Myths and Urban Legends

The Odell Pioneer Cemetery & Ebenezer Chapel has been the focus of many legends and myths over the years. It has been declared one of Oregon’s “Most Haunted Places” by several publications. Do we, as the Odell family, believe the cemetery is haunted? No, we do not. However, we understand the draw and mystique of such a place.

A rural, wooded pioneer cemetery is the perfect location for urban legends and myths to develop. The Odell Cemetery is no exception, and it is understandable to a certain extent. After the last burial in 1941, the chapel and cemetery were largely abandoned. The Methodist Church essentially forgot that they still owned the cemetery until the Odell family brought it to their attention in 2005. The owner of the adjacent land was adamant that he was the actual owner of the cemetery, yet he had zero interest in maintaining and protecting it. The cemetery, originally on a cleared plot of land, was overtaken by the forest. The chapel became covered in ivy and brush, and was even used to house livestock and hay at one point.

In an effort to preserve and maintain the cemetery and chapel, the Odell Family began attempting to legally regain possession of the property beginning in 2005. Due to an error made by Yamhill County while recording the sale of the adjacent land in 1916, the property ownership remains disputed. Until this is resolved, the Odell Family is very limited in terms of the amount and type of restoration and upkeep of the cemetery and chapel. We hold annual cleanup sessions at the cemetery in an attempt to keep the forest at bay and preserve the headstones that still exist. Although the cemetery and chapel might look abandoned, it most assuredly is not.

“Ebenezer Chapel in Yamhill County, 1966”. Photo by Ben Maxwell

MYTHS & LEGENDS

There are multiple myths and urban legends surrounding the Odell Pioneer Cemetery and Ebenezer Chapel; perhaps the most prolific legend is that of the crazed preacher named “Ebenezer”, for whom the chapel is supposedly named. According to the legend, “Preacher Ebenezer” was a polygamist cult leader with seven wives. One night, in a fit of rage, the legend states that he brutally murdered his thirteen children ranging from 9 months to 13 years old, and burned their bodies in the fireplace of the chapel.

This is, of course, completely false.

The story behind the name of the chapel is, sadly, a bit less colorful. The name of the chapel has nothing to do with a crazed preacher; it instead originates from the Bible. The biblical definition of the word Ebenezer means “stone of help”. And, while naming a chapel Ebenezer may seem strange to some, it is by no means uncommon. Many, many chapels throughout the world share the name.

The neighborhood surrounding the cemetery and chapel was actually named “Ebenezer” during the time of the early pioneers – a name which referred to a person’s faith in god. Fitting, then, that the chapel would also be named Ebenezer. As the center of the population moved, the chapel was decommissioned by the Methodist Church in 1870. The area, once known as Ebenezer, was enveloped by a larger neighborhood dubbed “Webfoot” due to the large number of water fowl who also resided in the area.

Keith Simons, biblical scholar, explains the biblical meaning of Ebenezer:

1 Samuel 7:12

Israel’s men had just gained success in a battle against the army of Philistia. They did not win that battle by their own efforts. They won because God fought for them. He sent a powerful storm, with the result that the enemy’s army ran away.

The results of that one battle were very impressive. For more than 20 years, Philistia’s powerful army had controlled Israel. Now, Israel was a free country.

Samuel wanted Israel’s people always to remember what God had done for them. So, Samuel made a monument. A monument is a large stone that people put in an important place, to remind them of a past event.

Samuel called that monument EBENEZER. That means, ‘stone of help’. Its purpose was to remind Israel’s people that, in the past, God had helped them. Especially, he helped them in their battle against Philistia’s army.

Although a monument reminds people about the past, its message is really for people in the future. Samuel intended that his monument should remain in that place for many centuries. Whenever people passed it, they would remember its name EBENEZER. They would know that God had rescued his people in that place. If they trusted God now, he would help them too. So, the monument encouraged people to trust God. Its message for the future was that God really does help his people.

