Nebraska is where I began catching the cemetery bug. I went on my first true “hop” with my best friend, Christi, in Blair. It’s a small town not far from Omaha, where a number of my Claar ancestors once farmed and are now buried. That was in 2009.
When I went out to Omaha this past September, I already had a list of “must see” cemeteries. But since we’d also planned a road trip to Lincoln, I hoped to visit a few I knew nothing about.
Christi wanted to make a stop in Greenwood (population of about 550) to visit the Bakers Candies store. Founded in 1987, Bakers makes mouths water with their famous meltaways. After sampling a few, I could see why.
Greenwood Memorial Cemetery is less than a mile from Bakers Candies, so it wasn’t hard to find. Like many Nebraska cemeteries, Greenwood is located amid cornfields. This one, however, is fairly large with around 1,500 burials and is well maintained.
I couldn’t find out much about the history of Greenwood Memorial Cemetery. I saw burials dating back to the 1860s to just a few months ago.
There’s something quite different about walking through a Nebraska Cemetery from a Georgia one. The landscape is mostly flat, with open sky that seems to last forever. And it feels like you can see for miles.
You also don’t often see grasshoppers this size lurking about.
One of the first markers I noticed was for Margie Armstrong, who died at the age of 20. I’m not sure what kind of material it’s made out of or how it was made.
I was intrigued by the design of the top because it looked like it had been damaged. Upon consulting Margie’s memorial on Find a Grave, I saw what it originally looked like. I don’t know if it was vandalized or if the harsh Nebraska winters had damaged it over time.
I couldn’t find out anything about Margie at all. But there was a marker for another Armstrong that might be related to her. Ralph Armstrong died over 25 years before Margie, but his stone also made me look twice.
I’d never heard of the U.S. military having a Balloon Air Service, although I was aware that they had experimented with balloons for observation during the Civil War. After I got back home, I did a little research and discovered Omaha’s brief history as a site for the U.S. Army Balloon Corps.
Fort Omaha’s Signal Corps Balloon School operated in the years before World War I, experimenting with the new Baldwin Airship Signal Corps-1 (SC-1), which became the first powered aircraft purchased by the Army. This happened just months before the Army purchased the now-proven Wright Flyer (pioneered Orville and Wilbur Wright).
The Fort Omaha Balloon School flew the SC-1 until around 1911, when it was no longer serviceable. Officers and enlisted men continued to train until the school was abandoned in October 1913. It was turned into a government weather station until the outbreak of World War I.
Since the English, French and Germans had been using “kite”, or captive balloons for battlefield observations for years, the U.S. Army again set up its balloon training operations at Fort Omaha and tried to play catch-up. About 16,000 young men received training and balloonist skills that they would use on the battlefield in France.
Duty was dangerous not only because balloons were favorite targets, but due to the fact they were filled with highly flammable hydrogen gas. Observers were forced to jump from the basket more than 100 times but had few mishaps partially due to their excellent training. Seventeen U.S. balloon companies sent to Europe saw action on the front, 13 of them having been organized at Fort Omaha.
At 27, Ralph Armstrong enlisted in the Army on July 29, 1918 and was assigned as a private to the 53rd Balloon Company, stationed at Fort Omaha. A few days before the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the 53rd was moved to Camp Morrison, Va. About a month later, Ralph was honorably discharged and returned to Nebraska. He died in 1944.
As is often the case, there were several graves of young children. Some even died at birth. This was likely the situation for the Leesley twins, Teddie and Eddie. They died in infancy in 1916.
Nearby is the grave of their brother, Francis, born a few years later in 1922. He died soon after birth but his twin sister, Alice, survived. She married and had children, spending much of her life in Greenwood. She died in 2009 and is also buried at Greenwood Memorial Cemetery.
The children of James and Laura Elliott also died at young ages. A native of Wisconsin, James served for three years in the Union Army as part of the 25th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Company I. They participated in the siege and capture of Vicksburg, serving under Sherman in his campaigns against Meridian, Atlanta, Savannah, and the Carolinas. The 25th lost more men than any other Wisconsin regiment, but mostly due to disease.
According to the Nebraska State Census taken in 1879, James and Laura were farming in Tipton, Nebraska (just south of Greenwood) with their children, Edwin “Eddie” and Mary “Mamie”. In December, Mamie died just a few days short of 1880. Brother Eddie died only a few months later. In the 1885 Nebraska State Census, Laura is listed as a widow with two children, Ford (born in November 1880), and Blanche (born in 1883). Both James and Laura (who eventually remarried) are buried in Greenwood Memorial Cemetery.
The last grave stone I’m going to feature was one I spotted on our way out. The wording on it was too surprising to breeze past.
Thanks to a 2012 newspaper article, it wasn’t hard to find out what happened to poor George.
A wagon maker from Massachusetts, George Cutler moved to Greenwood and eventually purchased an old church. After turning it into an opera house, he acted as a promoter and brought in entertainment acts to perform there.
Because electricity had not yet come to Greenwood, the structure was lit with gas lights. One night during a storm, George went to the opera house while carrying a lantern. Due to a gas leak, the flame from the lantern caused an explosion that killed him.
Another interesting bit of trivia, George Cutler was the cousin of Luke Cutler, Hollywood silent movie icon Buster Keaton’s great-grandfather. This gravestone appears to be a replacement and is located far from the other Cutlers in the cemetery, locals have pointed out.
My visit to Greenwood Memorial Cemetery was just one of many “hops” during my visit to Nebraska. But it was the beginning of many discoveries that I’ll be sharing in the weeks to come.