RURAL GOLDEN VALLEY — There are bones of babies and adults beneath the wildflowers and waving grass on a rocky hilltop far south of Golden Valley.
And some, sadly, are beneath the gravel road that runs through those hills like the herky-jerky track on a roller coaster.
A hand-lettered sign warns travelers: “You are now driving on unmarked graves.”
It is disquieting. Out of respect, it is customary to avoid walking on graves, not to mention driving thousands of pounds of trucks, tractors and cars over the top of them. But it is the only way the road goes.
That will soon change.
The persistence of a handful of local ranch families intent on giving those burials the peace and respect they deserve has apparently paid off.
The Mercer County Commission will meet Tuesday and likely approve a change to a $900,000 contract it awarded this spring for that stretch of road.
Not only will the road be widened, flattened and straightened as planned — it will take a curve to the south and bypass the boundary of the burials.
County engineer Steve Mamer said he went out last week and acquired verbal agreements from two landowners to move the road slightly south.
“I got everything all straightened out,” he said.
It’s a small victory, perhaps, but one that means a great deal to the people who felt the disrespect to the long-dead homesteaders had gone on long enough.
Gary Gierke, who lives two miles west of the cemetery, said he’s been talking to the county about that road for years.
He said the county’s new plan, is “fantastic, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Gierke said the issue came to the forefront several years ago, when he began asking the county to cut down the hilltops because of the near-misses he and others had meeting vehicles on the steep hills.
“Every time we talked, they didn’t want to touch the road because of the cemetery,” Gierke said.
Starting last year, the county started talking about improving the entire four-mile stretch. But what to do about the burials was an unresolved issue.
The problem was that while there was some general knowledge that there were more burials under the road and out on the hillside than the few in a small fenced cemetery, no one knew for certain how many or where.
Any markers had long since disappeared over the past 100 years.
But with the county finally planning improvements, locals were determined that the pending road work shouldn’t make a bad situation worse.
“I don’t know of a cemetery that’s driven on except for this one,” Gierke said.
So many dead
They turned to a local ranch woman, Peggy Wolff, who has long witched for water and in recent years has worked with dowsing for graves.
Wolff said she found nearly 200 burials on the hillside on either side of the gravel road and far outside a small area officially dedicated as cemetery.
Wolff and local ranch families flagged each spot and soon a familiar burial pattern emerged in the grass: Row upon row of burials, possibly once marked with a wooden cross, but no longer detectable except by the mysterious reaction of copper wire to human remains in the hands of someone sensitive to the pull.
Wolff said each dowser has a different experience. In her case, the copper wires move apart and she is able to tell whether the burial is a baby or an adult by the span.
The wires move clockwise when the remains are male; counterclockwise when they are female.
“There were so many that died,” she said.
“There were so many babies,” Gierke added.
The small tattered marker flags flutter in the breeze. The neighbors marked some burials with flowers and crosses. Their identities will never be known beyond man, woman or child.
Wolff said she was very much surprised to find so many burials, when she expected to find only a few long covered by the clay and gravel of the road surface.
Gierke said he was skeptical of Wolff’s findings, though he does believe in witching for water.
Then a couple of things happened that made a believer out of him.
First, the county road blade snagged some dirt and made a gouge alongside the gravel road near some of the flags. Small pieces of bone were uncovered — “Just little things, the baby must have been premature,” Gierke said.
Later, a man came to Gierke and admitted that he’d removed the sod and dug under one of Wolff’s flags. He said he uncovered a blanket, brittle with a black tarry substance. It cracked open and bones spilled out. He said he hastily reburied those bones.
Now, “I believe, absolutely I do,” Gierke said.
Wolff said there’s no question in her mind that the burials are there.
“They can take a shovel if they want to,” she said.
With the graves marked and the sign put up, the ranchers around thought they’d made their point. They named the unmarked burial area “Johannes Gemeinde,” for the old-time German Lutheran group that met in nearby schoolhouses.
Then, the county engineer came through in May, staking out the improvement project. The engineer’s orange-tipped stakes follow the original section line south of the existing road and within a few feet of some of the dowsed burials.
Gierke and others told the county that the location was unacceptable and last Monday, the commission and the ranch neighbors met at the location.
Janet Connolly, a ranch neighbor, put it in these terms: “Two wrongs don’t make a right and the (existing) road is the first wrong.”
Commissioner Wayne Entze said he got a crystal clear understanding that day. “They dug in their heels and said they’re not going to let us go over the top anymore,” he said.
Had there been only an unmarked burial or two, the county would have moved them, as it has elsewhere, he said.
“But there’s too many and it would have been cost-prohibitive to do that,” Entze said.
“We’ll try to do our best and try to go around that so we won’t even touch that area,” he said.
Peace for the dead
Connolly said the hilltop has significance to her even though none of her people are out there beneath the grass and flowers.
In fact, none of the neighbors have burials there. But it’s not about them, or their ancestors.
The burials are a reminder of hard times. A reminder of flu epidemics that snuffed lives of parents and children, childhood diseases that snatched children from the sickbed to the graves within a few heart-wrenching hours, of pioneering men crushed under wagon wheels and women dead in childbirth, and of the blessed old ones who lived a long life.
“There’s no one here to defend their final resting place,” Connolly said.
Gierke said he believes this is the last chance to make that defense because the new road will be permanent and later generations won’t know much or even care anymore.
“If they (county) do what they say they’re going to,” he said, “we’ll have the peace of mind that we’re not driving over them anymore and their resting place is secured forever. If we don’t stop this abuse now, it’s never going to stop.”