Last week, I shared about my visit to Prospect Hill Cemetery in Norfolk, Neb. I thought our next stop (after the Norfolk Hospital for the Mentally Insane cemeteries) was Blair Cemetery but after going through my photos, I discovered two stops I totally forgot about on the way to Blair. The first one is Pilger.

Pilger Cemetery is just off the corner of Highway 275 and 574th Ave. Pilger itself is tiny. The current population is around 350. Brothers Charles and Mitchell Sharp were the first settlers in 1865 near Humbug Creek, a tributary of the Elkhorn River. They returned to Omaha to spend the winter, but came back the following spring with other families.

Pilger stands on what was the Peter Schauble homestead. The first residence, a log cabin built by Andrew Schauble, later became a stage coach station. A post office, established in July 1868, was given the name “Canton.”

In 1874, John Peter Pilger and his wife purchased 160 acres along the Elkhorn. Five years later, when the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad was being planned, the Pilgers sold their land and moved to Stanton.

Pilger’s main street in the early 1900s. Photo source: University of Nebraska (Lincoln), Center for Advanced Land Management Information Technologies (CALMIT)

In May 1879, bonds were issued to help build the railroad through the county. A depot was built immediately and the first train arrived in Pilger on September 15, 1879. The following year, the Pioneer Townsite Company purchased the land, platted the town, and managed the sale of lots. Records indicate that the name of the post office was not changed to “Pilger” until July 1884.

Pilger Cemetery is located on a rather steep hillside. I recommend parking at the top to get a nice view.

During the village’s centennial celebrations in the 1980s, the motto “the tiny town too tough do die” was born. It was meant to celebrate the fact that through many decades of change, Pilger had managed to survive despite having a small population.

That motto was put to the test on June 16, 2014 when twin tornadoes destroyed about 75 percent of Pilger’s homes and businesses. Two people died and 16 were injured. To get an idea of how bad it was, take a look at these photos and a map of the town.

Pilger is still in the long process of rebuilding but they are determined to not let the tragedy snuff out their small town.

A little girl is pulled out of a basement after twin tornadoes hit Pilger, Neb. in June 2014. Photo source: Mark Farnik, Associated Press

Pilger Cemetery is not hard to find and is located against a somewhat steep hillside. It made for good exercise. According to Find a Grave, there are about 1,400 marked graves. There looks to be room for plenty of future burials.

Pilger Cemetery’s most famous resident is Major League Baseball player Lyle Forrest “Bud” Tinning. I didn’t know that when we stopped to visit. His marker is very simple so it didn’t stand out. His mother, a member of the pioneering Allison family of Stanton City, died in childbirth when he was two.

A Pilger native, Lyle Forrest “Bud” Tinning struck out Babe Ruth in 1932.

Bud attended Pilger High School for two years but quit to help his father on the family farm. In the summer, Bud played baseball with country teams on local sandlots or in pastures. He was first noticed by professional baseball scouts while pitching for the Genoa town team, and began his professional career with the Omaha Packers, a franchise in the Western League.

1934 Goudey baseball card of Bud Tinning of the Chicago Cubs as #71.

Bud played professional baseball from 1932 to 1935 as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. In the 1932 World Series, Bud pitched three shutout innings against the Yankees in two relief appearances, and struck out Babe Ruth. The Baseball Almanac described Bud as “a crafty pitcher who started about one third of his games”.

This photo of Bud Tinning’s grave is from Find a Grave so I didn’t actually see it during my visit.

An injury in 1935 ended Bud’s career, although he had a brief comeback attempt in the minor leagues. He served as a minor league manager for several years. During his baseball years, Bud regularly returned to his hometown of Pilger to visit. Bud died of a heart attack in 1961. He and his wife, Inez, had no children.

The monument for the three Olk children got my attention during out visit. All died quite young.

Jacob Olk, a native of Germany, arrived in Nebraska in the 1880s and opened the Pioneer Blacksmith and Repair Shop. His younger brother, Theodore, came over in 1888 and opened an implement shop. Theodore was 31 at the time and a bachelor.

At some point before 1913, Theodore married a fellow German immigrant named Marianna. Only a teenager, she was 31 years his junior. Together, they had three children: Gretchen, Evelyn and Bernhard.

The longest living Olk child was Bernhard, who lived to the age of five.

Gretchen, the youngest, lived the shortest time. Born in October 1916, she died less than a month later. Cause of death is not known.

But her siblings Bernhard and Evelyn may have died of the Spanish Flu. Bernhard, who was born in July 1913, died on Dec. 18, 1918. His sister, Evelyn, was born in October 1915. She died only a day after her brother on Dec. 19, 1918. If the Olks had any other children, they did not survive. According to future U.S. Census records, Theodore and Marianna had no children living with them.

A Madonna graces the monument for the three Olk children.

Theodore outlived his younger wife and died at the age of 88 in 1955. Marianna died at the age of 51 in 1947.

There were several lamb-topped markers signifying the graves of children at Pilger. But this kneeling lamb was a little different than the others.

Alta Belle Foy was only three years old when she died.

John and Minnie Foy were the parents of little Alta Belle. She had two brothers and two sisters, along with a sibling who had died before her birth. Alta Belle died at the age of three for unknown reasons. Most of John and Minnie’s children would survive into adulthood.

This little lamb’s face stayed with me.

Not far from Alta Belle’s marker is one for Fern Caauwe. She was born on Aug. 31, 1908 and died only a few months later. I’ve seen doves on graves quite often but not usually on an infant’s grave. It was still just as poignant.

A cousin of Fern’s, Clara Caauwe, is buried nearby. She was only two when she died.

The last picture I took at Pilger was randomly chosen. For some reason, Otto Melcher’s monument got my attention. He died at the age of 35, the prime of his life.

Otto and his siblings were born in Nebraska, their German parents having emigrated some years before. He married Anna Woehler in 1906 and their only daughter, Olga, was born a year later.

Several Melchers settled in Pilger and the surrounding area.

For reasons unknown, Otto died in 1909. Anna and Olga moved in with Anna’s parents, William and Doris Woehler. Anna died in 1911 and Olga continued to live with her grandparents.

I was hoping for a happy ending for Olga but she, too, would die fairly young. She married Waldeman Nissen in Sioux City, Iowa in 1923. She and Waldeman had four children. One died in infancy, one died at the age of 19, and the other two lived well into their 70s. Olga died at the age of 23, about four months after the birth of her last child. She is buried at Pilger Cemetery with her parents, husband and two of her children.

On the end of that visit, standing on a hillside looking out across the graves and nearby farms, I was grateful that I’d made it to (almost) 48. So many of the people buried at Pilger didn’t have that blessing. But the ones that did kept the town going. And many of their descendants stayed to continue that effort.

Even twin tornadoes won’t keep Pilger down. It’s just too tough to die.

 

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