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Cleaning up history

by JOEL MARTIN
Staff Writer | September 14, 2022 2:13 PM

HARTLINE — On a lonely gravel road somewhere between Hartline and Almira, there’s a small graveyard that is the only tangible evidence of a once-thriving community.

“The whole Welsh settlement was about a 15-mile strip north of Hartline, Weber, Govan and Almira, just kind of a strip right through there,” said Judy Evans Lindhag, whose family homesteaded next to the cemetery. “In the old time, they called it the ‘Welsh township,’ but it was never a town.”

Lindhag was one of about a dozen people who gathered at the Welsh Cemetery Saturday morning to clean up headstones and clear away brush. The work day was planned by Mary Lynne Evans, president of the Puget Sound Welsh Association in Seattle.

The seeds were planted when Aren Orsen and his wife Liz, of Electric City, were looking over some foreclosed land in the area, noticed the little cemetery in the middle of nowhere and wondered if there was a Welsh historical organization that might be interested in knowing about it. The nearest they could find was the PSWA, so Aren sent off an email to Evans asking if the group was interested in knowing more.

“I said ‘Of course we're interested,’” said Evans.

Evans then contacted the owner of the land around the cemetery, a local farmer, to see if it would be all right to come out and see it, and that put her in touch with some of the descendants of the Welsh homesteaders, including Lindhag, Cindy Williams Rohde and a longtime member of the PSWA, 92-year-old Kay Jones Vea, who had grown up in Almira but now lives in Woodinville. Vea’s grandfather James Jones had come with his brother to the Big Bend.

“That first winter they lived here, they lived in a place that was dug in the ground. They almost froze to death. So they went back to Wales and he decided he would stay there. And then he came back to America because my grandmother said she wouldn't raise children in the mines.”

James Jones came from Criccieth, in northwestern Wales, and his wife Mary from Machynlleth, Vea said. None of Vea’s family is buried in the Welsh Cemetery, she said; they’re at the Almira Cemetery, which is still in use.

Rohde did have family buried in the little Welsh Cemetery. She busied herself cleaning up the headstones of her great-great-grandfather Benjamin Williams, whose stone says he was born in Blaenpant, in southwestern Wales, in 1829 and her great-grandmother Mary Williams, who lived from 1826 to 1901.

“They went to Pennsylvania to the mines, because they were miners and farmers, and then they came out here,” Rohde said. “They settled here in Almira because they found a place with a good spring – it has an artesian well – and a proper Welsh church. That's why they came here.”

The community wasn’t a very long-lived one; the earliest death recorded in the cemetery was in 1894 and the last in 1920. But while it lasted, it was active. Next to the cemetery was the Zion Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, where the Welsh immigrants would meet to worship in their own language. There was a school as well, to educate the farm children. The community even had a baseball team, the Salt Grass Boys, Williams said.

The Welsh settlers held a Fourth of July picnic every year at Williams Grove, just east of Almira, and the cleanup crew headed over to that site to hold their own picnic after the work was done. The current landowner preferred that they not use the actual land, so the picnic was held on the side of the road looking over the original site. The picnic included homemade bara brith, or “speckled bread,” and griddle-fried Welsh cakes, both traditional Welsh fare.

Music would have been a strong tradition among the Welsh settlers, Lindhag and Vea both said. On one of the graves, Lindhag found a large metalwork in the shape of a traditional Welsh harp. The settlers also held a regular eisteddfod, which is a music and poetry contest, Vea said.

“I won the contest when I was 6 years old, singing,” she said.

The population began to diminish in the 1930s, according to a 1978 historical note from the Welsh-American newspaper Ninnau, owing largely to drought and the Depression. The church building was moved in the 1940s to a neighboring farm to be used as a shed, Lindhag said.

The church, school and baseball team may all be distant relics, but a few of the families still work the same land their Welsh ancestors staked out. Kay Vea’s nephew operates the Jones homestead, she said.

“There are four original Welsh families that are still here,” Lindhag said. “Edwardses, Williamses, Llewellyns and Joneses. So there are four that are still farming today.”

Joel Martin can be reached via email at jmartin@columbiabasinherald.com.

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JOEL MARTIN/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD

Mary Lynne Evans, left, and Laura Lovell of the Puget Sound Welsh Association clean up headstones at the Welsh Cemetery between Almira and Hartline.

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JOEL MARTIN/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD

One of the headstones in the Welsh Cemetery in July before the Puget Sound Welsh Association organized a cleanup day. The inscription reads “Er cof am y Parch. M.G. Powell, yr hwn a fu farw Ion. 28, 1894 yn 45 mlwydd oed” (In memory of the Rev. M.G. Powell, who died Jan. 28, 1894 at the age of 45 years).

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JOEL MARTIN/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD

Cindy Williams Rohde holds up a photo of Williams Grove that was taken when the Welsh settlers would hold their annual picnic there, in front of the site as it appears today.

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JOEL MARTIN/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD

Judy Evans Lindhag holds up a metalwork representation of a traditional Welsh harp. Music was an important part of the Welsh settlers’ lives, she said, and they held regular eisteddfodau, or music and poetry competitions.

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COURTESY PHOTO/CINDY WILLIAMS ROHDE

The Salt Grass Boys baseball team, around 1900. Second from left in the back is Cindy Williams Rohde’s great-grandfather Daniel Wiliams, and at the far right of that row is his brother William Williams.

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