Adam Lehechka’s Eagle Scout project may increase in size from his original plans.
The junior at Grand Island Senior High set out to raise $2,500 to have a Nebraska Historical Marker made and placed at the Poor Farm Cemetery just north of Grand Island — but that historical marker may just be the first of many small markers yet to come.
Lehechka met at the cemetery last week with members of the Prairie Pioneer Genealogical Society, who had informed Lehechka and Troop 14 that the small, rural cemetery was in need of a spruce up.
Hall County bought land for a poor farm, a place for indigent to work for room and board, in 1879. By 1881, a corner of the farm was earmarked for a paupers’ cemetery, with about 10 to 20 people believed to be buried there through 1919 in unmarked graves. The poor farm closed in 1919, the year after a state law was passed requiring that county institutions be built of brick and have indoor plumbing and electricity.
The county later sold off part of the poor farm for Highway 281 and in 1978 earmarked part of the poor farm land for its county roads maintenance shed. That was the same year the county added a fence around the suspected cemetery area and the arched Poor Farm Cemetery sign, according to an Oct. 2, 1988, article about the cemetery in The Independent.
“We’re going to take down the sign and paint it, fix the fence, mow and weed,” Lehechka said pointing out the metal sign and overgrown grounds that are mowed only once or twice a year by Hall County roads workers.
But Lehechka may add to his project the work of actually determining the number of graves in the Poor Farm Cemetery and where they are located.
Loren Avey, a grave dowser from Sidney who moved to Grand Island about six years ago, met with Lehechka and the genealogical society earlier this month. He brought his dowsing rods.
“Want to try?” Avey asked the teen.
He handed Lehechka the copper rods and instructed how to hold them loosely while walking slowly across the cemetery ground. If the rods crossed, a grave was found. If the right rod crossed over the left, the body buried there is male. If the left crossed over the right, the body there is female.
“I don’t know if this will work,” Lehechka said.
“It doesn’t work for everybody,” Avey said. “It’s like being an artist — either you are or you aren’t.”
Lehechka held the rods straight out and began taking steps. Slowly, slowly. He watched the rods still straight out.
Another step — the rods swung across one another.
Lehechka froze. His eyes widened.
“He found a grave,” Avey called out to genealogical society President Doug Cramer.
“I didn’t think it would work — that I could do it,” Lehechka said shaking his head. “We should find these.”
Even just marking the burial spots with flags would be helpful, Cramer said.
A sign of respect, Avey said.
Lehechka gave the dowsing rods back to Avey and talked briefly about the work to come.
Lehechka has enough down-payment money to order the black and silver historical marker. The goal would be to come back in the spring with other scouts and volunteers to get the cemetery weeded, mowed and properly tended prior to Memorial Day. Then graves could be marked.
The chain link fence around the cemetery will be straightened, the sign painted and the new marker erected.
It will require the installation of two to three parking stalls near the new marker, Cramer said.
Lehechka and the genealogical society will work with Hall County Roads Director Casey Sherlock to get the parking area set.
“I’m supportive of it,” Sherlock said of what ever improvements are needed for the Poor Farm Cemetery. “It’s nice to see people take on these rural cemeteries, especially scouts.”
The Poor Farm Cemetery is one of two rural cemeteries in Hall County that the county Roads Department provides minimal maintenance for, Sherlock said.
The Poor Farm Cemetery, at the southwest corner of Highway 281 and Abbott Road, is located immediately south of a county road maintenance shed.
The genealogical society members said they are excited not only about the improvements that Lehechka has planned, but also that a young person is expressing interest in heritage.
Send donations to:
Poor Farm Cemetery Project
Boy Scout Troop 14
2429 Park Drive
Grand Island, NE 68801
Make checks payable to: Boy Scout Troop 14