In the middle of nowhere, history and honor preserved

RURAL YORK COUNTY – Austin Johnson slowly drove along the tree line of the field, next to where his corn is starting to sprout, with his pickup rumbling over the narrow strip of prairie grass to a small wooded area about 1/2-mile from the road.

“This really is out in the middle of nowhere,” he commented as the trek moved further east from Road B in northwest York County. “Honestly, if we didn’t farm this, I wouldn’t even know this place is here.”

He’s right – if someone is just driving down rural road B, north of Highway 34, they won’t realize this historic and familial place exists, unless they possess historical knowledge. Everything, from the road, looks the same – acres upon acres of beautiful York County ag land.

As he drove, just a few minutes later, a small, wooded area could more clearly be seen and what appeared were four headstones, among the grass, surrounded by cornfields.

It’s a tiny plot of sacred land, protected by the county – sometimes referred to as Zion Cemetery, sometimes referred to as the Brabham Family Cemetery, depending on the historical source.

Johnson and his family have been caring for the plot for a number of years now, officially since 2016 when the York County Commissioners declared the small cemetery as “abandoned” which means the county is responsible for paying for its upkeep. His father, Brian Johnson, was the first to officially care for the plot. Brian Johnson, unfortunately, unexpectedly passed away in 2020. Since then, Austin, along with his grandpa, Lonny Johnson, and Casey Goertzen, have taken on the responsibility for mowing and clearing the plot.

The requirements, as far as the county’s involvement, are that the site has to be mowed at least twice a year – before Memorial Day and before Labor Day.

“But obviously, we have to do it a lot more than that, in order to keep it under control,” Johnson said, as he shut off his pickup, once the site was reached. “Years ago, it was such a mess. We’ve really cleaned it up and need to keep up with it, to make sure it doesn’t get overgrown again.”

There are no markers as to its historical existence and only foot-traffic is recommended if someone wants to visit the site firsthand. The Johnsons’ access is by pickups and tractors, as they farm the ground around it. Yet, there are signs people have been there to visit.

Someone, sometime, planted perennial iris near the graves and some white silk flowers were lying by two of the headstones.

“I don’t know who was out here, but these were obviously brought here by someone paying their respects,” Johnson said. “I hadn’t even noticed these before today.”

As he bent down to pull weeds around a very old headstone, dating back to the 1800s, the only sounds to be heard were the wind blowing through the old trees, a tractor in the distance as farmers planted and some chirping of birds.

“It’s so quiet out here,” he said. “We haven’t mowed yet this spring, but we will soon. Why do we do it? Well, I guess it’s just part of farming, taking care of the whole place.”

Johnson explained how the farm ground there is owned by the John Levitt Estate, managed by Cornerstone Bank, and his family has farmed it since 1993. He said his dad volunteered to clean up the cemetery area, which just happens to be in the middle of it all . . . as it’s been there for many, many years.

“I don’t know a lot of the history behind this burial location, but It’s my understanding how decades ago, some of the graves were moved to different cemeteries – maybe the Arborville Cemetery, maybe the Zion Cemetery by Hampton, I really don’t know,” Johnson said. “But remaining here are still these four. And we come out here and mow, clean things up. It’s so amazing how this place is just out here, in the middle of nowhere. I guess it’s part of farming, to care about this as part of this land and part of our history.”

According to York County history books, the property was owned by the Brabham family. On Sept. 15, 1882, the cemetery was turned over to the Zion Cemetery Association. That met one of the criteria required by state statutes when declaring a cemetery abandoned (which means the county has to contribute monetarily to its upkeep) – which says the cemetery had to have been founded before Jan. 1, 1900.

Buried there is Henry Harrison Brabham. The presence of his grave helped meet the second requirement of state regulations to declare abandonment, which says the cemetery must contain the graves of homesteaders, immigrants from foreign nations, prairie farmers, pioneers, sodbusters, first generation Nebraskans or Civil War veterans. Brabham was a Civil War veteran with the Ohio Co. H, who was stationed at Little Rock, Arkansas. He was born March 14, 1838, and died Jan. 21, 1897.

According to historical accounts from the “Memorial and Biographical Record – Butler, Polk, Seward, York and Fillmore Counties, Nebraska,” on pages 578-581, published in 1899: “Henry H. Brabham was for a quarter of a century one of the prominent and representative farmers of York County. In his life span of almost sixty-years he accomplished much and left behind him an honorable record well worthy of perpetuation. He was a man of the highest respectability, and those who were most intimately associated with him speak in unqualified terms of his sterling integrity, his honor in business and his fidelity to all the duties of public and private life. He was faithful to his church, to his country, and to his friends, and in his home was a most exemplary husband and father. His death, which occurred January 21, 1897, occasioned the deepest regret throughout the community, and York County thereby lost one of its most valued citizens.

