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Unmarked Graves

© Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998 by Diane Haugen. All rights reserved

Dale wasn't really a story teller. As I tape recorded our conversations in the '80s, he would answer my questions and offer little more. I managed to collect a lot of information about what life was like growing up in central North Dakota in earlier times, but the fabric of compelling storytelling just wasn't there.

Once in a great while he would be reminded of a really interesting incident by the passing scenery as we drove to and from town, and I would rue my negligence in not trying to rig up some way of using a tape recorder in the pickup. Always, by the time we got home and I began another tape recording session, the story would have lost it's life, reduced to a mere reciting of the facts. I had always associated Dale more with practical jokes than story telling, and experience bore this out. At family get togethers others usually told the family histories. He simply laughed or corrected a detail here and there while others provided the story lines.

In our travels to and from town, or on our Sunday afternoon drives around the countryside, a familiar sight would prompt him to spill a little more of what he knew, but never in the embellished, great-yarn style. This was countryside he knew well, every rock pile, every prairie pothole, every double tire track worn in the grass. Before roads and fences became common, in this country these were the only landmarks to indicate where you were going.


To an outsider, this land might look monotonously similar. To Dale and those who live here, each hillock has its own history, its own memories. And as we rode and looked around at the countryside rolling by, a few bare details would spill out, but seldom the full story.

We passed many abandonned farmsteads on our way to town, but one day he told me there had been a one-room school house near this particular empty yard. Some time later, in one of our other passings, he told me he had taught school there in 1925. On another trip past, he told me he had boarded with the family who lived there when he taught school here. The buildings were long gone. All that was left were a few trees and the foundations of the house and barn. This was range land, not farmland, or the foundations would have been dug up and the land planted to crops. With range land, these old foundations are often left to deteriorate at their own pace. On one of our many trips past the place, he added a little more information to the story.

"See those lilac bushes over there?" he asked.

I hadn't particularly noticed them, since many older farmyards in this country still contain healthy lilac bushes. It is one plant that does well on its here, usually long outlasting the buildings, as well as many of the other kinds of trees the early settlers planted. Settlers hand pumped innumerable buckets of water and hauled them sometimes great distances to these young trees in an effort to make their quarter of land a little bit more like the home they had left behind. Cottonwoods. Boxelders. Plum trees. Gooseberries. The wind, the cold, the deer have all taken their toll on these early trees. Except for the lilacs, which often look so good they could be sitting in a well-manicured urban yard anywhere else the United States.

"Those, over there to the west?" I asked.


"How long has this place been standing empty?" He had, of course, told me before, but I couldn't remember. I just knew it had been a long time.

"Hasn't been anyone living here since '37. It never was a really good place, like Poepke's. Some lawyer in San Francisco owns it. Rents it to Whites."

As he was wont to do, that was all he said. We had driven on past the place about a half mile before he continued.

"There are three children buried under those bushes."

I waited for him to continue. But not being a story teller, I had to prompt him.

"What happened?"

"Died of diptheria in 1914."

That was all that was said. I could only assume he found out about the graves when he taught school and boarded with the family. I assumed these were children of a family that had come and gone before Dale stayed there. I didn't ask.

Unmarked graves.

It is hard to comprehend in this day and age that there were many people who died and were buried in places that for all intents and purposes are not only unmarked, but unknown. Why these children were never buried in a church or town cemetery I will never know. My uncle felt no need to explain it to me. We had spent countless hours talking about how poor many many people were when they came to this country.

I suspect there simply wasn't enough money to do anything but plant lilac bushes. But the family, in that choice of marker, had selected a living memorial that would far outlast almost anything else they could have placed there. Including the marble headstones in cemeteries that even now, after 75 to 100 years, have lettering so weathered that the words are barely decipherable.

For my uncle, these children were an anchor to the past, and he carried that memory with him to his grave. And with him, one more link to the past was lost, along with a local habitation and a name. We as a society are poorer for the loss, a loss the landless, rootless web of interwoven humanity without grounding in community or land cannot even begin to fathom.

© Copyright 1996, 1997, 19988 by Diane Haugen. All rights reserved. No portion of this chapter may be copied, retransmitted, reposted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of the author.

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