In 2010, Glen Mlnarik went to display flags for Memorial Day at Grove Hill Cemetery south of Howells and found a mess.
The sumac was twice the size it is now and covered some of the headstones. The trees needed trimming and the grass hadn’t been mowed in months, maybe years.
Like many early pioneer cemeteries, Grove Hill is no longer affiliated with a congregation and has to be maintained by volunteers. The previous group that signed up to care for the grounds simply stopped coming.
Mlnarik went to the Sons of the American Legion to see if they were interested in assuming responsibility for the cemetery’s care.
“I just didn’t like to see it overgrown,” he said. “If the Sons of the American Legion hadn’t taken it on, I would've done it myself.”
Mlnarik and Scott Lerch, a Sons of the American Legion member who regularly tends to Grove Hill, had to go in with chainsaws to clear the overgrown brush.
“Now our biggest challenge is getting a badger out,” said Mlnarik.
Grove Hill is the final resting place for James Smith Howell, the namesake of Howells. (Supposedly the “s” was added at the end of the town’s name by the post office). Three Civil War and two World War II veterans are also buried there.
The cemetery is a monument to the history of Howells. Mlnarik and Lerch said they don’t recognize any of the names buried there. Once a church is decommissioned and the families move away, it’s up to the community to care for these sites.
“We try to keep it the best we can, within reason,” said Lerch.
Nancy Hartman of David City got involved with Granville Cemetery near Cornlea when she heard the farmer who owned the land allowed his irrigation system to roll through the property.
“The farmer was destroying it,” she said.
Hartman had been involved in the negotiations that settled a border dispute between Butler and Platte counties that lasted more than a century. Someone concerned about the cemetery contacted her since she had that experience.
Hartman signed on without realizing how much work it would be.
“There was a lot involved in saving that cemetery,” she said.
They had to form an association, find a deed of incorporation and track down a descendant of someone buried there, all while fighting a lawsuit filed by the landowner.
In 2005, Platte County District Court ruled in the Granville Cemetery Association’s favor and the landowner filed an appeal. The case went all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which decided in favor of the association in 2006.
Irvin Mueller was head of the association when it started and put a lot of work into making the cemetery what it is today. He led efforts to clear the grounds, repair tombstones and place simple white crosses over unmarked graves.
“Irvin and them did a whole lot before I got here,” said current association President Dan Wemhoff.
In 2010, the cemetery received a historical marker and in 2012 it was rededicated.
Granville was just the beginning for Hartman. She also submitted applications for historical markers for Streeter and Tracy Valley cemeteries.
“What we have today, we have to thank those people that settled this area,” said Hartman. “I think a lot of people take for granted what we have nowadays.”
Hartman said she’s also moved by what those pioneers went through. Gravestones tell the story of how tough life was on the frontier. Markers show how some families lost multiple members, often children, to diseases such as scarlet fever and typhoid.
“I don’t know how anybody could cope with losing three or four children all at once,” she said. “These people didn’t have any psychologists to go to or depression medication to take. They just had to support each other and tough it out.”
For LaVern Clausen, caring for the Danish Lutheran Cemetery located about 7 miles south of Howells is part of his family heritage. Clausen’s great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather are buried there.
The Danish Lutheran church was dissolved in the 1930s and in the '60s Clausen’s father, uncles and family friend Harold Anderson, now deceased, decided to care for the grounds as a way to pay respect to their ancestors. Now, Clausen’s generation is doing the same.
“I just appreciate what they’ve done for us throughout their lifetime,” said Clausen. “You just have an appreciation for your elders.”
Two of Clausen’s three children have moved away, but he hopes his son Chris will take over the cemetery maintenance one day.
“As long as we’re able, it’ll be taken care of,” said Clausen. “It’ll be taken care of for a while, that’s for sure.”