- Associated Press - Saturday, May 9, 2015

HALLAM, Neb. (AP) - They had little in life, and even less in death, but they had this in common:

The eight men - and they’re believed to be men, though no one knows for sure - ended up alongside each other beneath a corner of the Hallam Cemetery, near the caretaker’s shed, the Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/1JS4hy0 ) reported.

They were drifters or hired men, according to old notes written on a cemetery map. They were penniless when they died, their families unknown.

So they were buried without ceremony. No gravestones, no monuments, no record of when they had lived and died.

And no respect.

“People would go down there for funerals and for Memorial Day services,” said Bruce Trautwein, treasurer of the Hallam Community Foundation. “And one of the places they’d park is right where the graves are.”

They were gone, and they were in danger of being forgotten. Some of the old-timers had known about the unmarked graves, but many of them - and their memories - were chased out of town by the tornado that nearly leveled Hallam 11 years ago.

“We have nothing about these people. We don’t even know when they were buried,” said Sheila Taylor, a member of both the foundation and village board. “We don’t know if there are veterans in there, or if there are family members still around somewhere.”

All they could find were names, plot numbers and, for three of the eight, the briefest of notes: Here lies W.A. Britton, section foreman; J. Felthous, the blacksmith’s brother; H. Pries, brother of Margaret Classen, one of Hallam’s earliest landowners. The others: Chas Hawkins; H. Heineuik; H. Jrinom; Fritz Muller; John Swartz.

But that was a start. And it would be enough for the town to give the eight the identity they’d been deprived for decades.

The effort got its start last year, when the Hallam Cemetery Association asked the village to take care of Hallam’s departed. The group’s perpetual fund was running out, Trautwein said, and there wouldn’t be enough money to maintain the cemetery and its 380 graves, the earliest of which date to the 19th century.

As the village board was taking over the cemetery, someone asked about the corner called Potters Field, and about what they could do. They decided to place a monument, to preserve the names of these eight.

“They were just paupers’ graves, basically just dumped in there,” said Dawn Stimple, who was appointed to the newly formed cemetery board. “We felt everybody needed a little dignity.”

So last winter, Trautwein visited Trump Memorials in Lincoln to ask about buying a stone. He told co-owner Darcy Hansen they knew the general area of the graves, and she told him her husband could find their precise locations.

Years ago, Mark Hansen saw the man who ran the Fairbury Cemetery, George Junker, witching graves with pieces of wire.

“I said, ‘Let me try that.’ And by gosh, the wires crossed,” he said.

They tried first at a known grave, and the wires came alive in Hansen’s hand, detecting something below. Then they tried where there was no grave, and the wires did nothing.

Since then, he’s witched - or doused - for unmarked graves at other cemeteries in southeast Nebraska, and for his wife’s family in Kansas.

“For years, I always thought it was the person’s soul or their energy kind of giving off their location,” he said. But he’s since come to believe in a more scientific explanation, that the wires react magnetically to the altered polarity in soil disturbed by graves.

Hansen recently went to the cemetery on the north edge of Hallam and was surprised when he was shown Potters Field.

“I’d driven by that spot 100 times and never knew anybody was buried there,” he said. “It looked like an unused part of the cemetery.”

Within minutes, he’d identified the outer boundaries of the row of unmarked graves. Then he pinpointed the location of each.

Later that day, his crew delivered the granite marker, centering it between the fourth and fifth. The Hallam Community Foundation, which raises money for civic projects, gave a grant to the village to cover the $935 bill.

They spent a little more than they’d planned, but that didn’t matter.

“It kind of seemed important to us,” Stimple said. “It’s a respect thing.”

They’re not finished. They want to build a small fence to protect the graves, maybe put in a bench or two - a welcoming place for relatives of the eight, if they ever visit.


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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