RALSTON -- An autumn chill wafts across broken sod held fast by frost.
Wheat stubble testifies to a recent productive past.
Here, on unfenced, undulating land at a speck on the map five miles south of Ritzville called Ralston, German emigrants from the Black Sea region of Russia came a century ago to set roots and harvest crops.
Generations have come and gone, leaving barely a trace.
The house of worship those immigrants from Klum, Bessarabia, built on this slight lift of the earth nurtured the descendants through the cycles of birth, marriage and death. But it too is gone, since 1955.
Only the church cemetery's stone markers remain, now surrounded by a modern weather-resistant plastic fence.
A sign posted by the Adams County Centennial Committee says the dead have been here at Salem Cemetery since 1899. Seventy or so still occupy resting places, all buried with their feet toward the rising sun.
But occasionally the living come to visit. Among them on a recent day were Pat Ramsey and her sister, Pauline Dawes, both of Richland.
"I don't know why, but we enjoy doing this," said Dawes, explaining why they've spent the past five years searching out remote cemeteries to document and photograph the grave markers.
With digital cameras, a soft-bristle brush and a metal pick handy for cleaning dirt and moss from the engraved writing on headstones, the sisters move quietly and methodically through the cemetery. Row by row, each grave photographed for posterity.
The Salem Cemetery is bare, no blade of grass, no flowers, baked by the sun into a jigsaw pattern. The sisters step respectfully.
Several graves are outlined with round river rocks. Others have tiny metal crosses, granite or marble markers, and a few have upright monuments.
An irregular chunk of basalt records Karoline (Tiede) Stelter's life: 26 Nov. 1847 to 08 Jan. 1917.
Dah'l Kleinknecht's wife is remembered with a carved stone monument as "Christina, beloved wife," who died Dec. 28, 1910, at 40 years old.
The family of Rudolph Rodke mourned the loss of the 10-year-old by marking his grave with a 6-foot-high ornate cast iron cross, surrounded by a decorative wire and iron fence. Rudolph died Aug. 10, 1907.
"Many who are buried here were babies and small children who died during the diphtheria epidemic of 1906," said Ramsey, brushing away dirt that clogged the engravings on one marker. "We like to make these things look as good as we can," she explained.
The Salem Cemetery is in better condition than most the sisters have visited. It has a sign, an entrance arch, a bench and a plaque that tells the story of the church chartered in July 1902 as the Salem Evangelical Congregational Church.
"Built high on a hill, it could be seen from every farm in the area, sitting like a sentinel over its parishioners," the plaque says.
Later that day, the sisters checked on another cemetery about three miles away. Neglected, overgrown with weeds and starting to accumulate cast-off car parts, it bore scars of vandalism -- broken bottles and toppled grave markers.
The German Methodist burial ground dates to 1886.
Over the course of five years, the sisters have logged information and photographed 80 cemeteries. They've filed an estimated 13,000 pictures of grave sites with online websites specializing in genealogical data.
Some of their work can be found at www.usgw archives.com. Follow the links to Oregon or Washington tables of contents. Selecting a county and going to a link for Tombstone Project will provide a list of names and photos of grave markers.
The sisters enjoy learning history and getting outdoors to explore new areas. But there's also a sadness to their work.
Ramsey recalls one family plot, about 10 feet by 12 feet fenced, in the Bowlus Cemetery near Milton-Freewater. It has markers for seven children from 2 years old and up who died within a month of each other.
"How devastating that must have been," she said.
"And some of them babies. I just can't imagine," said Dawes, shaking her head.
As cemetery sleuths, the sisters understand that life a century ago was not only much different, but harder.
"We haven't gone through even a portion of what they went through," Ramsey said.
The Emmaus Cemetery in Adams County has an infant's grave that hit Dawes hard. It said: "Elizabeth Iltz/Dec. 26, 1922/Jan. 30. 1923"
"It just breaks your heart. I can't imagine losing a child," she said.
But then there are those quirky grave markers that make the sisters smile.
Such as for the man buried in Wallula whose marker declares: "I told you I was sick."
As of last week, Ramsey and Dawes said they had visited 80 cemeteries in Washington and Oregon, taking a census of the dead.
They have photographed all 7,000-plus graves at Sunset Memorial Cemetery in Richland and all those at the East Prosser Cemetery, which has about 3,000.
But the majority of their time as cemetery sleuths has been in locating and logging data from small burial plots, family plots and cemeteries long forgotten and off the beaten path.
Some are on dead-end roads, literally, as with the German Methodist Cemetery south of Ritzville.
The sisters get tips from staff at public cemeteries and through the internet at sites such as www.findagrave.com and interment.net.
They also have signed up with the USGenWeb Archive Project and its Tombstone Project.
Their greatest satisfaction comes when someone uses their photos to fill a gap in a family tree. And they especially appreciate hearing from strangers who have found the graves of long-lost relatives thanks to their online photos.
One message came by e-mail this month from a woman in Antioch, Calif., who was searching for a relative buried somewhere in Klickitat County.
Using the internet, the woman discovered that her relative was buried at Six Prong Cemetery, and that the sisters had photographed the grave site.
"I saw that you had photographed the cemetery and had the headstones I was looking for. So thank you very much," wrote Pam Cavaliere.
-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; email@example.com