History of The Nezperce Russell Cemetery District

(The following history is “as-is” with minor corrections written by Bert Ralstin)
History of the Organization of the Cemetery District – 1948-1986

By Bert Ralstin
Commissioner and Manager from 1949-1986

Our first purpose in beautifying the cemeteries was to honor the homesteaders and pioneers who had spent hard years building a home, fencings, breaking the sod with three horses pulling a one bottom plow (called a foot burner), developing the country roads and communications, and also getting the graves dug and burying their loved ones, when weather and roads-–snow in winter and rain and mud in the spring—made it almost impossible.

There were no undertakers or mortuaries, and no one knows how many babies and old people were buried on the land, the homestead. I know of one burial on the land that I now own in the Mohler area. William Burghardt, homesteader, buried his wife’s mother in the corner of a new orchard, close to the house. The grave was unmarked and lost.

Most homesteaders filed in 1895 and brought their families in the spring of 1896. They built a cabin, probably out of 1” x 12” with 1” x 4” bats, and then tried to develop water. A few had springs, but most dug a well on a wet spot, hauled water in a barrel, and eventually made a pond for livestock water, a fence, and planted a garden. My folks had a well drilled around 1902 by Forest Beamer. They didn’t need roads to get to the place that they had filed on; they came across the prairie on higher ground. But that soon changed when every quarter section, 160 acres, was fenced and all travel concentrated Hon section lines. In Two years there was a family on every 160 acres and sometimes on an 80 acre plot.

Mohler had an estimated population of 400, actually nearer 300. Nezperce had 1000 to 20000. Mohler school had 43 students and when I started to Sunset School in 1902 we had 39, all grades in one room.

The settlers had to solve their own road problems, using horses on a plow and scraper, pick and shovel, and used 2” x 12” plank lumber called bridge plank. Every mile of road had several places the water would run across the road in the spring. The road in the wet places became belly deep to a horse, and a favorite expression was, “That mud hole would mire a saddle blanket.”

Life was hard. The Monday wash was done on a washboard or a hand-cranked washing machine, after carrying the wash water to the stove and heating the stove with wood that had to be gotten and generally green or wet. Boiling the washing in a wash boiler was a common practice. The first telephone line was the top wire on the fence, and that was 1903 or 1905. Electricity came to the area in 1938,–42 years after the pioneers. Every family had outdoor toilets and nor refrigeration.

I was interested in the Nezperce City Cemetery because many from the Old Mohler community were buried there: Brannon, Seehorn, Biggart, Brock, Lundeby, Rugle, Sumpter, Denney, Duuck, Turnbow, Harbke, Ralstin, Henderson, Ben Elliot, Fifer, McCallister, Looney, Perrine, Senter, Younger, Boyer.

In a few years after the reservation was opened for homesteading, there were fifteen or more cemeteries started in Lewis County. All were cared for by families of those buried there, and Decoration Day was the Day. Many graves had no care, year after year, because the family had moved away. In the fall of 1948 Pat Hartnett and I made an appointment with congressman Jacob Jennings of Cottonwood, Idaho, to find out the law about organizing Cemetery Districts.

The Cemetery District was organized on the same basis as a Road District Governor C.H. Robbins appointed Pat Hartnett, Henry Gertje, and myself as commissioners to start the Nezperce Russell Cemetery District. The size of the district was determined by property owners voting themselves in or out. The voters voted out Mohler, Fletcher, and Steele, and Gilbert was in Clearwater County. All those in the west end were not included.

Pat Hartnett was commissioner of district 2, which included Mount Calvary, The Nezperce Catholic Cemetery. He also acted as Secretary-Treasurer until 1973. Fred Vogel was elected to take his place as commissioner in 1975. Ellamae Fischer was Secretary-Treasurer from 1972.

Henry Gertje was commissioner of District 3, which included Russell Cemetery and he served until 1973 when Earnest Fischer was elected to take his place.

I was commissioner in district 1, which included the Nezperce City Cemetery. I served until 1986, when Elmer Johnson was elected to take my place.

The Nezperce City Cemetery had 621 burials on 6 acres; the Nezperce Catholic Cemetery had 103 burials on one acre; and Russell Catholic Cemetery had 23 on less than ½ acre.

Henry Gertje, with the help of neighbors William Braun, Ed Braun, Larry Braun, and Emile Braun, worked on the Russel Cemetery. They removed lilac bushes, cultivated, leveled and seeded to blue grass. They took the best of the four-foot woven wire from the Nezperce City Cemetery, built and painted a four-foot fence using 4” x 6” posts, eight foot spacing with a 2” x 4” top rail. When the posts started to rot off, we took a heavy two-inch angle iron four feet long, drove the angle iron down beside the post and bolted them together. We have painted the fence several times, once using Billy Braun’s pickup for power when using an air gun.

Larry Braun moved and fertilized the lawn for several years and then we came out from Nezperce, seven and one half miles, with the cemetery mower and sweeper. No trees were planted on the Russell Cemetery.

Pat Hartnett took charge of the first work done on the Mount Calvary Catholic, with the help of many in the church, especially the Carl Bubel family. They lined up the monuments, taking out the large granite base and replacing it with a concrete base that extended out eight inches so the lawn mowers would not hit the stone.

In two years or so they had the concrete bases under the stones, the ground cultivated and leveled, the water pipes installed, and the lawn seeded. In 1954 and 1955 we got water into the cemetery.

