Though it may seem like a forgotten place with solemn headstones and occasional flower bouquets left by loved ones, the cemetery in Sheridan is full of thousands of vibrant stories about thousands of real people that reflect not only the city’s history but what it is today.
“Progress wasn’t of a monetary value,” Sheridan High School history teacher Tyson Emborg said about the cemetery that has become one of his favorite subjects for research. “Progress was family, and friends, and concern for others, and civic duty, and relationships and some of those things you value when you reflect on what a cemetery means.
“It means the conclusion of and the hope for.”
Lives may have ended, but dreams did not.
Taking the time to dig into the stories behind the gravestones is a worthwhile way to go back to the roots of Sheridan and see what made the tree grow.
The people behind the places
The names of buildings and streets in a town are often tied to the founders of that town, and Sheridan is no exception.
Loucks Street and Coffeen Avenue are two main thoroughfares named after two key players in Sheridan’s history. Whitney Commons, Eatons’ Dude Ranch, Kendrick Park and Kendrick Mansion and even a downtown restaurant called Frackelton’s are all places tied to people who left their mark in Sheridan’s early days.
The following short histories were compiled by Emborg in his “Self-Guided Walking Tour of Sheridan Municipal Cemetery,” which is available for purchase at The Wyoming Room in Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library.
- John D. Loucks (1845-1927), is buried on the northern edge of the Mason 8 circle in the cemetery. He founded Sheridan. He plotted the town in 1882 on the back of some wrapping paper while traveling from Big Horn to Miles City, Montana. The town was incorporated in 1884 and named as the county seat in 1888.
- Henry A. Coffeen (1841-1912), buried in the block north of the cannons, first built in Big Horn but moved his store board-by-board to Sheridan when he heard the railroad would be built there. In 1889, he was Sheridan’s delegate to Wyoming’s Constitutional Convention and became Wyoming’s second resident elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Edward A. Whitney (1843-1917), buried on the southwest corner of Block 11 toward the northern end of the cemetery, established the Whitney Trust. The foundation is now known as Whitney Benefits and can be credited with funding large-scale infrastructure projects, such as Whitney Commons and the Edward A. Whitney Academic Center at Sheridan College, as well as more than 5,000 college loans for local students. The college also sits on ranch land once owned by Whitney.
- John B. Kendrick (1857-1933), buried north of Whitney in Block 33, came to Wyoming in 1879, started the OW Ranch and became a wealthy and prominent man. In 1915, he was elected governor of the state and in 1917, he became a U.S. senator, a position he kept until his death. The main city park is named after him, and his mansion located above the park is now the Trail End Museum. The carriage house near the mansion houses the Civic Theater Guild.
- Alden Eaton (1859-1937) and Willis Eaton (1852-1929), buried together south of Kendrick in Block 28, founded the infamous Eatons’ Dude Ranch with their brother Howard in 1904. The ranch located west of Sheridan is still run by the Eaton family and is one of the oldest dude ranches in the U.S.
- Dr. William Frackelton (1870-1943), buried east of the elk statue in the Elks Block 1 on the western side of the cemetery, was a local dentist whose patients included Oliver Henry Wallop and Calamity Jane. When not saving teeth, however, he helped establish many of Sheridan’s civic organizations and even negotiated with President William Howard Taft to save Fort Mackenzie, now located on the campus of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The Cemetery Project
While men like Coffeen, Loucks and Kendrick were the movers and shakers who were crucial to building and growing Sheridan, more than 22,000 people are buried in the Sheridan Municipal Cemetery. Each of them played a part in the town’s history, even if it was a small part.
Kim Ostermyer, who works part time at The Wyoming Room at Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library and part time for the city of Sheridan, dedicates much of his time to an endeavor called The Cemetery Project.
This project has Wyoming Room staff and volunteers working with city staff to verify, and often correct, the records for the more than 22,000 burials in the cemetery in order to provide more usable and accurate information to the public. The information will be put online for easy access.
The project was started in 2010 but just last spring became more focused on creating a long-term database that will contain all the information able to be found about each person buried in the cemetery.
The challenge is that information is scattered in a variety of places — and sometimes almost non-existent or limited by the societal constraints of the time, especially in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Recently, a record for a Mrs. Amski had Ostermyer perplexed. He spent hours trying to trace a line between a maiden name and a married name he thought were the same person based on just pieces of information. It took him even longer to find a first name since women were often know only by Mrs. and their married name.
Her name was Emma. And at some point in her life her last name was Amski, although which last name that is remains a mystery to be solved.
“Those things are where you get the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, where you think this is great; we’re doing something really positive,” Ostermyer said. “We’re giving people’s identities back to them after so long of not having a name. … Now we know her first name was Emma; it’s not Mrs., it’s Emma.”
Another victory came on the record of a buried child, who were often identified in early funeral home documents only by their last name.
“There was one I did last fall where I found his name in the census record. It was one of those things that totally made my day because it felt like I had named a child,” Ostermyer said.
Between the victories, there is a lot of mundane searching through yellowed newspaper obituaries, tattered funeral home records, books of census records, land deeds, photographs and even weather bureau records in order to paint the most comprehensive pictures possible of how, when, why and where someone died, including surrounding circumstances like weather.
Those records are valuable to those seeking more information about family, but they will also provide overarching looks at Sheridan itself.
- James W. Legg is just a name on a gravestone — until one knows that he helped design the invasion map for D-Day in World War II.
“I thought that was neat that someone had that privilege and I would say afterward probably that burden they probably carried, too,” Ostermyer said.
- Block S contains many unmarked graves for individuals who met untimely deaths from murder, suicide and accidents. Some buried here are known and some are not, but the area is a reflection of trials and temptations in Sheridan’s early days.
- Block P, or the Grand Army of the Republic section, is dedicated to veterans of the Civil War who made their way to Sheridan after the war.
- A Japanese Section is the resting place for many of the Japanese individuals who worked in coal camps north of Sheridan.
- Delilah S. Sonnesberger was the first woman to cast a ballot in Johnson (now Sheridan) County — in the 1880s, long before women around the country were allowed to vote.
- Typhoid is seen as a cause of death in many records, another indication of the troubles faced by early residents, the troubles they had to overcome to keep Sheridan progressing into the future.
“I find it to be very interesting that we have such a great amount of history, and the cemetery’s never really been tackled as an individual unit of history,” Ostermyer said. “You really see some of these human elements that come out of the woodwork that would otherwise be locked away.”
By Hannah Sheely