After our Iowa Adventure, Christi and I were both ready to get back to Omaha. But since we were near southwest Nebraska, I asked for one last cemetery hop. Nebraska City’s Wyuka Cemetery (not to be confused with the one in Lincoln) was on my list of places to visit and it was on our way back.
As we drove in, I saw a sign directing us toward a computer kiosk where guests can look up grave locations. Now THAT was a surprise! Cemeteries with written grave locations on a board are fairly rare. But a freestanding computer to look up names? Wyuka Cemetery does indeed have one and it works well.
Established in 1855, Wyuka has about 16,000 burials recorded on Find a Grave and covers around 35 acres. Cemetery records only go back to 1888 because of a fire. It was named Wyuka Cemetery in 1856, signifying the Indian vernacular for “place of rest.”
Nebraska City’s Most Famous Resident
There’s no question who the most famous person buried at Wyuka is and the plot’s impressive monument is equal to the prestige. Julius Sterling Morton, a U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and founder of the holiday known as Arbor Day, is buried here with his wife and some of their family. The massive tree-shaped monument was commissioned after the death of Mrs. Morton in 1881. I’ll share the details on that later.
My father-in-law, Craig, actually attended J. Sterling Morton High School in Cicero (a Chicago suburb) and the school district is also named after him. Since Morton never lived in Chicago, this puzzled me until I learned that Morton was good friends with Cicero resident and fur trader Portus Baxter Weare. One of Morton’s sons, Mark, married Weare’s daughter, Martha.
Born in New York in 1832, Morton got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and married his high school sweetheart, Caroline “Carrie” Joy French. They moved to the Nebraska Territory in 1855, where they purchased 160 acres of land in Nebraska City.
Morton became editor of the local newspaper, the Nebraska City News and soon began his political career as a conservative Democrat. In 1858, President James Buchanan appointed Morton secretary of the Nebraska Territory, and he twice served as acting governor. Morton was a candidate for delegate to Congress in 1860 and received a certificate of election from the governor. However, Morton was never allowed to take his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as his election was contested in the overwhelmingly Republican House.
While Morton loved politics, his passion for trees might have been even greater. In Nebraska City, Morton built a mansion that resembles the White House that he called Arbor Lodge. On the surrounding estate, Morton planted many rare varieties and heirloom apple trees. Respected as an agriculturalist, Morton taught modern techniques of farming and forestry. Among his most significant achievements was the founding of Arbor Day, which is usually celebrated on the last Friday in April.
Morton became well known in Nebraska for his political, agricultural, and literary activities. He was appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture by President Grover Cleveland in 1893. He is credited with helping change that department into a coordinated service to farmers, and he supported Cleveland in setting up national forest reservations.
Morton and Carrie had four sons. The eldest son, Joy (yes, you read that right), founded the Morton Salt Company, along with his brother, Mark. The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. was begun by Joy, who shared his father’s love of trees. Both brothers are buried in the Morton Family Cemetery in Lisle, Ill.
Paul became Secretary of the Navy under President Theodore Roosevelt. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, N.Y. Youngest son Carl founded the Argo Starch Company that still exists today. He is the only Morton brother buried at Wyuka Cemetery.
Branches of a Family
The Morton plot contains the graves of J. Sterling Morton, Carrie Morton, their son, Carl Morton, Carl’s wife, Boatie Payne Morton, Caroline’s foster mother, Cynthia French, J. Sterling’s sister, Emma Morton, and a granddaughter, Laura Weare Morton.
Surrounding the plot is a log-themed border, complete with planters at the entrance and on two corners. Considering how much Morton loved trees, it makes perfect sense.
One article stated that the “tree” itself weighs eight tons. I can’t imagine how strong the oxen or horses had to have been to pull the wagon carrying it.
“Love at First Glimpse”
On the front of the tree is the inscription for Carrie and J. Sterling. Carrie’s mother, Caroline Hayden Joy, died about a year after her daughter’s birth in Michigan. Her father, Hiram Joy, agree to let neighbors Deacon David French and Cynthia French raise Carrie while sending them financial support. Her name became Caroline Joy French to reflect that arrangement but she was still close with her father, who became quite wealthy over the years.
Carrie loved running Arbor Lodge and helping her husband in all of his ventures. Of her marriage to Morton, she said, “We fell for each other at first glimpse and we were never cured.” A knee injury that never healed put her health in jeopardy and Carrie Morton died at the age of 47 on June 29, 1881.
On the other side is an inscription for Carrie’s foster mother, Cynthia French, who died at Arbor Lodge in November 1857 at the age of 70. Youngest son Carl died in 1901 in Waukegan, Ill., where he had just moved with his wife and children. I found reports of differing causes of death, from a hearth attack to pneumonia to a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 35.
Carl’s wife, Boatie Payne Morton, known as “Lizzie”, died in 1932 at the age of 63. She and Carl had two children, Wirth and Martha.
A Sister Helps a Brother
At the base of the tree is a lone tablet inscribed with the name of Morton’s younger unmarried sister, Emma. When Caroline died, Morton was devastated. He asked Emma to move into Arbor Lodge and she took over the running of the house. He depended on her to help him finish the remodeling Carrie was working on when she died. Morton left Emma an annuity in his will to take care of her for her remaining lifetime. She died in April 1912.
J. Sterling’s health took a turn after Carl’s death in 1901 and he was never quite the same. He died on April 27, 1902 in Chicago while visiting Paul in Illinois. His body was returned to Nebraska City by train and he was buried with his beloved Carrie at Wyuka Cemetery.
After his death, the family donated Arbor Lodge and the estate grounds to the State of Nebraska. The estate is now preserved as the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. You can visit Arbor Lodge from April to October, which is furnished as it was in 1905.
Skill in Stone
The man who created this massive tree monument was Ferdinand O. Cross, a skilled carver with a known reputation. You can even find his name and address on it.
Born in 1838 to stone carver John Cross and Sophronia Hewitt Cross of Binghamton, N.Y., Ferdinand learned his craft from his father. He moved to Bedford, Ind., the “Limestone Capital of the World” in the 1880s where he started his own monument business.
Ferdinand eventually met John Rowe and they formed a partnership known as Cross & Rowe Monumental Works. They often used Bedford stone as their medium of choice because it was easy to work with when first quarried. After the shape was carved, it was set outside to harden. You can find their monuments in cemeteries across the country, although this is one of their most notable examples. The also provided carvings to the World’s Fair in 1883 in Chicago.
A Child’s Short Life
I would be remiss if I did not mention the one stone sitting by itself in one corner. It is for Laura Weare Morton, the first child of Mark and Martha Parkhurst Weare Morton. She was born in May 1889 and died on Dec. 11, 1892 in Nebraska City. According to her obituary, Laura and her parents had come to Arbor Lodge for Thanksgiving when she became ill with scarlet fever.
There’s more to be discovered at Wyuka Cemetery. I’ll be back with more in my next post.