Friday, February 28, 2014

Do you want to find a grave?

by Jerry Johnson of the Sutton Historical Society

One of the early needs of any new settlement in the West was a place to bury the dead. That first death in a new community was only a matter of time and someone needed to pick a burial site.

The first farmsteads often had a family burial plot not far from the farm buildings. The towns of Sutton, Harvard and Clay Center and others selected sites near town for their cemeteries. Churches created their own cemeteries near Sutton, Verona and Saronville and in many rural settings.

The gravestone of Luther French first
homesteader in the Sutton area in 1870.
I understand that graves were found when the first swimming pool was dug in the Sutton City Park; the park site had been an early burial site. Those graves were relocated to the city cemetery. That story is on my Research TODO List.

Gravestones or “monuments” honor those who have died and become a link to our past. Families used to live in the same place for many generations so people could easily visit the graves of parents, grandparents and earlier relatives. There was a strong sense of continuity from graves that served as reminders of deceased family members. That continuity was broken when people moved away from their homes. Immigrants to America severed that tie to a specific family location as did settlers moving west from the Atlantic seaboard who lost their ties to family burial sites back East as well.

Genealogists include burial location among the data to collect on ancestors and a photo of great grandparents graves can be prized find. How many of us have routed a vacation trip to include visits to cemeteries where some ancestor is buried? I’ve included visits to cemeteries in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana Kansas, Maine and Scotland among my own diversions. There is a good chance that visitors you see in our local cemeteries are from out-of-town, even out-of-state.

Several months ago a new database was linked into ancestry.com. New “hints” began to pop up from a web site called www.findagrave.com. The links led to “memorials” identifying the cemetery where someone was buried often with a photo of the gravestone. Suddenly one of the challenging pieces of information was just a keystroke away.

The findagrave.com website was started in 1995 by Jim Tipton who had a hobby of finding graves of famous persons. The internet enabled him to share his list of famous graves and soon a community of people with interests in cemeteries expanded the list into a website that has grown to include well over 100 million memorials of individuals throughout the country and a more from international locations.

The website is the work of thousands of volunteers the majority of them genealogists. The initial work involved identifying cemeteries and then indexing graves from cemetery records, from old and current newspaper obituaries and from walking cemeteries with a clipboard.

Memorials on the findagrave.com site list the dates and locations of the individual’s birth and death. There may be links to the graves of parents and children. There is a place to include a biography of the person where you will often find a copy of the obituary. And memorials may have photos of the gravestones, of the individual or family photos.

I used information on findagrave.com for several months for my own genealogy research. Then a few months ago I “joined” the community and began contributing to the site. Members who would like to have a photo of a specific grave can make a “photo request” which is posted on the page for that cemetery. I began fulfilling photo requests in the area and taking additional photographs of gravestones.

Some cemeteries have had a lot of attention and have been nearly fully photographed. Others have not. Calvary Cemetery is listed as 99% photographed. The Sutton and Harvard Cemeteries had fewer that a fourth of the graves photographed. I’ve been concentrating on the Sutton Cemetery and over 60% have pictures uploaded as I write this.

View of the North Section of the Sutton Cemetery. The grave of Leonard Hanson, World War II casualty is in the foreground, one of many veterans honored in our cemeteries.
This is still a young project. There are some cemeteries yet to be added, mostly small ones. The directory for the Saron Lutheran Cemetery described two early homestead family plots, neither appeared in the database. The Percival Family Plot is familiar to some. It is marked by a gravestone just a few feet off the south shoulder of Highway 6 west of Sutton. Five members of the Percival family are listed on the stone.

The Plumbly Family Plot is a few miles southwest of Verona on the Charles Plumbly farm. Two adults and two children were buried in unmarked graves at the northwest corner of the farmstead. No trace of the farmstead remains but based on the “little dot” on the 1886 plat maps I took a photo of the site of this “cemetery” for the findagrave.com database.

The web site has a small staff which does such things as review new cemeteries to approve them before allowing them to be posted – both of mine passed their review. The website seems to be well run. There have been a few capacity issues in the few months I’ve been working with the site but no interruption has lasted more than several minutes.

The founder, Jim Tipton, began this project with an interest in famous graves. That interest has become a major feature of the site with many cemeteries listing their famous and near-famous burials. There is a section listing the most popular searches in the prior hour. Elvis Aaron Presley makes that list most of the time. As I write this, Timothy McVeigh was high on the list as was Gilda Radnerr, Claude Debussy’s daughter(?), and director Ted Post who had just died.

My “fun” photo request occurred within the first weeks of my activity when several requests were posted for the Aurora Cemetery including three for Hutsell family members, relatives of my wife. I was going to Grand Island so took the list along. Someone had requested a photo of the grave of Clarence Mitchell. I’d never heard of him but I can now tell several stories about him.

Clarence Mitchell was raised near Franklin, Nebraska in 1891. He dropped out of high school to try his hand, his left arm actually, in pitching starting with the Class D Red Cloud team. He managed to play in the major leagues for 19 years before returning to Nebraska where he continued to play minor league ball until he was 49 years old.

The Clarence Mitchell grave in the Aurora Cemetery, a popular grave for
fans of early 20th Century baseball.
Mitchell had two claims to fame. He was a spit-ball pitcher and when that pitch was outlawed, seventeen pitchers were grandfathered – they could continue to throw the banned pitch until retirement. Clarence Mitchell was the only “grandfathered, left-handed spit-ball pitcher.”

His second claim to fame occurred in the 1920 World Series when Mitchell entered the game as a reliever for Brooklyn against Cleveland. His batting won him this claim. Nebraskan Clarence Mitchell hit into the only unassisted triple play in World Series history. Not only that, but he hit into a double play his next at-bat.

After his career was over, Mitchell ran a tavern in Aurora. One of his advertising items was a key chain in the shape of a small baseball bat with an ad for the tavern on one side and an inscription on the other that read, “Beat this Record. Two times at Bat, Result Five Outs in Brooklyn-Cleveland World Series, 1920.”

The fellow who made the Clarence Mitchell Photo Request has a “Virtual Cemetery” of Major League Baseball Players of the spit-ball era. Members of findagrave.com have a variety of grave collections in their virtual cemeteries.

Action photo of Franklin, Nebraska native and early spit-ball pitcher in the major leagues.
Cemeteries can provide a unique insight into our history as we examine the stories represented by these graves. A burial ground is a personal memorial, a family memorial and a community memorial.

The findagrave.com website goes a long way towards re-establishing the continuity with the family and the community past that is lost when we separate ourselves from the location where our ancestors lived and died. And there is a good feeling when you can fulfill a request for a grave photograph and a few minutes receive an email from an appreciative relative who just saw grandma’s grave for the first time.

This article appeared in the August, 2013 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Please contact Jarod Griess for more information about this publication about the Sutton, Nebraska community - 402-984-4302 or at neighborhoodlife@yahoo.com

   

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