History, memories meet at remote Malheur City

By John L. Braese

The Enterprise

Fred Kochis returned Sunday to the once-thriving Malheur City.

He was brought in an urn by relatives from Nevada, returned to the piece of land he cared for and where he wanted to spend eternity.

The relatives carried the urn up a hill at the Malheur City Cemetery, placing it in the ground in a private ceremony.

After saying goodbye, the family drove the quarter mile to the Malheur City Convention Center to join others who have also laid to rest family members.

Gathering around home-prepared food from all that attended, the family shared and listened to stories about Kochis in an annual rite in a town long gone to history.

Kochis grew up in Malheur City and joined the Merchant Marines at 16, trading a bottle of wine with a stranger in Portland for a counterfeit proof of age to enlist. Growing up in a household that spoke only Hungarian, Kochis overcome his language barrier to become a combat engineer.

He later worked as a logger in Alaska and Oregon and eventually came back to take over as caretaker of the remote cemetery.

His daughter, grandson and his wife, and a family friend, made the trek from Reno.

“He always told us this is where he wanted to be,” said Wendy Kochis-Flippo, Fred’s daughter. “Dad was born here in Malheur City, grew up here and wanted to be buried in this cemetery.”

The cemetery is all that is left of the original city, which once had approximately 1,000 people. In its heyday, Malheur City barely lost in voting to Vale to be designated the county seat.

As mining declined and a plan to bring water to the area for farming failed, people left and the town died. A range fire in 1957 destroyed the remaining buildings and now, the desert has retaken the land.

Driving past a few stone building remnants hidden among the sagebrush marking the town, visitors encounter a tree laden cemetery on a hill, blanketed by green grass, a sprinkler system fed from a pond, and headstones loved by many.

“Dad loved taking care of this place,” said Kochis-Flippo. “He wanted to come back here and be with his brother and sister.”

Kochis’ brother, Jeremy, died in 1922 at a month old because of a botched medical procedure.

“Their dad rode the wagon into town to get the doctor,” said Kochis-Flippo. “When the doctor finally got out to the place, the mother already had the baby on the dining room table all wrapped up and ready. He had died during the trip into town.”

His sister Anna was stillborn in 1935.

Both children are buried under the same marker. Fred Kochis joins his siblings now just up the hill.

Unlike ghost town cemeteries around Oregon, the Malheur City site remains open for business.

“We had two new burials this year,” said caretaker Dan Eddy. “We also reburied a Civil War veteran. The family actually dug up the bones and had them shipped to a funeral home locally before being reburied here.”

Eddy said he has worked weekends at the cemetery the last five summers watering, cutting grass and taking care of those that passed long ago.

He said the cemetery has seen more visitors in recent years.

“We had a couple here from East Germany a few weeks ago,” he said. “With the growth of the internet, people find our little cemetery and come out here in the middle of nowhere to see it. We have also found there is a geo-cache marker in one corner so people come out here and leave something in the box.”

For the family members that gather yearly, the get together and potluck is a time to exchange stories, remember the town and catch up on life.

Tom Bronson was a member of the last class to graduate from the Malheur City School in 1951.

“There were seven kids left in the school and three of them were my cousins,” he said. “The teacher was the last person to live in the town. When the school closed, she left the area and that was it.”

Bronson has remained in the area for all of his 80 years.

The descendants of the families gathered in the Malhuer Convention Center, a metal building just down the road from the cemetery, a celebration in its 76th year. They talked of the man who committed suicide years ago after he could not convert his Cadillac car from gas to diesel. After the car failed once again, he pulled over, took a pistol out of the glove box and shot himself.

The group traded stories of gold that may still be buried in what was the Chinese section of town. They listened as Gary Fugate, president of the Malheur Historical Project, provided the story of a gunfight over water rights in El Dorado, another nearby ghost town.

The group also talked of those who do not attend the Memorial Day celebration any longer be it by death or lives too busy.

For some, the drive is long as Malheur City sits in rolling sagebrush-covered hills overlooking Malheur Reservoir. Whether taking off towards the area by way of outside Brogan or Ironside, the travel involves miles of dirt road and dodging free-range cattle.

For Koches-Flippo, those attending made all the world of difference.

“As a kid, we lived in a lot of places including Alaska and on the Oregon coast as dad was a logger,” she said. “This place was always home to dad no matter where we were. He always talked about this place and growing up here and wanting to come back. Later in his life, he lived in Durkee for over 20 years. Coming back here today with these people, he is finally home for good.”