“Mr. Brabham was born in Morgan County, Ohio, March 14, 1838, a son of John and Elizabeth (Powers) Brabham, who had removed to that state from Pennsylvania at an early day and spent their remaining years,” the historical account continues. “Our subject was reared and educated in Washington County, Ohio, and there followed farming and also worked some at the cooper’s trade in early life. On the 28th of September, 1861, he manifested his patriotism by enlisting in Company H, Seventy-seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and was in the service for three years and three months, participating in the battle of Shiloh and many other engagements of less importance. While doing duty as a train guard in Arkansas, he was shot in the leg. He was honorably discharged December 22, 1864, with rank of second sergeant.
“At the close of the war Mr. Brabham went to Moultrie County, Illinois, where he made his home for seven years, coming to York County, Nebraska, in the fall of 1872, and taking up a homestead on section 32, Arborville Township, on which he located the following spring. His first home here was a dugout, later he lived in a sod house for one year, and then erected a good frame house, in which the family still reside. He broke and improved his land, and at his death left a good farm of three hundred and twenty acres, under a high state of cultivation and supplied with good and substantial buildings.
“On July 30, 1863, Mr. Brabham wedded Miss Margaret J. Fisher, a daughter of John and Margaret (Short) Fisher, natives of Illinois. Four children blessed this union, namely: Edward F.; John H.; George W., deceased; Elizabeth J. Mr. Brabham was an earnest Christian gentleman, and as a local preacher in the Methodist Episcopal church he exercised a great influence for good in his community. His political support was always given the Republican party, but he never cared for the honor or emoluments of public office. Mrs. Brabham is an estimable lady, of many sterling qualities, and has a large circle of friends in York County.”

Johnson noted how a veteran memorial stake has been placed at Henry Brabham’s grave, which appeared sometime in the last few years.

“I don’t know who brought it here, but it is obviously official,” he said, noting it matches others found in cemeteries where veterans are buried. “We don’t always see who comes out here, but someone obviously cared about making sure this veteran’s grave is marked.”

On Brabham’s headstone there is the etching of a Bible and words on the side which seem to be from the Bible, but they are so faded, it’s nearly impossible to read them.

Also buried there is Margaret Jane (Fischer) Brabham, Henry’s wife, who was born May 26, 1845, and died Jan. 21, 1896.

Ella Brabham, who died on Oct. 12, 1894, was the wife of Henry and Margaret’s oldest son, Edward. She’s buried there, but there is no record of her husband at this cemetery.

Graves of young people are found there: two small sons of John and Adah Brabham (Walter, who died on Christmas Day, 1898, and William, who died in August, 1906, at the age of one). The two boys share a single gravestone, with each memorialized on either side of the single stone. The perennial iris plants are green at this time, around the boys’ stone (as well as the others), and will soon bloom in remembrance of the children’s existence so many years ago.

Two other children are buried there as well — Edward and Jessie Brabham’s infant daughter and infant son. Their daughter was one month and five days old when she died on May 18, 1899. Their son was one month and 12 days old when he died on Oct. 2, 1900. Neither name is mentioned on the family headstone.

There is also another stone which simply bears the name “Ryan.” Johnson said he would like to know more about that person, as it’s curious it only says the single name and nothing else.

Another aspect of state regulations, allowing the county to declare this cemetery as abandoned, is it had to be neglected at least 20 years – it is estimated the cemetery sat without care for more than 50 years before the Johnsons stepped in.

Johnson credited York County historian, Nancy Beach, for her going before the county board to ask for the abandonment status leading to some financial assistance for its care.

The Johnsons get some money each year – about $700 from the county (which is determined by state law) – toward mowing, weeding and removing volunteer trees. Johnson said the county funds are appreciated, but regarded their dedication to taking care of the cemetery as part of their obligation in taking care of that parcel of land.

“Even though people associated with these people are no longer here and we don’t know who or how many people walk out here to see these graves, we want it to look nice. We want to be respectful,” Johnson said. “We also appreciate the Boy Scout, who years ago, took it upon himself to do, as a special project, the installation of these boundary markers.”

There are wooden markers on the corners of the cemetery area, indicating where the cemetery property stops and starts.

“It just shows that people care,” Johnson said, as he pulled weeds around markers and flowers left behind. “I don’t know who these people were, but we are happy to maintain the place where they are to be remembered and honored. That is something we want to uphold.”

While leaving, as Johnson drove along the tree line, back to Road B (about 5 ½ miles north of Highway 34), he said the assignment to maintain this burial place is special to him and his family. He’s also extremely humble about the care.

“It’s just part of farming,” he said, shrugging off any accolades for his family’s work to protect this piece of York County history and the plots where some of the first founders are buried. “Really, my grandpa and Casey mow more than I do. I guess we just want to keep doing what my dad did and uphold the responsibility we have with farming this ground.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” Johnson said as he drove away. “It’s important.”

Those who are interested in seeing the site should not drive into the property on their own. They can contact Johnson or walk along the tree line in order to get there. They need to be reminded the Johnsons’ crops are planted close to the grassy area, and the space between the field and the tree line is narrow and rugged.

“I think it’s great how people have been out here, leaving behind flowers and the veteran marker,” Johnson said. “Everyone deserves to be remembered. It’s just a matter of respect.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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