Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Finding Harold


Unless you are used to the bustling throng of city life, it’s hard to explain the inherent loneliness one feels upon first entry into Wyoming’s high country. Internal sirens blare as all of your city coping skills call in for backup. None arrives.

It’s far too quiet.

Too big.

And under the weight of all that blue, even the sky starts to feel heavy. 

Let alone when one moves from a city of nearly 60,000 to a population of 4 in a remote outpost stuck out in the middle of a desolate high desert prairie. 

Welcome to Lost Springs, Wyoming. It’s America’s smallest incorporated town. After having moved to Lost Springs just over a year ago from Idaho Falls, Anngela Starnes learned exactly how long a day could feel.

“It was really, really hard at first,” Anngela says, wistfully. “I was so lonely for people, even though I was also really happy to finally have my family under one roof.”

She had resisted the move for four years. At the same time, she really missed her husband. Buddy owns A&B Trucking Company and had moved to work in Orin Junction with sporadic visits home. 

His persistence won her over in the end, when he overcame Anngela’s final stipulation – no trailers! – by finding a lovely rental house in Lost Springs with a rural school close for her teenaged daughter Nikki.

“It just felt like it was meant to be,” Anngela says with a smile. “I figured, why the heck not.”
That said, even with the family at place, the lack of human contact was hard for her to take. She’s naturally social with a warm, talkative spirit. Human connection is her lifeblood, and, as a certified addiction counselor, Anngela had spent the past 20 years helping people.

So she started walking.

Really walking. Often up to four or five miles a day, along the dusty country roads and section lines, the lifeblood connecting neighbors across the vast miles of empty land.

“I would walk for hours,” she laughs, “just looking for people, talking to nature, trying not to go too crazy.”

This is how she stumbled upon Prairie View Cemetery. At first, she mistook it for a grain field. The white of a headstone, barely noticeable in the overgrown drab green sagebrush, caught her attention.
She had always been drawn to cemeteries and other historic places. It’s the Victorian in her, she laughs, that ultimately led her to open the rusty gate and explore.

What she found nearly broke her heart. Overturned headstones gnarled within weeds and sage, graves so eroded that names were barely legible, others unmarked and lost in the overgrowth.

Most disheartening for Anngela were all of these lost lives, untended, forgotten or potentially unknown, by loved ones – most of whom had long since moved or passed away themselves, or are too old and frail or far away to maintain the upkeep of these familial graves.

She returned with her daughter Nikki and a weedwhacker. The pair blazed through the cemetery, clearing a path.

Two days later, she could barely operate a TV remote.

“My arms hurt so much after all that,” she laughs, rancorously with a big toothy smile, in a way that makes even her memory of pain contagious. “But there’s no way I was going to leave those people resting in those conditions. They deserve more.”

The community of Lost Springs agreed. After seeing Anngela out there working so hard to restore their cemetery, a handful of local residents quickly joined in.

“She made us feel guilty,”  Chuck Engebertsen laughs, adding that with no designated caretaker, the cemetery had been forgotten for the past 15 or so years. Despite periodic cleanup spurts by locals with family members buried there or visiting relatives who left flowers and tended to individual plots, the prairie soon consumed the cemetery.

Despite historic significance to the community, the cemetery had fallen into disrepair in recent years because there was no centralized effort or one person to keep up with all the work, as most of the families of the deceased have long since left the area.

At one point, Lost Springs was a thriving metropolis – by Wyoming standards – of anywhere between 150 and 200 residents, many of whom had come from Prairie View, Kansas, primarily to farm or work at the nearby Rosin coal mine. Incorporated in 1911, the name “Lost Springs” has nothing to do with the desolateness of location, but instead derives from railroad workers who failed to find the springs shown on early survey maps of the area.

Nonetheless, the town no doubt felt a bit “lost” in the wake of the mass exodus that occurred around 1930 after the coal mine shut down. A decade later, roughly only 40 people remained.

