When doing research for this post, I again concluded that in those pioneer days you had to be realistic about death. Sometimes it left you alone for several decades. Maybe you could make it to middle age. But more often, it stole little children or young adults just entering their prime.
With over 5,400 marked graves and room for another 1,500, Central City Cemetery is located on Highway 14, just north of town amid wide fields. I was initially unable to find out what year it was established but it’s definitely old. After I published this post, kind reader Nancy Johnson contacted me to say that the cemetery was originally located on south Highway 14 on the west side of the street. Graves were moved from that location and from other small and private cemeteries.
With a current population a little under 3,000, Central City is the county seat of Merrick County. Before settlers arrived, the land was home to the Pawnee. Rival Pawnee tribes, the Chaui and the Skidi, frequently skirmished over the territory.
Organized in 1864, the county was named for Elvira Merrick, maiden name of the wife of territorial legislator Henry W. DePuy, who introduced the bill that created it. Naming places after the maiden names of the wives of prominent pioneers seems to be a trend in Nebraska, I am finding.
Central City was originally called Lone Tree. The first pioneers passed through the area via the Mormon Trail in 1847, and later on the Oregon Trail and the California Trail. This location was close to a huge cottonwood tree, called Lone Tree, that the pioneers used as a landmark.
The lone tree died in 1863 and was blown over due to a storm in 1865. Part of the trunk was taken to Lone Tree train station and placed on the depot platform. Over time, fragments were carried away by tourists until it disappeared. In 1911, they erected a granite monument to honor the original tree. About 30 years later, another cottonwood tree was planted at the original tree’s location next to the granite monument.
In 1875, some residents petitioned to have the town’s name changed from Lone Tree to Central City. Those in favor argued that the name Lone Tree gave the impression that the area was desolate and inhabitants were poor and uncivilized, limiting the growth of the area. Opponents thought Lone Tree portrayed a “beautiful spot and is a name dear to the pioneers.”
On July 1, 1875, the name was officially changed to from Lone Tree to Central City. People have been calling it that ever since.
One of the first graves I noticed was that of Anna Holtorf, who died at the age of 21. She’s one of 13 recorded Holtofs buried at Central City Cemetery. Initially, I could find no information about Anna because I didn’t know her maiden name.
Nancy let me know that she was originally Anna Barta, the daughter of immigrants John and Anna LaPour Barta. She married Ludwig Carsten Holtorf and they had a son, Henry, in October 1922. Anna died only a few months later in July 1923. Her sister Sophie and brother Edward, who lived much longer lives, are buried beside her.
I don’t see many portraits on older markers in Nebraska. This one was from Dedo, the respected Chicago firm that’s over 100 years old and still in operation. Nancy told me that until recent years, Anna’s was the only monument at Central City that had such a portrait on it.
I especially liked the McCollister monument for its rustic simplicity. Nancy informed me that the stones were from Colorado. A monument much like it is at Bureau Cemetery, also in Merrick County.
I’ve featured many children’s graves in my blog posts and this one is no exception. So it’s especially interesting to find a marker for someone who lived quite a long life. Mercy Martindale Nicholson Thorn qualifies.
Mercy was born in 1798 in Vermont and spent the first 30 years of her life there. She married Henry Nicholson in 1819 (she was 21) and together they had seven children. Five of them lived long lives like she did. By 1828, the Nicholsons had moved to Pennsylvania.
Henry died in 1837. Mercy married Richard Thorn, a veteran of the Mexican War, in 1843. By 1860, they were living in Iowa with Mercy’s daughter Mary Conner and her family. At this point, Richard was 74 and Mercy was 62. By 1880, they had moved with the Conners to Santa Barbara, Calif. Richard died in 1884 and is buried in California.
Mercy and the Connors moved to Central City in March 1889. She died only a few days later. Her obituary states: “Mrs. Thorn came to this city from California five days before her death with her son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Conner, with the intention of making her home with them in this county.”
It must had been quite sad for the Conners to bury Mary’s mother only a few days after reaching their new home.
When I saw the white bronze (which is actually zinc) monument for the two Holden girls, I knew there had to be a story behind it. Such a grand marker for two children is not common.
A native of Canada, James G. Holden moved to Wisconsin after his father died. At 17, he joined the Wisconsin 13th Infantry, Company K, and fought for the Union for most of the Civil War. He married Mary Josephine “Josie” Bradt in 1870. Soon after, they moved to Nebraska and started a family. By 1880, he was serving as the county clerk of Merrick County. Sadly, death would visit them three times during the 1880s.
In May 1882, scarlet fever invaded the Holden home. On May 21, four-year-old Chloe Holden died. According to a newspaper article: “The family of Treasurer Holden is sorely afflicted. The remaining five children are all down with scarlet fever, and two, Josie and Hattie, are quite dangerously sick. It is to be devoutly hoped that this scourge may pass over without further loss of life.”
Hattie survived but six-year-old Josie did not, dying on May 27. A different newspaper article stated: “Thus twice within a week has death entered this household and carried from it two precious gems. Certainly it is a deep and sad affliction and calls forth unbounded sympathy.”
Mother Josie gave birth to a final child, Raymond, in February 1889. But he died a little over a year later. I don’t know the cause of his death.
Not far away is another white bronze marker for the Rev. Wesley Wilson and his twin sons, William and Edward. Nancy, who has transcribed some of Rev. Wilson’s journals, told me that the spelling of “Willson” on the monument was an error.
A native of Illinois, Wesley Wilson was the oldest son of Henry Wilson and Harriet Breckon Willson. Born in 1854, he was an ordained Methodist minister. He married Julia Ann Russell in 1880. According to the Nebraska Census, they had two children, Walter and Charles, by 1885. His parents had moved to Nebraska to be with them.
There were many traveling ministers in these pioneer days, evidenced by the “United Methodist Minister” seal on the Willson marker. He is listed as having served as a pastor at Loup City Methodist Church from 1882 to 1883, which is about an hour west of Central City. Nancy told me he was also one of the first pastor’s of Central City’s Fairview Methodist church.
Nancy also told me Wesley’s health was poor from the time he was a child. I found a short biography of him in a United Methodist annual conference book:
“He entered upon the year’s work with great zeal, laboring beyond his strength, riding and preaching while enduring great suffering. The last part of the year he was compelled to cease almost wholly from labor He continued to steadily decline, but did not give up the hope of recovery until very near the last. When convinced that he must die, he calmly submitted to the will of God, saying ‘It is alright.'”
Before Wesley died, Julia had given birth to twin sons William and Edward on Jan. 29, 1886. William died a few days later on Feb. 2 ,1886. Wesley died on April 2, 1886. Little Edward died on May 14, 1886.
A small news item remarked:
“Last week the remains of the late Rev. Wesley Willson and the two twins were taken up from the Henry Willson farm and taken to the cemetery at Central City were the graves could be appropriately decorated and marked as the sacred resting place of the loved ones.”
Julia married George Gagle (Nancy’s grandfather) a year later and they had at least five children together. George died in 1907. The 1920 Census lists Julia as a widow living with her son, William, and her daughter, Nellie (who was a teacher). Julia died in 1940 and is buried beside the monument shared by her first husband, Wesley, and their twin sons. George is buried with his first wife, Martha, in Burke Cemetery.
There are more stories to share from Central City Cemetery. I hope you’ll come back to read them in Part II.