Kyle R. Bradley I want to share a fantastic experience I had recently and I want to share it with people who understand what a thrill this experience was for me however, it requires a bit of a back story to give you the whole story. Before I begin and first and foremost, I would like to extend a huge Thank You and a shout out as well as a hearty handclasp to Jeff at the WyCo Kansas Museum for his genuine interest in my search and for all of his help. His enthusiasm and extensive knowledge of all things Wyandotte County are a blessing! Seriously, Thank you again Jeff, I couldn't have had this moment without you!
THE BACK STORY When my father started tracing our family history in the early 1980’s home computers were just making their way onto the scene and were used more for organizing collected information than for building family trees so the research he was doing then, though not really that long ago, was certainly not what it is today. Making trips to the libraries, local museums, archive centers, courthouses, churches and cemeteries was standard practice whereas today we sit comfortably in front of our computers searching records that once only existed in the basement of a country church or the back room of a small town courthouse, sometimes halfway around the world! By comparison, today we study census records at our leisure on Ancestry.com instead of going to the library, we view headstones on Find-A-Grave and Billion Graves instead of strolling through the cemetery, we have birth records and death records and photos at our fingertips and instead of thumbing fondly through an old family album, we sit late at night in front of our computers clicking on thumbnails! We can virtually globe hop and visit the birthplace of our 3rd Great Grandparent in a foreign country. How amazing is that? All of these things we do with a few simple keystrokes! In this day and age, you can create an entire tree and never even leave the house! Now please understand, I am not condemning the “new age” genealogist! I will be the first to admit that I am as guilty as anyone of the sit at home electronic kind of research. In fact, that is a big part of why I had to tell this story! It is amazing what rewarding results a bit of footwork can produce!
When certain family lines go stale and I have hit that proverbial brickwall I will move on to another line for a time and in this case, I began following up on some hints in my paternal Grandmothers line. Her name is Eleanor Louise Bates
Eleanor Louise Bates was born February 28th, 1913 in Bethel, Wyandotte County, Kansas to parents Vernon Howard Bates and Louise Marie Orlowski. Eleanor married William John Bradley on Oct 5th, 1935 in Liberty, Missouri. She lived her entire life in the Kansas City area and died on April 17th, 1988 at the age of 75.
Moving back through the years we meet Eleanors father, my Great Grandfather Vernon Howard Bates, we learn that Vernon was a simple farmers son from Ohio. Vernon was born March 16th, 1885 in Fostoria, Seneca county, Ohio to parents Willis Clark Bates and Emma Louise Bucher. By the time Vernon was 10 years old his family had moved to Kansas City Kansas. He married Louise Marie Orlowski on April 14th, 1906. Sometime between 1890 and 1895 his family made their way to the Kansas City, Kansas area via Tebo, Missouri. Vernon eventually 'made good' and from the fruits of his farm and his hard work, he was able to open a small grocery in Bethel, Kansas, located a few miles west of where he had lived with his parents as a teenager. On a cold February night in 1932, at the age of 46 years, Vernon Howard Bates was shot to death with his own gun in a botched robbery of his grocery store but that, of course, is a story for another day.
In looking back a bit further we come to Vernon's parents, my 2nd Great Grandparents, Willis Clark Bates and Emeline Louise Bucher. Emma, as she was known, would marry Willis Clark in September of 1880 in Tiffin, Seneca co. Ohio.
They would have four children that we are aware of. Eldest daughter Minnie was born in 1883, next was my Great Grandfather Vernon mentioned above. He was born in 1885. Both of these children were born in Ohio. As stated, by 1895 Willis and Emma had made their way to Kansas City with their two children. As those children grew up and moved out of the parents house something would happen that would change their lives. In my genealogical research I have found it was not unusual for a woman to have children up into her late thirties and even into her forties but in this case, Willis and Emma had not had any more children in the fifteen years since Vernon’s birth in 1885 so when Emma became pregnant in 1899, it may have been a surprise to the aging couple. Now whether the pregnancy was planned or not, in the hot July summer of 1900, a set of twins were born to the couple. Sadly, these twins would die at birth and also claim the life of their mother. Emma died in July of 1900, four months after her 41st birthday. The details of the births and deaths are not entirely clear at this time and is another mystery yet to be solved. Now, I had saved a couple of hints for Emma a couple of years ago and had never followed up thoroughly on them. One of them was a Kansas Death and Burial Record, 1885-1930. On this record is listed the burial place of Emma Bates as Woodlawn in 1900.
30 Jul 1900
2806 N 8 St
FHL Film Number:
Ancestry.com. Kansas, Deaths and Burials, Index, 1885-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
Original data: "Kansas Deaths and Burials, 1885–1930." Index. FamilySearch, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2009, 2010. Index entries derived from digital copies of original and compiled records.
This database is an index extracted from almost 40,000 death and burial records from Kansas.
