In 1863, Anna O'Keefe and a group of friends hopped on an oxen train headed for Montana.

O'Keefe, a seamstress who moved from Iowa, met a man delivering potatoes in Virginia City. His "dashing" handlebar mustache charmed her, and three days later, she married Cornelius "Baron" O'Keefe.

"Her contribution was being one of the first pioneering women here (in Missoula)," said Lasha Standley, narrating the story of the Irish immigrant at her gravestone, which reads "O'Keeffe."

O'Keefe, who came to America on a ship at the age of 11, was one of 10 new historic figures featured Sunday at the Missoula Cemetery's "Stories and Stones" tour. In its eighth year, the event is an historical walking tour where volunteers portray or narrate the tales of noteworthy characters buried in the cemetery grounds.

This year, an estimated 2,500 people participated in the tour, said Sharee Fraser, cemetery board chairwoman. Last year, the event drew a crowd of roughly 1,000, and Fraser figured the apparent surge in attendance is at least partly because organizers talk it up tirelessly.

"We get out and yak about this to anyone who will listen," Fraser said.

The tour is a way to pay tribute to the men and women who shaped the community in its beginnings. This year, the walk and guidebook highlighted some 50 historic figures in all, and Fraser said people who cherish Missoula today have these founders to thank.

"To come out to honor and respect them is cool," she said.

***

When Standley volunteered to represent a character for "Stories and Stones," she was given several options of historic figures. She chose O'Keefe because she felt a kinship with the pioneer, a poet and mother.

"I felt a calling to Anna," Standley said. "I felt a calling to tell her story because she is a transplant, and I am a transplant."

Standley is from Washington state, and like Anna "Annie" O'Keefe, she met the man she would marry in Montana. She also loves Montana as much as O'Keefe seemed to from her poetry.

As six or so people gathered around to hear Standley talk about the early Missoulian, she passed around a framed picture of O'Keefe, secure in a plastic baggie from the rain. She also shared a framed poem O'Keefe wrote.

Its first verse goes like this: "Amidst the dark blue Mountains /Of my Montana home /I love its sunny fountains /As through its woods I roam."

"She seemed gentle- spirited but maybe craved some sort of adventure," Standley said.

Across the cemetery, Pat Hossle also portrayed a figure with whom he can relate. Both Hossle and Oscar Craig, the first president of the University of Montana, are Sigma Chi men.

Craig was appointed as the first UM president in 1895, and back then, the university faced many of the same challenges it does today. Craig, whose annual salary was $2,500, struggled to keep students from going to college out of state, and he wrestled with the state to loosen its purse strings.

"Money was very tight," said Hossle, who wore a tuxedo, a cape and carried a pipe.

Other things were different, though. Caring for the trees planted on campus meant taking wagons to the Clark Fork River and hauling water back. Some 24 ponderosa pines planted in those early years are still alive today and marked with plaques.

"It's pretty fascinating to see that we still have that legacy," he said.

This year was Hossle's first one portraying Craig. The past three years, he took on the role of one of Craig's close friends, Frederick Scheuch, another brother of the Sigma Chi fraternity and a founder of its UM chapter.

Another fellow Sigma Chi member portrayed Scheuch this year: Hossle's son, Drew Hossle.

"It's an honor for us to be able to represent them," Pat Hossle said.

***

The weather was chilly Sunday afternoon, but Jill Perelman and her son, Kent Perelman, showed up anyway. Kent Perelman said they particularly like the ethnic representations, like the tales of Japanese and Greek historic figures in Missoula.

Jill Perelman, who used to live in Indianapolis, said the Indiana city held a similar event, but she never had the chance to visit. This year was her second Missoula tour, and she had offered nothing but praise.

"I love it. It's a great idea," Jill Perelman said.

Especially some of the most colorful characters, such as brothel madam Mary Gleim. Just finished with the tour, Linda Barringer said Kim Kaufman's portrayal of Gleim was her favorite one.

"Oh, the prostitute," Barringer said. "She was good. She does a beautiful job."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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