It does not surprise us that many churches have also chosen the name EBENEZER. Their members wanted to express thanks to God that he had helped them in the past. So, when they built a church building, they called it by that name. They too wanted to encourage people in the future to trust God. In that place where God had helped them, he would help other people too.

In addition, “Preacher Ebenezer” never existed. In fact, there was never a stationed preacher at the chapel. The area was so sparsely populated that each congregation was served by a “circuit preacher” (also referred to as ‘saddlebag preacher’ or ‘circuit rider’). These preachers traveled from church to church on horseback in order to serve more than one rural congregation at a time. The Ebenezer Chapel was part of the Dayton-Spring Valley Circuit of the Methodist Church until 1870.

While the final burial in the cemetery dates to 1941, it is unlikely that the current cement chapel ever hosted regular church services. Its main function, it seems, was as a memorial to the founders of the Odell Pioneer Cemetery, John and Sarah Odell. The concrete chapel also held memorial services until as late as 1941. The newer concrete chapel shares the name of the original chapel, ‘EBENEZER’.

When the cemetery and chapel fell into disrepair, it became a draw to teenagers, thrill seekers, and other people with ill intentions. This, we believe, is when the legend of ‘Preacher Ebenezer’ was invented in the ways that all urban legends develop.

Another common urban legend is that a young man died in a car accident (or was hit and killed by a car) near the cemetery, and now haunts the area. Though a considerable amount of time was invested trying to document the accident that this legend is based on, no evidence has been located.

And finally, the third most common urban legend surrounding the cemetery is that a witch was hung outside of the chapel, and she now haunts the area. Obviously, there is absolutely no documented or rumored instance of any such thing happening.

HAUNTINGS

Whether one believes in the paranormal is not at question. We, as the Odell Family, respect that believers have a deep curiosity in the possibility of paranormal activity at the Odell Pioneer Cemetery, particularly considering that numerous publications have dubbed it as one of “Oregon’s Most Haunted Places.”

We have experienced zero signs of paranormal activity while visiting and working in the cemetery on a regular basis since 2005. Of course, all cemeteries can be a bit creepy, especially after dark. It is not for us, as a family, to determine whether or not the rumors about the cemetery being haunted are true. We have not personally witnessed any form of paranormal activity, and have not seen any evidence from other sources that has convinced us that the cemetery is anything more than a quiet resting place for honest, devout, hard working pioneers who gave up everything to settle the frontier.

The issue, for us, is that the cemetery has been the victim of heinous acts of vandalism, damage, and theft over the years. Of course, only a small percentage of the people who visit the cemetery are disrespectful. Most visitors come to explore and appreciate this small piece of Oregon history with good intentions. However, because of a select few who have treated the cemetery poorly, we had no choice but to restrict access of the cemetery to daylight hours. In addition, the cemetery is regularly patrolled by the Yamhill County Sheriff.

Regardless of your reasons for visiting the cemetery, please remember these simple rules:

  1. Visiting hours are dawn to dusk.
  2. Please stay on the paths in the cemetery. There are many sunken graves and graves without headstones which can easily be damaged if you venture off the path. (Also, the cemetery is covered in poison oak.)
  3. Entering the chapel is forbidden.

We, as a family, truly wish to continue to keep the cemetery open to the public. We simply ask that all visitors treat the cemetery and chapel with the respect and reverence it deserves. Please help us protect this little piece of early Oregon history!

Reference: Simons, Keith. (2014). “About the name: EBENEZER”. http://usefulbible.com/1samuel/name-ebenezer.htm | Dayton Reading Club. (1953). Some Dayton Chapters in the Oregon History. Retrieved from https://www.ci.dayton.or.us/upload/page/0132/Some_Dayton_Chapters_in_the_Oregon_Story.pdf | Griffith, Karen. (1965, 27 November). “Only ‘Ghosts’ Lurk Near Deserted Pioneer Chapel”. Capital Journal, 9. | Ben Maxwell. (1966). “Ben Maxwell Collection”. Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections, Salem Public Library, Salem, Oregon. Retrieved from https://www.salemhistory.net/digital/collection/max/id/719/rec/31