Prairie View Cemetery – named in honor of the early pioneers who settled the area – was established in 1913 on land donated by local resident Henry Crabb, who is also the first person to have been buried there. Tucked off of Barr Road, roughly six or seven miles east of the town of Lost Springs, the cemetery is adjacent to the former Presbyterian Church that has since been torn down. With no buildings to shield it from the elements, the weather has been merciless.

Although several of the graves are unmarked and there’s no lasting documentation for the cemetery itself, Anngela and several others have been able to use online resources and local documentation to map most of the graves, though it’s taken a lot of piecing together from several different resources.
In total, they’ve documented 67 graves, only four or five of which remain currently unmarked.

The bulk of the deaths appear to have occurred around the spring of 1918, when a great flu epidemic swept across the prairie. When the epidemic returned months later, it had claimed the bulk of the lives of the 67 who had been buried there.

The epidemic also fueled local suspicions and rumors.

Anngela reads the obituary of the young twins, Arthur and Carl Dieleman, who were believed to have incurred the flu after purchasing ice cream from an “old German man,” who was believed to have sprinkled it with the virus.

“The stories of these peoples’ lives are just amazing,” Anngela says. 

With help from many in the community and beyond, Anngela is in the process of culling together the history of every person who is buried in the cemetery, which she plans to compile in full on so that current family members and future generations can access their history and pay homage to their loved ones.

She also plans to track down any living family member, if possible, to let them know where their ancestors are buried.

Given the mass exodus in the 1930s, Anngela fears that many of the remaining families may not be aware that their ancestors are here, if they know about them at all. 

Mostly, she just wants to share their stories.

All told, since early summer, Anngela has spent about two days a week working in earnest on this project and so many hours in between that she doesn’t want to count.

So far, she’s reunited one family – Jan and her 93-year-old father-in-law Richard Kechter – with Richard’s long lost brother Harold.

And there are many more to come.

Sitting around the table in Shawn and Jan Bruegger’s kitchen, Anngela and Mary and Chuck Engebretsen attempt to piece together a few mysteries. 

Anngela opens up an enormous black binder full of obituaries and photographs she’s found with the help of several sources. She also relies pretty heavily on prior research that Jan has gathered from the Niobrara mortuary and the library, along with the copious notes of local resident George Pickinpaugh, who years ago had taken the time to document the details of many of the residents’ deaths.

“Look at her, isn’t she beautiful?” Anngela Starnes asks, pointing to a sepia-edged photograph of an angelic young woman with an impossibly tiny waist, posed stiffly in a stark dress that hugs her curves like plaster. “She had 15 children, if you can imagine.”

This is Amelia Caparoon, Anngela explains, who married John Caparoon in Iowa in 1871 when she was just 16, after immigrating together from she’s not sure where.

 “Look at this, one of their daughter,” Anngela says, reading the back of the photo. “She was so pleased to have been photographed in her new hat.”

Nobody in the room remembers hearing anything about the Caparoons, and, thus far, Anngela has had no luck locating any of the 15 children, who may or may not still be alive. 

Other names, however, begin to ring a few bells. Soon the histories begin to emerge.

Mary remembers Alice Galbraith, granddaughter of Augustus “Gus” DeForest, a Confederate solider, who, according to Alice’s notes, had been through many major battles, which ultimately ruined his health.

Alice’s baby sister, a “blue baby” who had miraculously lived for a month, is also buried there.
The daughter of Jacob Amend also sounds familiar to Mary, who, at that moment, remembers being told a story about a doll that was given to her aunt Katie, her father’s sister, who had homesteaded there in the early 1890s. They can’t recall the little girl’s name, only that her aunt Katie had been given the girl’s doll after she had been buried.

“That little girl must be in one of those unmarked graves,” Mary decides. 

The stories continue, from the Buffingtons, who had once run the local newspaper, to the mysterious Barrs.

There’s an excitement to this conversation and to the fact that these families are sitting together around a table, locating lives and sharing stories about the history of their small community and lost lives.

