Memorial week is a time to pay tribute to others who have gone before us and many people do that by tending gravesites. Cemeteries dot the countryside taking up valuable land. Wouldn’t that land be better used for housing, recreation centers, or parks? I used to think so. Then I started walking in the Dells’ Spring Grove cemetery and spoke to the care taker, Bob Hall.
Bob told the story of seeing a taxi pull up to one of the most famous markers in Spring Grove, that of Belle Boyd, who was a confederate spy. The taxi stopped and an old man slowly got out. Bob saw he needed assistance, so he helped him make his way to the gravesite. The man explained he was Belle’s great-great-grandson.
Belle’s plaque mentions that on May 23, 1862, Belle, then 18, ran across the battlefield between the firing lines with information for the confederate general, Stonewall Jackson. Belle led a colorful life, and in my opinion, is well worth researching. I imagine the elderly man thought so, too, because even though he was in a frail state, he traveled all the way from Virginia to see the marker.
Spring Grove also honors the famous Dells photographer, H. H. Bennet. When I walk past his marker, I recall his famous photographs such as his son jumping between two rock formations at Stand Rock. Through my research, however, I discovered he’s also well-known for a much gristlier photo, that of a dead man lying in the mud. This man is also buried in Spring Grove. I’d noticed the old marker because of the word “murdered” and had wondered about the history. It turns out to be a dramatic story.
On May 20, 1868, Schuyler Gates, father of famous Dells river boat pilot LeRoy Gates, was camping on an island near Portage with his third wife, Mary Ann. She was some forty years younger than him and is the subject of another fascinating story for another time. While Schuyler and Mary Ann slept, two masked bandits attacked them. They beat Gates with their pistols, stole his valuables, and assaulted his wife. They left them bleeding and unconscious. Mary Ann managed to get help, the bandits were arrested and jailed in Baraboo, but eventually the gang’s ringleader got revenge. On September 13, 1869, a farmer found Gates’ body lying on the road near the river. H.H. Bennett took a photo documenting it. The complete story can be found in Richard D. Durbin’s “Two Wisconsin River Stories” in the book Wisconsin Magazine of History. Without the cemetery, I probably wouldn’t have researched this period in our community’s history. The cemetery continues to prove its value.
There are several markers that reveal important events in our community. One is the grave of Thomas Allen, a slave who had been freed from his master. Another is a headstone that reads “The White Eagles Died July 14, 1969.” Five markers surround the headstone revealing birthdates of children. What had happened? My research will continue.
It isn’t only historic figures that stir my thoughts as I walk, but memories of people I’ve met. Sadly, I walk past markers of elderly people I knew, friends close to my own age, and saddest of all, former students of mine.
Cemeteries are a valuable use of the land. They raise questions, stir memories, and make connections among the living and the dead. They forever memorialize those who have come before.
Thanks to care taker Bob Hall and local historian Carol Burgess for help with this column. Any errors are mine.