We pulled up to the old iron gate. It was chained shut. Luckily, there was enough room to squeeze in between two metal gateposts that had shifted away from each other from time. Rita jumped out of the car first. “This is so cool,” she said, “these headstones look really old.” I put the parking brake on and wiggled my way through the unforgiving gateposts. She was right. Some of the headstones were faded and worn. Rita had moved out here near Bismarck after college. She had always driven passed this place when visiting with friends and wanted to go in. We made our way around, counter clockwise. Grave markers had always been an interesting part of history to the both of us. They told us stories and we solved mysteries as to why these people ended up here; lay to rest on the great plains of North Dakota.
This unusual hobby started in college when Rita needed to write about Civil War history. We walked through cemeteries in St. Cloud to find the oldest headstone, hoping for one during Civil War times, giving a “local” flavor to her paper. The names we saw on the headstones were names we would see everywhere in town: on street signs, parks and buildings. We realized how much local history was weaved into the land and the local community.
The oldest headstone we found in Sterling Cemetery was of a man who died in 1837. It’s hard to believe that any white man lived in these plains during that time. He must have been one of the first European settlers in the area. Maybe he was a trapper or fur trader. There seemed to be a corner of the grounds saved for babies. Each headstone was flat and their name and the year in which the baby lived and died was carved on the stone. One stone had the name, “Baby from Hotel” engraved upon it, with no year. How sad to have been buried without a name or date. Did she die in a hotel fire or was it a stillbirth? No one cared to name this baby. Was she unwanted?
Many of the stones in the cemetery were sternly leaning as if begging for attention. There were big gaps in the headstone deceased dates. Most seemed to be from 1840-1930. Then there was a ten-year gap and more from WWII era. A set of four headstones looked like petrified wood slabs. I found these to be truly unique and beautiful. I haven’t been able to find any information on these stones and I have never seen this type of monument before. Then, another big time gap with scattered dates, and then a large number of stones again from the 1970’s and 1980’s. Many of the markers of the younger children had a statue of a bedded lamb on the top. We could see that they had been knocked off at one time because of the fresher concrete used to glue them back on was a darker color. Could the breakage have been caused by a tornado, wear or hoodlums with nothing better to do than bash a few stone lambs?
As we made our last turn we stopped at a very large, red stone monument. It was the biggest stone in the cemetery. Rita’s face turned the color of a starch white orchid. “What’s the matter? I asked, confused by her sudden stillness. Rita knelt down slowly and pointed to the marker. “This was my high school friend, my best friend ever in North Dakota.”