A souvenir postcard, found on the web, says “Don’t think that all the gold/Is treasured in Alaska/For golden corn and Golden Rod/Enrich the state Nebraska.” Goldenrod, named Nebraska’s state flower in 1895, is a drooping profusion of gold that looks an awful lot like a sheaf of wheat. Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is paradoxically the cure for ragweed allergies—a local herbalist taught me how to walk through the prairie in late summer and pick goldenrod at its peak, stuffing the stems into a Mason jar, covering them with Everclear, and letting the medicine cure for six weeks before straining it into bottles and taking a dropperful at a time, as needed. I’ve found the Nebraskan Midwessay to be goldenrod personified: understood only through its oppositional references while its author patiently undoes misconceptions. These essays on the Nebraskan Midwessay may confirm your cliches, but I’d encourage you to look closer: what appears to cause the problem is actually the solution.
In our way, we conform as best we can to the rest of nature… All of that immense mass of flesh and bone and consciousness will disappear by absorption into the earth, without recognition by transient survivors. —Lewis Thomas, Death in the Open
Nature evolves and revolves through cycles. Birth, life, and death are looped endlessly, depending on one another in an ecological system that is meant to sustain itself. Writing is cyclical, as well. An idea can geminate and grow, while other ideas die off or are resurrected elsewhere. And like a graveyard, our writing will either be remembered, forgotten, or destroyed by others.
In January of 2021, I started the graduate certificate in advanced writing. This was just as the pandemic was rearing its ugly head for the second or third time. All of my classes had been on Zoom, but Dr. Price wanted to meet in person at two different locations for the summer nature writing class. The first meeting place, and the only one that I attended, was Glacial Creek Nature Preserve.
I had been to the Preserve for a work-related retreat but had no idea that the land held a secret: it housed a graveyard. My fascination with the cycles of human life from birth to death and my intrigue with the cultural rituals of death and dying led me to be excited and determined to visit the cemetery and learn more about the homesteaders.
I was given the following directions by Barbi Hayes (a presenter for the class and one of the major financial contributors to the Preserve) and again by Dr. Price, “Walk along the bend, and you will run into it.” The bend, I guess, meant the tree line. Thank goodness for the sign. Otherwise, I might have turned back around. The wood post with an orange arrow and yellow print stated CEMETERY pointing to the left.
The sky above Glacier Creek Prairie was a perfect ombre blend of pale baby blue to cerulean. There were a few picturesque cumulonimbus clouds, above the tree line. From the class, I learned more about the history of Nebraska and its former life as a warm inland sea. I was filled with an awareness and an appreciation for the tall Indiangrass and indigenous wildflowers that I would have chalked up to being just weeds. I noted that the grasses and flowers were situated between crops of soybeans on each side. One thing for sure about the Midwest, durability and sustainability are landmarks of the prairie and are worthy of literary reflection.
I made it. There was a Nebraska Historical Marker:
KOBS PIONEER CEMETERY
Albert Kobs (1845-91) emigrated from Germany in 1867. His wife, Henrietta C. (Labs) Kobs (1848-82) emigrated from the same area in 1870 and the couple soon married. They purchased a farm in 1874, on which five of their eight children were born. Before 1900 as many as twenty-five Kobs relatives were buried here in the cemetery, established in 1879. The only marked graves are those of Henrietta C. Kobs and her sons, Charles and August who both died in 1879.
The graveyard was very small, no more than 40 feet by 40 feet, encased in a four-foot-high chain link fence with an entrance gate. A large tree recently knocked down by a storm had crushed one side of the metal link fence.
Inside the graveyard, the floor was covered with cut grass and weeds and only a few headstones were intact. There was a combined headstone for Charles and August Kobs. The left side of the marker had been knocked off and worn down while the right side was cracked but still together. A newer and modern, marble grave marker had been placed for Albert Kobs next to a weathered obelisk marker for Henrietta. There was a rustic wood bench with two medium sized trunks as a base, a seat set upon the base of thick wood, and a back with the natural irregular shape of the tree trunk and the bark still on the back side, attached by two rebar spikes. l would later find out that this bench had been made by an eagle scout. There were a few cut pieces of the fallen trunk next to the gravestones. One had a large seashell on it.
Apparently, one of the Kobs owned the land that housed the gravesite, but he did not have regard for the deceased. He would drive his cattle through the middle of the graveyard, knocking over the headstones. The cousin who lived next door was dismayed by this treatment of his deceased ancestors. Some of the buried were not encased in a casket, so this type of disturbance was even more troubling. Their bodies became part of the soil and the trees.
I visited Kobs Cemetery because I had the desire to write about my own family graveyards, which are scattered across the east coast. I wanted to see if the graveyard of a White pioneer family in Nebraska would or would not be given the care and attention that one expects and/or desires. I have visited my family members’ graves across North Carolina, Virginia, and many parts of Maryland. They were also pioneers and had been landowners since the 1700s; something not taught in history books about African American families.
Visiting the Kobs graveyard did ignite a passion to write about my family’s graveyards, which I titled The Underground. The essay has been birthed and continues to grow, even as parts of it die. One death blow was the Kobs section of The Underground essay, yet it resurrects here as a tribute to the prairie pioneer spirit and to my experience in the Midwest.
As I looked out over the Glacier Creek Prairie, I considered how it had been neglected until generous benefactors gave it new life. Like one of my family graveyards, the prairie has experienced ecological vandalism, and like the graveyard, the prairie is in danger of being forgotten and needs preservation. However, I will leave the writing of that clarion call to Dr. John T. Price, whose passion and expertise are well suited to the task.
With researching the Kobs family, I felt a deep appreciation for the descendants that return annually to Glacier Creek in order to honor their ancestors on Memorial Day. The family lives in California now—thus the seashell. They sit on the wooden bench built by the Eagle Scout.
I am one of the few, if not only family member who still visits my ancestors. There have been wonderful volunteers who have helped to restore and maintain a few of the graveyards. Boy scouts, bank employees, university classes, and more have dedicated time, resources, and even a metal bench (much less rustic than the one at the Kobs cemetery). With that said, I believe it is critical that I continue to write about my family, my family history, and my family’s graves…in the hope that though my ancestors have disappeared into the earth, they will be recognized by their transient survivors and ultimately honored as the incredible Black pioneers that they were—members of the Underground Railroad, education and business leaders, civil rights advocates, politicians, military veterans, and more. They were born, fully lived their lives, and died, yet it is possible to resurrect and restore their stories. I am their voice. They will not be forgotten.