretend to be the Bad Boys of 1899, who were notorious for being too pushy selling fruit at the Southern Pacific Railroad depot.

"A lot of these young men grew up to be leading members of the Ashland community," says Law. "By telling the stories of Ashland's ancestors, we feel we give the community a better understanding of the people who helped make our town the place we love today." She stages the tour here because of its significance to the past.

Like the city's other cemeteries — Hargadine and Mountain View — the Ashland Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dave Hogan, the city's cemetery sexton, believes that the Ashland Cemetery probably started like other pioneer graveyards. Someone was buried on private land. Then another person. Then another.

Finally, the landowner decided to formally call it a cemetery and donate the land to be cared for by the city.

In this case, Isaac D. Smith claimed the land and a small burial ground was established in the 1850s, when most newcomers were passing through to pan for gold.

In 1852, early settlers Abel Helman and Eber Emery started the first permanent enterprise, a water-powered sawmill on the banks of Ashland Creek.

Two years later, they erected a flour mill on land that is now the entrance to Lithia Park.

These businesses supplied much-needed staples for the settlement's future prosperity.

The flour mill — called "Ashland Mills," arguably after Helman's hometown of Ashland, Ohio — was the cornerstone of the town that inspired its name.

Wagons would circle in front of the mill, carving out what is known today as the Plaza.

In 1872, Emery purchased Smith's land, including the burial ground, which is less than a mile from City Hall.

Emery later sold it to the Ashland School District, placing the land in public ownership.

When the cemetery was surveyed, new plots were laid out and numbered.

Hogan says there are now 2,487 graves.

People can still be laid to rest here — there was an interment last year — but they are cremated, since new digging may disturb an unmarked grave.

In the early 1960s, workers removed more than 800 feet of old curbing that outlined many of the lots.

Today, Railroad District cottages, built by conductors, engineers and brakemen in the 1880s, and modern condos box in the 4.64-acre parcel.

Thousands of drivers pass by the grassy grounds each week, barely glancing up at the curved sheet-metal arch that marks the entrance on East Main Street.

When dog-walkers and others do turn off the sidewalk to enter the site, they can see craftsmanship up close.

Headstones and monuments were created out of Italian, Vermont and locally quarried marble as well as granite and other native materials.

An Ashland Daily Tidings' story in 1886 credited stonecutters James and Ann Hill Russell "for much of the best work in the cemeteries here." From 1865 to 1915, they chiseled markers adorned with fraternal symbols, flowers, egg-and-dart detail, and clasped hands.

A tall marker in memory of Elizabeth Williams, who died in 1903, states: "Gone from our home, but not from our hearts."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or