How could it be that I had missed this clue to something that was possibly right under my nose! Immediately I searched the web for Woodlawn Cemetery in Wyandotte County, Kansas and got several hits, including the two most popular gravesite web archives, and although this cemetery has many interments that are available for viewing on these sites, Emma Bucher Bates was not among them. A quick search on Google Maps confirmed that Emma’s residence listed in the above mentioned death record is only three city blocks from the Woodlawn Cemetery. The address is the same in a couple of early Kansas City Directories as well. I was born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas, in Wyandotte County about 15 miles west of what I now know is the location of Woodlawn Cemetery. I am familiar with the area though I had never been to this cemetery. I now live across the state line in Missouri about 25 miles from Woodlawn. For two days I pondered making the trek across town just to ‘check it out’. Well, Saturday morning rolls around and I am sitting at my computer alone in the house as my wife was running her Saturday morning errands with the grandkids and it was a beautiful, sunlit, early fall morning. Far too nice a day to be cooped up in the house and besides, with winter fast approaching, there may not be many more days in the coming months that are beautiful such as this one.
THE FIRST LOOK
In my research in the preceding days I had found out that Woodlawn Cemetery is considered an abandoned graveyard, officially “closed for business” and no burials take place there any longer. I wasn’t sure what that entails and wasn’t sure what to expect but past experience tells me that's not generally good for the upkeep and condition of the cemetery or the headstones. With my camera in hand, a folder of family group sheets and a packet of what little information I possessed on Emma I decided to head over to the cemetery and look around. As I pulled up to the cemetery the first thing I notice is the front gate is open! That’s always a good sign. Having read earlier that it was abandoned had me thinking it would be locked up tight and/or overgrown to the point of being inaccessible. A sign beside the gate gave reference to a phone number to call for information about this cemetery.
Of course I called straight away in hopes of getting more info but being it was Saturday, all I got was a voicemail for the WyCo Museum. After leaving a short message and having no faith that anyone would ever return my call, I headed into the cemetery. Now, understand that this cemetery may be "closed for business" but it is surprisingly well taken care of and much larger than I had anticipated! Where in the world would I start? There were so many graves. I started in the North West corner and began walking the rows. I would do what I could with what I had and that day I walked a goodly portion of the cemetery. I took pictures of several interesting headstones, I brushed the dirt from a headstone that was all but inundated by earth, I sat in quiet thought as I ate a granola bar for lunch. I surmised that I had covered maybe one tenth of the stones and all I could muster was a heavy sigh! I left the cemetery that afternoon having had a wonderful walk but alas, having only the information from the earlier mentioned index and more stones than I could look at in a week, I had no luck locating Emma’s headstone, that is, if she even had one. I was beginning to think this was not going to be as quick and easy as I had hoped, I mean, I had envisioned walking up and down a few rows and stumbling across her headstone with crisp lettering and maybe a verse or two for posterity carved into it. Well obviously it was not meant to be, not on this day anyway! I took a few more pictures and headed back to the car. I would go home that morning somewhat disappointed but hopeful nonetheless.
Woodlawn Cemetery THE PHONE CALL
I spent the rest of that weekend searching the internet for any little clues that might provide some insight as to the location of Emma’s grave, all to no avail. In fact, at the time of this writing, we have yet to find a death certificate for her so you can imagine my delight when Monday morning rolled around and I get a call from the WyCo Kansas Museum. Someone was actually returning my call! His name was Jeff and he tells me they had taken over control of the cemetery and their museum extension office housed what records still existed for it. After a brief introduction and explanation of my search and filling him in with some pertinent information concerning Emma and Willis, he promised he would look into it and get back with me as soon as he had anything to pass on. Maybe they had information for Willis as well! In my excitement about possibly finding Emma’s grave I hadn’t thought about that possibility! You see, according to records I have found, in 1915 Willis was still living in the same residence as the time of Emma’s death. We believe he died in 1918 in Kansas City. Is it possible he was buried beside her? We ended the phone call with his assurance that he would email me a copy of the plot layout map for Woodlawn before close of business that day. Needless to say, it was a long day at work that day waiting on that email but sure enough, that afternoon he emailed me the plot layout map and had marked an X in the oldest part of the cemetery, indicating the general location of Emma's grave. He had found it!
Once I received the map I realized that the previous Saturday I had been searching on the complete opposite end of the cemetery from where Emma’s grave was. Comparing the map Jeff had sent me to a satellite map online it was obvious that the surrounding residential neighborhood had been encroaching upon the cemetery for the last century and many of the headstones in Emma's area had been buried, removed, relocated or vandalized and broken beyond recognition. I would find out later that there are actually headstones in the yards of the houses that border the East side of the cemetery.
In putting all of this together, I didn't have high hopes that I would be able to find her stone but that afternoon as soon as I got off work, with the latest information in hand, I would head back over there to look anew. Afterall, Jeff had told me previously that if I had any problems locating it, do not hesitate to call him and he would talk me in! As you can well imagine, I was getting excited at the prospect of finding her stone!
