Grave registry seeks to honor forgotten Nebraskans
May 25th, 2012
Lincoln County, NE – Nebraska’s cemeteries will be looking their finest this Memorial Day weekend. Rows of flags will honor veterans, and flowers on freshly mown grass will show that loved ones have not been forgotten. Most people visiting cemeteries over the weekend will see rows of tombstones in a well-marked burial ground. But some cemeteries are barely visible.
They might be hard to spot from the Interstate, but get off on the back roads and you’re sure to see tiny graveyards, buried in the middle of farmland.
But you won’t see any smaller than this.
A solitary gravestone
Ruby Coleman hops in the passenger side of Allison Huebner’s SUV. Huebner steers the vehicle off a rural road just south of Hershey, about 10 miles west of North Platte, Neb. They bump over the rows in a fallow cornfield until they see it – a solitary grave marker in the distance.
Coleman is a professional genealogist, lecturer and author. She lives in North Platte, and her curiosity has taken her to all sorts of unusual gravesites. Huebner, the driver, and her husband farm this land. She pulls up beside the tombstone.
The scene is a bit surreal. There’s no fence around the marker, no nothing – except the stubble of a fallow cornfield. The inscription reads Georgie B. Nowell, and gives his dates of birth and death. Born in 1882, Died 1890. Eight years old. The engraving is clear, ornate and easy to read. At the bottom, this phrase: “Rest sweet child in peace.”
There are a lot of mysteries about this gravestone. Why here? Why solitary? Were there buildings around? A home? Standing in the field, there are no answers just the Nebraska wind.
Allison Huebner said it isn’t much trouble to avoid the gravestone while farming. But as farm equipment gets bigger, it’s more inconvenient – a planter or cultivator or harvester has to take a pretty significant detour to miss this gravestone. But she said it’s important to them to preserve the marker. Partly, it’s a matter of respect for the dead, but it’s also respect for the area’s history. Dan and Allison Huebner live on the same land his family homesteaded back in 1885. Young Georgie Nowell was still alive when the Huebners came to this part of the South Platte valley.
Genealogist Ruby Coleman says we may never know much about the 8-year-old boy buried here. She has yet to discover any living relatives. But because of a state law passed in 2005, there is a record of all of Nebraska’s known cemeteries and graveyards – including this solitary grave.
The Nebraska State Cemetery Register
Cindy Drake stands over an open file cabinet drawer, thumbing through a folder full of typed forms. She’s library curator at the Nebraska State Historical Society. The folders contain the source material for the Nebraska Statewide Cemetery Register. Since 2005, every owner or governing body of a cemetery is supposed to supply the state with information about the cemetery they oversee, and update that information every ten years.
The folder for Lincoln County, the location of Georgie Nowell’s burial site, is pretty thick. It’s not until Drake looks in a section labeled “pasture burials” that she finds the listing for Georgie Nowell. The information matches the tombstone perfectly. But, she says, not all burial sites are preserved.
“That is where I have heard some of the horror stories in this state,” she said. “Sometimes, there will be a fence put up around the cemetery either by the present owner or past owners, and then it is respected by whoever owns the property. Otherwise, there are times when there is no respect, and the tombstone, if standing, might be taken down and placed somewhere else, and it may be farmed over.”
She said death certificates weren’t required before 1904, and even then compliance was spotty. That means if not for the farmers who have spared the tombstone of Georgie Nowell, he might have been forgotten completely.
What we do know about the Nowells
Even though genealogist Coleman hasn’t been able to find out much about Georgie, she has been able to fill in some of the unknowns about his family. According to her research, the Nowells had another child here in Nebraska in 1888, a little girl, and they went back to Massachusetts briefly and had a child born in 1891, a year after Georgie died; by 1900, they were miners in Juneau, Alaska.
Burial practices and laws have changed over Nebraska’s history. A gravesite like Georgie Nowell’s – a solitary stone in the middle of a cornfield – isn’t going to happen now. But because it has been preserved, and is on the official records at the State Historical Society, a child has been remembered, and Nebraska history has one more footnote.