Sarpy County has many pioneer cemeteries, many of which are inaccessible by car or completely forgotten. But historical societies and those who provide upkeep to the sites say they tell stories and must be protected. Clockwise from top left: The tombstone of someone who died in 1881 at Anderson Grove Cemetery; the headstone of Big Elk, the last chief of the Omaha Tribe, at Bellevue Cemetery; a broken headstone at Anderson Grove; and the sign for Bellevue Cemetery.
BURIAL PLOTS OF PIONEERS
On a small hill about a mile west of Gretna, the graves of some of Nebraska's oldest settlers rest beneath big, old trees.
This is Forest City Cemetery, the only thing remaining from a long-dead 1800s pioneer town. In its day, Forest City was a bustling trading post. It disappeared more than a century ago because a rail line was built miles away from town. Now all that's left is this quiet cemetery off a gravel road in the middle of farmland.
Sarpy County is rife with pioneer cemeteries like Forest City, many of them tucked away on private property, inaccessible by car or forgotten altogether. They're vital windows into the lives of the state's first white settlers and American Indians. But as the county's farmland is gobbled up by housing developments and data centers, it's up to property owners to ensure that the least-visible of them will survive.
These old burial sites are "the pulse of the people," said Ben Justman, director of the Sarpy County Museum in Bellevue.
"It's not just earth and worms and a headstone," he said. "It's someone's life and work and family and commitment to the community."
But both Justman and Nebraska State Historical Society leaders have heard of cases of property owners disposing of gravestones because of renovations or preparation to sell the land.
While state laws protect existing cemeteries and burial sites, like Forest City, the majority of Sarpy's cemeteries are not so prominent.
Much of the county's, and state's, history can be found on smaller, family burial sites, and those are harder to protect. The state law covers those cemeteries too, but, historically, enforcement has depended on the property owner as well as the county that it's in, said Cindy Drake, coordinator of the statewide cemetery registry at the Nebraska State Historical Society.
"Sometimes it's not reported until years later, when the damage has already been done," she said.
Justman said he has heard accounts of property owners disposing of pioneer headstones. But neither he nor Drake has any legal authority to check up on those claims and enforce the law.
Drake is responsible for maintaining the state's list of cemeteries and who's taking care of them. Her job and newer state statutes make destroying cemeteries less likely today, she said, but it's still a possibility.
Rob Bozell, the Historical Society's archaeologist, gets four or five calls a year when people, usually construction workers, come across old human remains. When this happens, his staff determines whether the remains can be preserved in place or if they need to be moved. If a big development already is underway, Bozell said, the remains most likely will be moved.
There's nothing requiring developers to conduct an archaeological survey to determine if an abandoned burial site is on the land of planned project, he said, unless the project uses state or federal money.
Bozell said he doesn't remember getting such a call from Sarpy County since the late 1990s.
He also lacks legal authority. That's up to the county.
And when it comes to enforcing the preservation of abandoned cemeteries or those on private property, the county relies on citizen reporting.
As Douglas County grew, some remains or entire cemeteries were moved, according to Kathy Aultz, executive director of the Douglas County Historical Society.
Religion was often a reason to move individual remains: If a Catholic person was buried in a non-Catholic cemetery, and a Catholic cemetery was later built, he or she would be moved to that cemetery.
Development also led to cemeteries being relocated farther west, Aultz said. For instance, an 1860s cemetery near 24th and Howard Streets had 162 of its burials removed and reburied at St. Mary's or Holy Sepulchre Cemeteries, according to historical society records.
State law defines pioneer cemeteries generally as having been established before 1900. Sarpy County has at least 40 cemeteries or burial sites that fit this definition. The vast majority are hidden away on private property, Justman said.
One such cemetery happens to be right across the street from a proposed data center off Nebraska Highway 50 and Capehart Road. Glesmann Pioneer Cemetery is down an inconspicuous dirt road, in the middle of a family farm.
Alvin Glesmann, who lives on the farm, said he has no plans to sell his property when the data center is built. "But you never know what's going to happen," he said.
The pioneer cemetery on his land, which originally was purchased by his grandfather and great-uncle, is kept up by Sarpy County as well as by relatives. His great-uncle is buried there, one of 37 graves, he said.
Glesmann said he's not worried about the cemetery one day getting leveled — it has been kept up, and the graves are highly visible. If a development comes knocking, they will have to build around his cemetery.
The problem is when a burial site has been forgotten, or if it only has a few graves a property owner can dispose of without notice.
Across the river in Iowa, state law also protects old burial sites. But like in Nebraska, enforcing that can get messy, said Iowa's state archaeologist, John Doershuk.
Doershuk said he has seen the state go back and forth with a county over whose responsibility it is to enforce the law. In theory, he said, people would have some "ethical constraints" preventing them from removing pioneer grave markers.
But "it happens, unfortunately," he said.
Nebraska state law says that if a pioneer cemetery has been untouched for at least five years, 35 residents can petition the county to take over maintenance. The county is then required to provide basic upkeep.
Sarpy provides this for only two of its pioneer cemeteries, according to Fred Uhe, the county's spokesman. The rest are cared for by cemetery associations, churches, property owners or volunteers.
Each cemetery has a story integral to understanding the county's beginnings, Justman said. Atop a hill in Bellevue Cemetery, Big Elk, the last chief of the Omaha Tribe and grandfather of Logan Fontenelle, is buried. Portal Cemetery, near 108th Street and Chandler Road, is all that's left of another pioneer ghost town. The Sarpy County Poor Farm, off 132nd Street and Platteview Road, is home to a century's worth of graves of the people who lived and worked there, but it's private property, and the graves are unmarked.
Western Sarpy County has the most cemeteries; most people who died in eastern Sarpy most likely ended up at an established graveyard. The western half of the county was less developed, so people often buried loved ones on their farms.
Down a windy, privately owned dirt road through a grove of trees rests Ball Cemetery, one of these cemeteries that is not open to the public. It's well-known by paranormal enthusiasts and area kids looking for a scare, but Evelyn Carter, head of the association that owns it, doesn't buy into the ghost stories.
"They've either got too much liquor in them, too much dope in them or they're plain crazy all around," she said.
Carter has been taking care of the cemetery for more than 30 years. She can, from memory, rattle off the names of some of the cemetery's oldest inhabitants as well as the years they died. She has a great-grandmother buried there. And she doesn't appreciate the trespassing, which is so rampant that she has asked the Sarpy County Sheriff's Office to regularly stop by after dark.
Carter isn't worried about Ball Cemetery being swallowed up by development, but it may one day surround it, she said.
She worries about tombstones being stolen — which has happened a number of times — and vandalism.
Justman's predecessor at the Sarpy museum, Gary Iske, spent 10 years documenting known burial sites and cemeteries in the county.
"We have a pretty good inventory," Justman said. "But it stops at 2002."
The historical society doesn't have the resources to regularly check up on all the cemeteries, particularly the smaller ones, Justman said. And in any case, it doesn't have the legal authority to take action.
As the county experiences continued expansion, Justman said he wonders what will become of some of them.
"Progress is double-edged," he said.
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