THE SECOND LOOK
You must understand, this all took place in the fall of last year and when I arrived in the general area of Emma's grave there was, at the very least, a foot of fallen leaves covering everything and in spots they were three feet deep! Her grave I was told was located along the extreme eastern edge of the cemetery, along a fence row that long ago, what had not been demolished completely, had fallen into serious disrepair. All that remained were a few stumps with rusted wire and overgrowth where the vegetation had grown up around the fence that used to be there. I can imagine the day of Emma’s funeral, the now tattered fence likely new with shiny and taut wire, the hot July sun beating down upon them, her two young children standing near to father, saddened by their mothers passing. I looked up and down along the fence line and at first glance I could see no headstones. Being so close to the houses along this side of the cemetery I dreaded the thought that her stone had been destroyed but with a sweeping of my foot I began to clear some of the leaves along what appeared to be the first 'row' that was not in the neighbors yard and uncovered a couple markers that were broken, illegible and fallen over face first buried in the soil. At this time I actually considered putting the search off until the spring. It would certainly make the search easier when the concealing blanket of leaves had blown and decomposed enough to reveal even the tops of any remaining stones but after some luck finding a stone or two with a name that I could actually read, I decided to call Jeff and see if he could help! I read him the names of the few that I could make out and he immediately tells me, "You're to far South, you need to walk North!" so I headed Northward up what I thought was the ‘row’ until I again could make out a name and date on one the few remaining stones and gave Jeff the information and I heard paper rustling as he turned pages in the index and then "Whoa, now you're to far North!" he said. By this time I was beginning to feel like I was just not meant to find her grave as I could not see any stones between "to far south and to far north". Jeff suggested I take another look so I grabbed a nearby fallen branch and using it as a makeshift rake, began to clear leaves from the area in between "to far" and "to far" and about halfway through I uncovered a small white stone! Was this it? Was it Emma’s grave! It had to be! Would I be able to read it? As I scrambled to clear away enough debris to make out the name you can imagine my disappointment to find it marked ‘INFANT’. The inscription also included “child of L.D. & Gertie Summerwell Sept 20 1900”. This child died just two months after Emma’s death! Even though it wasn’t Emma’s, I could feel we were getting closer. A mere two months separated this unfortunate child's death and my Great Great Grandmothers. The earth they had layed upon Emma’s grave had not the time to settle when they buried this child.
Next to this stone were two more stones that appeared to have shifted and been knocked over and unfortunately, also illegible but Jeff seemed confident that these must be this infants parents. I was getting excited! As I relayed all this info to Jeff I could hear the excitement in his voice too! "You're getting close now! The infant is buried in the North end of plot #897” he said. “Grave #5, the infants parents are to the South in grave #'s 4 and 3 and Emma is buried in grave #2, in the same plot as the infant!" he exclaimed!
At this point, it was as simple as counting backwards! Raking a few more leaves aside I finally uncovered what looked like an old sandstone marker, illegible but in the right spot! Had I finally found it? After a century and 13 years, was I actually standing at my 2nd Great Grandmothers grave? I fell into a reverent silence for just a moment until I realized that I was standing there with my phone still in my hand and Jeff was still on the line. I wonder now whether that happens to him very often. I told him I thought I had found it and he seemed almost as thrilled as I was. After graciously thanking him and probably overdoing it, I did remember to ask him about any record he may have found for Emma’s husband Willis. With a sigh he explained to me that the records for Woodlawn spanning the years 1913 through 1934 unfortunately had burned up in a fire. He could not confirm that Willis was buried next to her, or even that he was buried in this cemetery but he certainly would not discount it. The search for Willis continues. After a short conversation about the ravages of fire and flood and their devastating effects on the genealogical community I thanked him for all of his help yet again and before hanging up he assured me he would keep my number and if any additional information were to surface he would call me.
THE REFLECTION Standing alone in an abandoned cemetery, no noise but the rustling of leaves in the breeze, looking at this weather worn block of stone, I was speechless! It truly is hard for me to explain the feeling that came over me right then. With the crisp and gentle fall breeze blowing and the leaves fluttering down from the huge oak tree standing nearby, I experienced a moment of solitude, serenity and reverence that I cannot describe. It was an amazing feeling and it literally brought a tear to my eye. The thought then occurred to me, I would not be standing right here, right now, if not for the woman who lay in this grave. The journey she made through life and her eventual untimely death. Had any one simple little thing been different in her life, it most certainly would have altered my eventual existence. I know this is true for any one of my ancestors that have come before me but the fact hit me hard that particular day, I would not be here if not for her. I still wonder too, could this be the final resting place of my 2nd Great Grandpa Willis Clark Bates? Could he be resting in grave #1? Under my breath I cursed the fire that destroyed those records. No visible stone and no record to mark his passing. We may never know if that be his grave but I would like to think he is laid for eternity here next to his young wife. In the searching for the roots of my family tree I have found that moments like this are why I do this. I am blessed with getting to know the lives and the struggles of my kin that came before me, the joyous occasions they witnessed as well as the tragedies they experienced. For that and for them, I feel that I am obligated to keep turning over the leaves and brushing away the clutter that if left unattended, will ultimately cover up the history of ME!