It was evening by the time we reached Norfolk. It’s about 85 miles Northeast of Central City, where we were driving from.
The next morning, we settled on seeing Prospect Hill Cemetery before heading out toward the former Norfolk State Hospital for the Insane and its cemeteries. You can read about that part of our trip here.
In late 1865, three scouts left from a German Lutheran settlement near Ixonia, Wisc. to find farmland they could claim under the Homestead Act. On September 15, they reached the junction of the Elkhorn River and its north fork, and chose that area as a settlement site. On July 15, 1866, 124 settlers in three wagon trains representing 42 families from the Ixonia area arrived. A second group from Wisconsin arrived in July 1867.
Before we arrived in Norfolk, Christi told me to be sure to pronounce it “Nor-fork” instead of “Nor-folk” (like the city in Virginia) or I’d sound like an out-of-towner. I wondered about this until I read more about Norfolk.
The original name of the colony was a variant of “North Fork”, but accounts differ on the exact name: “Northfork”, “Nor’fork”, and “Nordfork” are all suggested. The name was submitted to federal postal authorities, and at some point was transmuted to “Norfolk”. So that’s the story behind the distinct pronunciation.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Norfolk’s population was 24,210. This makes it the ninth-largest city in Nebraska. Norfolk’s main claim to fame is one man: Tonight Show host and TV icon Johnny Carson.
John William “Johnny” Carson was born on Oct. 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa to Homer Lloyd “Kit” Carson and Ruth Elizabeth Hook Carson. The family moved to Norfolk when Carson was eight. He was fascinated with magic. At age 12, Carson’s mother sewed him a cape, and his first performance was staged in front of the local Kiwanis Club. He debuted as “The Great Carsoni” at age 14 and was paid $3 a show.
After a stint in the U.S. Navy, Carson attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to study journalism but switched to radio broadcasting. He ended up at WOW radio and television in Omaha in 1950. Carson hosted a morning TV program called The Squirrel’s Nest. One of his routines involved interviewing pigeons on the roof of the local courthouse that would allegedly report on the political corruption they had seen.
A few years later, Carson headed for California and his career took off from there. But he never forgot his Norfolk roots. I wish we’d had time to drive by his boyhood home. It was nearly destroyed when a man accidentally plowed into it with his SUV in 2011. But someone bought it in 2014 with plans to bring it back to its former glory.
Carson ended his run on the Tonight Show on May 22, 1992. Bette Middler, a singer I usually don’t like very much (please don’t hate me) sang “One For My Baby” to him. Like most of the country, I bawled my eyes out watching her pay tribute to a man who’d been part of my life ever since I could remember. He died on Jan. 23, 2005 and was cremated, so he is not buried at Propsect Hill (or any cemetery).
I found very little information about Prospect Hill Cemetery online. The original 10 acres were donated by the Hon. Samuel Storrs Cotton. A gentleman named James Y. Craig, then superintendent and landscape gardener for Omaha’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, remodeled the cemetery in the 1890s. According to the 1895 book I found this information in, the cemetery was then at about 30 acres. I don’t know what the current acreage is.
I unwittingly photographed Samuel Storrs Cotton’s monument while I was at Prospect Hill. From what I could piece together, the Connecticut native didn’t come to Nebraska until after 1880. He appears on the 1885 Nebraska Census with his daughter and other family members. He was 61 at the time and listed as a mill proprietor.
Because of that, I don’t think Prospect Hill was officially established until sometime after 1880 since he provided the land. I did see a marker with a burial date of 1870 so my thought is that the land was already being used as a cemetery. From Find a Grave, I saw it has around 6,800 burials recorded but I know there are more than that. It’s still an active cemetery.
One of the first things you see when you drive up into Prospect Hill is a large statue of Abraham Lincoln. The base says that it was dedicated in 1939 by the Women’s Relief Corps, relatives and friends to honor of Norfolk’s Civil War veterans.
I liked the rugged simplicity of the DeFord monument for Dick and Gertrude DeFord.
According to the 1920 U.S. Census, both Dick and Gertrude were photographers. Although they are buried in Norfolk, I can only find records that indicate they lived in Lincoln. A native of Illinois, Dick came to Nebraska with his parents when he was a child. He and Gertrude had one child, Dick Jr.
According to many Lincoln newspaper ads I saw from the early 1920s, Dick was also a popular jazz orchestra leader. He appeared at many venues around Lincoln, traveling to Iowa and Kansas occasionally. He died at the age of 45. Gertrude lived on several more years and died at the age of 90 in 1872.
I did feel a tug on my heart when I saw the graves of the three Heath children. Andrew Warren Heath and Myrtle “Mertie” Sewell Heath were both Nebraska natives. They married in February 1909 and lived much of their lives in Battle Creek, not far from Norfolk.
Between 1916 and 1919, the Heaths had three children. All of them (as far as I can tell) died at birth.
I could find no children listed as living with them in any of the U.S. Census records. I don’t know if they had other children who died. Neither Mertie or Andrew have markers at Prospect Hill as far as I know. They both died in the 1970s.
Richard Lidmila’s monument is a simple cross but I haven’t seen one with two crossed tree logs like this one before.
Born in 1927, Richard served in Germany during World War II. His twin sister, Elayne, died in 2015. I recently heard from Ramona Lidmila that the twins’ mother, Mary, died shortly after their birth. Richard died in 1947 from injuries he received in a motorcycle accident.
This one is a puzzler. No birth/death date. I found his name listed in a few newspaper articles as being selected to help with Norfolk elections. But that’s all I could find. He was a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) No. 46 but my research indicates that camp was based in California.
This small marker for Johney Farrell is in need to repair. He was only 18 months old when he died in 1893. His parents may be buried beside him but if so, their graves are unmarked.
As we prepared to leave, I noticed there were a lot of Mullers buried in one area. Because my maiden name is Muller (what some might say are the Smith/Jones of Germany), I always get excited when I see it in cemeteries. I am related to Claars in Nebraska (whom I revisited in Blair the next day) but I don’t think any of my Muller relatives made it out that far.
At the same time, I felt it was my duty as a Muller to stop and wish them well before we left.
Next time, I’ll wrap up the Nebraska portion of my April 2016 trip at Blair Cemetery.