SHERIDAN — Tuesday night’s thunderstorm provided a fitting backdrop for a tour of Sheridan Municipal Cemetery that highlighted the area’s storied past and the need to implement Sheridan’s Cemetery Master Plan by providing an orderly place of rest for the deceased that can be accessed and enjoyed by the living.
Approximately 60 people huddled together in the rain as lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, underlining stories of Western mayhem and little-known, sometimes juicy, tidbits about Sheridan’s founding fathers and mothers.
Lead by Sheridan High School history teacher Tyson Emborg, the tour included stops at a variety of gravesites:
• William McClinton, a member of Gen. George Crook’s 3rd U.S. Cavalry in 1876 who died of a heart attack while playing fiddle in the upstairs of what is now the Beaver Creek Saloon;
• John Early, a founding father for education in Sheridan County who built dozens of schools in the area;
• Delilah Sonnesberger, the first woman to cast a ballot in Sheridan County decades before other women in the nation;
• Horton Boal, Buffalo Bill Cody’s son-in-law who committed suicide in the Sheridan Inn;
• Block S, a typical cemetery section for murderers, suicides and other unfortunate demises that spawned the phrase, “Don’t be caught dead there.”
Emborg spent considerable time at Block P, which was dedicated in 1911 to Union soldiers of the Civil War by residents who were upset that Civil War veterans were buried in a pauper’s cemetery and wanted to give them a proper burial, complete with two Civil War cannons.
“We are trying to do the same thing as that generation by showing reverence to our dead,” Emborg said. “Cemeteries are a sign of the vitality of the community. In a sense, cemeteries are a resource as well as an area of respect and homage to past residents.”
Emborg chaired the committee that drafted the Cemetery Master Plan last winter and said Tuesday’s event — which also included a presentation by Wyoming Room Director Judy Slack on how to use the library for obituary and genealogy research — was the first of several attempts to foster public awareness about the Cemetery Master Plan and the importance of maintaining Sheridan’s cemetery.
“That cemetery is 123 years old,” Emborg said. “We need to be asking, ‘What will it look like in another 100 years?’”
City Council adopted the Cemetery Master Plan in May and has started to repair damaged headstones and plan for road improvements.
Goals of the master plan include improved roads, the addition of a walking path that will connect with the Sheridan Pathways system, repair of broken monuments, additional parking, improved mapping and updated burial records, among other enhancements.
Emborg said the city hopes to eventually have historical signage at the cemetery and a kiosk in which people can access accurate burial information for relatives or people of interest.
“We need to get the record right,” Slack said. “We are a genealogy library and so we really want the family records to be accurate.”
Slack and a team of two library employees and two grant workers have spent 18 months cross-checking every burial record to ensure accuracy. They examine obituary cards, printed obituaries from historical newspapers on microfilm, biography indexes, funeral records, historical burial records and even property deeds at the city to make sure dates, names and spellings on each record are correct.
There are approximately 20,000 people buried in the cemetery, plus additional burials in surrounding towns, and Slack said the team is about half way through the records after nearly two years.
“I have a lot of relatives who are here,” Sheridan resident Letha Kegerreis said as she participated in the tour.
One relative, her great-grandfather, is buried in the Sheridan Municipal Cemetery but is listed as an infant because there was no birth date listed for him when he was buried. Kegerreis showed Slack her great-grandfather’s immigration papers to show that he was actually about 70 years old when he died. The cemetery had his death date listed as 1908 but also had his birth date as 1908.
“I know a lot of the family history, and I think it’s really important that it’s correct,” Kegerreis said. “I think people would be interested in it, and if you’re doing research it would be a good thing if you could look it up and have it be correct.”
Efforts to improve burial records and the landscape of the cemetery will be ongoing for years, Emborg said, but he looks forward to Sheridan having a cemetery that reflects pride in its history and honor for its past and present residents.
“We need to keep our cemetery nice,” Emborg said. “It’s a reflection of the community.”