Michael Damphoffer Sr.’s unassuming 3-foot-high gray tombstone in Old City Cemetery offers precious little insight into the colorful life he led. But when the cemetery’s visitors walk past his grave this weekend, they will know at least one thing about him: He was a U.S. soldier.
The Vancouver Heritage Ambassadors placed small American flags next to the graves of Damphoffer and around 119 others on Friday and Saturday, in remembrance of their sacrifice, on the eve of Monday’s Memorial Day.
Visitors might also notice that the fence that lines the front of the cemetery on East Mill Plain Boulevard has been repaired. The Vancouver Heritage Ambassadors paid more than $2,000 to have bent and broken fence pieces replaced this week.
Old City Cemetery was established in 1867, and serves as the final resting place for around 8,000 people, including members of some of the city’s oldest families. As such, keeping up the cemetery is a way of preserving Vancouver’s identity.
“This is pretty sacred ground for our history,” said Michael Parker, president of the 15-member Vancouver Heritage Ambassadors. “If it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t have Vancouver.”
Parker walked through the cemetery Saturday afternoon observing graves large and small, as if navigating a hallowed museum. A drizzle fell from the thick, charcoal-colored clouds above, coating the low-lying grass with dampness.
The heritage group identified the veterans it honored through existing city, military and family records and, in some cases, the shape of the headstones. For instance, Damphoffer’s grave has a rectangular build with a slight arc at the top — the same as other Civil War veterans.
The French native played trombone in Napoleon’s army before immigrating to America and serving in the First Oregon Cavalry during the Civil War. He came to be called Vancouver’s patriarch before his 1916 death at age 101, according to newspaper accounts.
Damphoffer’s son is buried two graves away from his father. He also has an American flag near his grave, signifying service.
Visitors to Old City Cemetery must enter through its back on East 13th Street off Grand Boulevard. But soon, they will be able to enter through the cemetery’s front on East Mill Plain Boulevard.
The fence upgrades were sorely needed, said Bobbi Fox, a member of the Vancouver Heritage Ambassadors.
“It looked unkept, like nobody cared,” Fox said. “With the fence repaired, it gives it back its dignity.”
Shortly after Parker, Fox and other heritage ambassadors left the cemetery, a radiant sun emerged from behind the clouds.
As the sun beamed, John and Sharen Shierman placed fresh flowers and cleaned the area around her grandparents’ three-decades-old headstones. American flags dotted graves adjacent to the resting places of Albert and Della Stanley — Sharen Shierman’s grandparents.
Flowers are rare at the cemetery’s graves, Sharen Shierman remarked, because many of the deceased died decades ago and their immediate family members have either passed away or moved.
For this reason, she observed, few people have been on the cemetery grounds when she visited. The cemetery is largely soundtracked by silence. Towering trees overlook graves.
“The flags make a difference,” John Shierman said.
“Looks like somebody cares,” his wife replied without missing a beat.
Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/col_smallcities, www.facebook.com/raylegend