Better almost than connecting those buried with their long lost families, Anngela has enjoyed watching the small community bind together. This spirit and connection to others is what has to Anngela ultimately meant the most.

Once again she feels a connection and that she’s responsible for bringing families together.
Most of all, she’s grateful.

The list is long, starting with her daughter.

“Nikki, my amazing wonderful, beautiful daughter worked side-by-side with me all summer, mowing, pulling weeds,” she says, “I could not have completed such a large quest without her support.”

Then there’s the neighbor boy, Bryce Beil, who dug thistles and mowed the weeds with his stepmother Michelle. Mary Engebretsen donated pinwheels for the children’s graves, as well as flowers for the adult graves. Chuck Engebretsen  sprayed thistles and copied obituaries. Shawn Bruegger mowed and removed sagebrush while his mother Jan gathered information. Lueana Bowers has helped research. They and others have helped Anngela wade through research and assisted her while she spent hours on the phone.

Last, but not least, there’s her husband Buddy, who made the flag holder. 

In the end, Anngela is grateful to the community.

“I had no idea how much this would complete me,” said the woman from Idaho Falls, who is learning to live well in a small Wyoming town.

A local rancher renews a pledge he made to his uncle, tending to the family plot at Prairie View Cemetery. Overwhelmed by the work done there already, Joe Bright reconnects with his ancestors and recommits to improving the cemetery. Meanwhile, Anngela Starnes unearths more histories of those buried there.

I can’t believe this is the same place,” Joe Bright says, shaking his head, as he assesses the freshly mowed grounds and grave sites adorned with bright orange and yellow flowers. And tiny, plastic pinwheels spinning lazily in the first traces of morning wind. It’s early and a light mist hugs the tops of the grave stones, as if guarding the bodies beneath in reverence. 

This is Joe’s first visit to Prairie View Cemetery since Anngela Starnes and her crew went to work cleaning it up early this summer. 

“You can’t believe the difference,” Joe says, shielding his eyes against the pink glare of morning sun as he scans the perimeter of the grounds.

Like many other local residents, Joe’s interest in the cemetery is particular. In his case, a promise he made to his Uncle Jack to tend to the graves of Jack’s parents and siblings, members of the Dieleman family, all of whom are buried in the family plot.

In fact, the Dieleman plot is one of the few delineated family plots in Prairie View, its edges marked by ornate corner stones that were once beautiful, Joe explains. They have since been cracked and chipped reputedly in the 1990s by a pair of neighboring kids, who went on a bender one night and vandalized the cemetery, overturning headstones and bashing any standing structure in site.

The boys were never punished, apparently, nor was their any reconciliatory attempt on their behalf to repair the damages, Joe and other longtime area ranchers point out.

That was the first time the community came together to clean up the cemetery, Joe recalls, but they did nothing like Anngela has managed to pull off now.

“I’m just so grateful to her for doing all of this,” he says, with a rueful smile.

In fact, the restoration has prompted him to get moving on a project of his own: a new gate and sign for the cemetery.

He gives the current rusty, woven wire gate a nudge with his hip. “See how it sticks?” he asks. “It’s an absolute nightmare.”

In fact, Joe and his buddy Thad Alexander have a plan in the works. Joe is donating the steel for the sign. Thad will do the plasma cutting. Joe visualizes the arc of letters over a freshly painted gate, prominently announcing its name, so that it’s easy for people to find and just more welcoming in general.

“These people deserve that,” he says, with a glance over his shoulder at the graves behind him. “A whole lot of people here did a lot for us, so that we could have more.”

It’s just the respectful thing to do, he explains.

“We wouldn’t have what we have here today were it not for them.” 

His family, William W. and Dillie Dieleman along with their children, were among the earliest residents, immigrating from Holland and landing in Lost Springs in 1909 via Prairie View, Kansas, where like many others, they were drawn to the promise of garnering their own homestead in the freshly minted American West. 

