POLK — After being missing for decades, the tombstone marking the grave of infant Lena E. Davis is back in place.
The ivory-colored stone with the inscription “lamb of the upper fold” chiseled near the base was stolen from the Pleasant Home Cemetery in Polk County in the 1940s.
Chuck Doremus used to visit the cemetery often when he was a child growing up in Polk County. He remembers the day he noticed the tombstone of his little cousin, Lena, who died at the age of 8 months on July 19, 1880, was gone.
“I couldn’t believe that someone would take a gravestone. I thought maybe it was a Halloween prank. I just couldn’t justify in my mind that someone would take a grave stone,” said Doremus, now of Colorado Springs, Colo.
He never imagined that the tombstone would be found again and assumed the grave of Lena, who was buried next her parents, Greely H. Davis and Mary Louisa Davis, would remained unmarked.
But a chain of events that linked a California-based artist to an amateur genealogist from Scotia changed that.
Alexandra Grant bought a tombstone at a Wyoming antique and consignment store more than 11 years ago. As an artist, she saw beauty in the stone. Being told by the owner of the store that the tombstone came from a Wyoming cemetery that was desanctified, Grant purchased it and kept it in her art studio.
That stone just happened to be for Lena Davis.
Grant had no idea who Davis was or that the stone had been missing from the cemetery. After a few years, Grant decided that the tombstone would be better off in a museum. She placed it for sale on eBay, hoping to attract historians or a museum that would provide a better home for the marker.
One of the first people to come across the posting was Julie Middendorf. The amateur genealogist had just read a newspaper story about a man who purchased a tombstone at a garage sale and traced its roots. Intrigued, she wondered if anyone would sell such an item online. That is when she found the listing for Davis’ tombstone.
Middendorf did a bit of research starting with the 1880 Wyoming census. What she came across after plugging in Lena’s name and her date of death on a Google search were the records for the Polk County cemetery that listed Lena and her parents as being buried in Pleasant Home. She knew it was a fit.
A bit more research on an ancestry website helped Middendorf discover Lena’s cousin, Chuck Doremus. She sent him a message about the tombstone and also contacted Grant about her discovery.
Middendorf said everything fell into place so easily and quickly, it was something she never had experienced before.
“As an amateur genealogist, that doesn’t happen very often. We are used to waiting years and years for things to happen, and we are used to dead ends. This had all fallen together in the course of an hour,” she said.
Middendorf also contacted the Polk County Sheriff’s office, thinking that the missing tombstone was probably a cold case.
Chief Deputy Bob Carey got in touch with Grant, explaining to her that she had stolen property. Without hesitation, Grant wanted to return the stone to its rightful place. But instead of simply mailing it to Polk County, she drove it back to Nebraska and created the documentary “Taking Lena Home” to mark the journey.
Grant brought the stone to the sheriff’s office in November, and it was officially put back in place in May. A ceremony to highlight the return was held at the cemetery Saturday.
Those involved in getting the tombstone back home said it has been a remarkable story that can only be explained through fate.
“One of the things I’m absolutely certain of as we are standing here today, is that my job was to be a conduit for something that is so much bigger than me,” Grant said.
Carey said the tombstone fell into the right set of hands.
“I’m glad that of all the people in the world that had that stone, that Ms. Grant had it,” he said.
The missing tombstone was one of the longer-running unsolved crimes in the county. “From the Polk County Sheriff’s Office standpoint, this has been an overwhelming and exciting case for us to work. In my 27 years, this is the only case of this caliber that I have worked,” Carey said.
The whole story surrounding the tombstone, including who stole it in the first place and how it ended up in Wyoming, probably won’t ever been known. Little is even known about Lena herself.
What Middendorf has found was that Lena’s dad was 26 and her mom was 19 and pregnant at the time of her death. Lena also had a 3-year-old brother and 2-year-old sister at the time. How Lena died isn’t clear, but the best guesses are that the girl probably died of scarlet fever or diphtheria, two diseases that killed many children during that time.
Like many who are buried in small, rural cemeteries, their stories have faded and often it is the tombstone that provides the only sign that the person even existed. That is why the return of Lena’s stone has come to mean so much to those involved.
“Those stones and the stories that they tell are part of our nation’s treasure. Our nation has that heritage that we need to remember. That is the responsibility of everyone to protect those stones,” Middendorf said.