By Patrick Winderl
Doug Fisher's 20-year anniversary with the Hill County Public Cemetery District was uneventful.
"No wild parties for me," he said. "Hill County doesn't exactly have a fund for things like that. We even have to pay for our own Christmas parties."
Jan. 23 marked two decades of service for Fisher as a groundskeeper for the cemetery district. Fisher, a 1979 Havre High graduate, applied for the position 20 years ago and was surprised to get the job. He has been employed there ever since.
Fisher and assistant groundskeeper Les Bebee are responsible for overseeing 12 of the 14 public cemeteries within Hill County.
"With the exception of Cottonwood and Rocky Boy, we pretty much handle them all," he said. "It's a lot of ground to cover."
Les Bebee is the second half of a legacy begun by his father, Henry. Henry Bebee was Fisher's boss for 10 years before his retirement from the cemetery district after 28 years of service.
The pair's official duties are many.
"We do a little bit of everything," he said. "Burials, cremations, setting headstones, landscaping, mechanics, bookkeeping, payroll. You name it, we do it. We keep busy if nothing else."
Actual cremations are handled by funeral homes, and the cemetery workers bury the cremains.
Fisher said one of most interesting things about his job is the history of the district's permanent residents. Havre's largest cemeteries, Calvary and Highland, are the final resting places for such people as former Hill County Sheriff Doc Timmons, Long George Francis, and Ma Plaz.
Roscoe "Doc" Timmons was the legendary lawman who served Hill County as sheriff for 44 years. Francis, a charismatic cowboy and Havre's most notorious horse thief, committed suicide just before he was supposed to go to prison. Alice Pleasant, the cigar-smoking woman, gained fame and notoriety for her good cooking and mean temper.
"There are some characters buried here, that's for sure," Fisher said.
The summer months require more upkeep on the cemeteries; there is grass to cut and shrubs to be trimmed, sprinklers to be maintained and sod to be laid. The district hires three to five seasonal workers during the summer, Fisher said.
Winter creates its own problems. Snow must be plowed and graves must be dug - a difficult proposition with frozen ground. Fisher and Bebee use a "grave thawer" to loosen frozen soil and make excavation easier.
"It's almost impossible to dig in frozen soil, and it is easy to damage equipment when the ground is rock hard. The grave thawer does a great job of warming the ground," Fisher said.
The thawer is a 3-by-8-foot dome that is placed over a grave site. A propane torch is placed inside the dome and allowed to burn overnight. In the morning, the soil is thawed and ready for digging, Fisher said.
When Fisher first began working for the cemetery district, the grave thawer had not yet been thought of. The district used dynamite to blast free frozen soil, he said.
"It was a lot of work, and pretty dangerous," Fisher said. "The grave thawer does its job well."
The view from Highland Cemetery is unbelievable. An impressive view of the Bear Paws can be seen above a spectacular panorama of Montana State University-Northern's campus.
"People consider that when buying plots," Fisher said. "We have a great view of Havre from here."
Fisher does his job with sincerity and seriousness, though he can recall some humorous events during his 20 years with the cemetery district.
"I remember when some kids came up and vandalized the place," he said. "They were knocking down gravestones and whatnot, when one of the kids cut himself. Apparently he cut his butt cheek on the edge of a grave stone. Well, he thought he was funny and wrote a vulgarity on the window of the shop with his blood.
"When (former Havre Police Chief) Dick Stremcha came out, he realized this kid had lost a lot of blood. So he checked with the hospital, and sure enough, there was some kid who had to get stitches in his butt on the same day the vandalism happened. He put some pressure on the kid and he finally admitted to it."
Fisher said Highland Cemetery has enough land to serve Hill County for another 150 years.
"More people are tending to be cremated," he said. "Twenty years ago we only had one person, and now nearly half the people choose to be cremated. If things continue at the current rate, there is enough land to last 150 years."
And what has Fisher learned in 20 years with the cemetery district?
"It is never too early to prepare," he said.