Like many others buried here, the Dielemans were victims of the flu epidemic that swept across the prairie in the early 1920s – an epidemic that took the lives of hundreds in the region, including Dillie and Joe’s Uncle Jack’s twin brothers, Earl and Carl, who were only 10 when they died. The twins’ obituary insinuated their deaths were by nefarious means, namely at the hands “a peculiar looking old man” at a fair, who they later suspected was a German spy, who sprinkled the boys ice cream with germs of the virus.

The twins’ graves reside side-by-side in front of the large stones of their parents in the Dieleman plot.
But this is just one fraction of their story, and like many others buried here, their lives tell the history of a specific time and place, marked by a headstones as their stories remain largely buried with them.

Though not buried long if Anngela can help it. In fact, it’s her mission to dig up every single person’s history and have it engraved on a plaque next to the grave. 

“This way people can find their ancestors more easily and also get a bit of their personal story,” she says. “Their stories are so important to share.”

And, currently, she is using every resource at her disposal, including the body of work amassed at the Niobrara County Library by Debbie Rose and Debbie Sturman, who have worked for more than 10 years documenting the personal histories of those buried in Prairie View. 

“These stories are just so interesting,” she explains, as she rifles through pages and pages of photocopied obituaries, immigration papers and marriage licenses, and, when she’s lucky, the original photographs.

She tells the story of Darrel Welch, born on Aug 13, 1909, to Gilbert and Laura Welch of Sunrise. Sadly, Darrel passed away in 1918, stricken by scarlet fever. 

“His loss devastated the parents and his two little brothers and sister,” Anngela says, but they placed a beautiful poem in his obituary that reads:

Dear little son, how we loved you, But our Father loved you more, So the angels have carried you to yonder shining shore. The golden gates were open a gentle voice said come. And with farewell sweetly, he peacefully entered home. More and more each day we miss you--Friends may think the wound is healed--But they little know the sorrow, Within our hearts concealed.

Another story Anngela tells is of Charles and Bertha Garhart, who in 1918 moved their 11 children into a sod home seven miles southeast of Shawnee. The Garharts found prairie life financially taxing and Charles, a handy man, took any job he could find, with the help of his sons, to keep food on the table.

Tragedy struck the Garharts in 1920, when at the age of 43, Bertha was struck by lightening seven miles southeast of Shawnee. Bertha had been out tending to their chickens with her young son, who after momentary regaining his senses after the shock, carried his dead mother in his arms back to their house. Her husband then had to tend to the children, then ages 1 to 17, on his own.

After years of struggle, Charles, who is buried beside his wife, died in 1935 at the age of 71 when his team of horses got spooked and threw him, breaking his neck. 

Buried alongside their parents are Charles’ son Floyd and their grandchildren, along with one unmarked grave. 

Ultimately, Anngela hopes to identify this grave and continues to attempt to find living members of the Garhart family.

Anngela also has unearthed the details of the life of Lola Holmes Seegrist, which was documented in the Lost Springs Times. 

Lola was married to Jacob Seegrist in 1915, when they took on a homestead just south of Lost Springs, before later moving to Manville. 

On Thanksgiving evening, Lola passed way from a brief bout with influenza. Her little twin babies died with their mother.

In fact, influenza seems to the predominant cause of death of many buried in Prairie View. In some cases, the flu wiped out entire families.

Personal histories date clear back to the Civil War, Anngela explains, pulling out a clipping about the life of Henry C. and Linnie Buffington. Henry, a Civil War veteran, enlisted in the Wisconsin Infantry in 1864 and participated in many of the most severe battles while in the service.

He was also a school teacher  and later ran the Lost Springs Times newspaper with Linnie. Today, they are buried side by side in the Cemetery.

Anngela speaks with reverence about those buried here and explains that it’s just something she was taught to respect. Her mother Utona instilled in her a great reverence for “those on the other side” and feels its her duty to restore and protect Prairie View. Mostly, she wants their families, who may not know about their existence, to be able to connect and help her bring their stories back to life.

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