Roy Miller owned the Nezperce water system, and we arranged to have a two-inch galvanized water line run from the storage tank on the hill west of Nezperce, across the field and hooked into the Nezperce water system in front of Harold Stapelton’s (sic)home. We had enough pressure to run two or three sprinklers.

They improved the mound on which the cross was mounted. The total trees planed were two blue spruce next to the cross, three blossoming crab and three hawthorn and two other blossoming trees and several arborvitae.

In 1958 we added the concrete curb along the center driveway and around the cross area and a walk and steps to the cross. Harold Stapelton (sic) gave us twelve feet of land on the east side to make a driveway. In 1975 we installed a chainlink fence six feet high.

Mr. J.H. Mowry established the Nezperce City Cemetery, which joins the city (sic) of Nezperce on the south, in 1898. The Nezperce Rochdale, Depot, and the Flour Mill owned by Jim Wright, was also on the Mowrey quarter. He first located the cemetery on the southeast corner on the hill, but there was rock, so it was changed to the southwest corner, the present site.

Millia A. Mowry, his wife, 1869-1897, was only twenty-eight years old when she died in 1987. She was probably buried on the hill on the southeast corner and then moved to her present grave. The writing on her grave concrete base is—“First grave in Nezperce Cemetery. 1898.” Pearl Heston, her daughter, insisted that her mother was the first grave in the cemetery.

Mr. Mowry sold Block A in the ten grave lots, 50 feet long, price $5.00 per grave lot. The width should be 6 feet for the grave and 4 feet for a walkway, which makes 10 feet wide. The width varies several feet because no corners were established and marked.

Block B was sold in five grave lots,–fifty feet had two five grave lots. At the end of every 50 foot lot was a 4½ foot alley or walkway. It was the same in Block A. Many of the 5 and 10 grave lots had only one burial; the family had moved away.

The Cemetery Commissioners agreed that if there was only one burial on a 5 or 10 grave lot and the owner or family could be located, we would ask them to give us back the unused graves in exchange for permanent care, and if we could not find a family member, and the sale had not been recorded in the court house, we would repossess and sell them again, retaining one for the family.

When Mr. Mowry left Nezperce he probably left the responsibility of looking after the cemetery to the city (sic) Nezperce, and when we took it over in 1949, one of the city commissioners had the cemetery as their responsibility and a small tax for the cemetery was levied on the city properties.

In 1915 they had no lots to sell so they bought more ground on the east side of the present cemetery,–two lots, C and D, a little smaller than A and B. Between the lots A and B and lots C and D was a road which was not included in the blueprint in either A,B or C,D.

During the flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919, when so many died with no place provided for their burial, they were buried in the roadway on the north side of the center driveway, adding the name to the list with no description as to where, and marking the grave with a wooden marker. During the depression, someone thought to use the W.P.A. and burn the grass off the cemetery, which they did, and burned the wooden markers. We now have over 900 graves, 47 unknown.

When we took over in 1949, I was given two books by the city,–a hard-backed book with blueprint maps of all four blocks, A,B,C,D, with owners’ names, and a soft-backed book dated 1911 with many pages gone, and only a few stubs from burial certificates. From the blueprint a family could find their lot on the map but with no corners established, where was it in the cemetery?

The first work program at the city cemetery was lining up the stones. Albert Huff had been undertaker in Nezperce for several years and he had the best knowledge of where a burial was located. The cemetery program was started in 1949. In a year or two, Lloyd Stevens, who was depot agent for the railroad, told me a grave marker or memorial was in the depot and had been there since he had been manager. The grave marker was for the twins of Mr. and Mrs. George Funkhouser, who had died in 1921. We installed it, a very nice stone with a lot of information written on it.

The first thing that I did before any work was done in the city cemetery was to make a rough pencil plot with ownership and burials. Albert Huff and I spent several days making that plot and from that pencil copy and many trips to the cemetery, my family,–Grace by wife, and daughters Joyce and Phyllis,–made a large book showing every burial plot in Blocks A,B,C and part of D. Block A had 600 grave plots, Block B, 800, Block C, 420, and part of Block D, 200, over 2000 total. This record book is still in use as a reference book. Many thanks to the girls and their mother for the many hours they spent. It is still the best book to show people where their graves are located.

In 1980 the record book that we made and completed in 1952 was getting badly worn, so we made a new book about half the size of the first book: instead of showing all of Block A on one page we had the same information on two pages. I also made a small book that showed the original owner, present owner, and burials. This book I carried with me.

Over the years we corrected printed records to fit the actual burials. For this book, Clarence Nau and I went over the cemetery with a tape and once again corrected our records. Joyce came home and drew the dividing lines for the plots, 2300 graves. No easy job. Thanks again for a job well done. Ellamae Fischer, our Secretary-Treasurer, wrote in the names.

When the Nezperce Russell Cemetery Association was organized, the cemetery had been in use fifty years, and 24 concrete curbs from ground level to one foot high were made around family plots and some were fifty feet long. These curbs had to be removed before the monuments could be lined up and concrete bases made, leveling and seeding the lawn and installing sprinkler system.

Many volunteers came to help and Howard Hess came with his Cat tractor to help with the curbs. Many family markers were set in the middle of the family plot, and we were able to change all but three. They are still in the way for mowing, sweeping and sprinkling. Many of the early graves had marble foot-of-the-grave markers.

In 1951 and 1952, Fred Cook from Lewiston lined the monuments and installed a concrete base under them. Some were too large to move. The concrete base extended out 8 inches from the granite or marble monument. It was one of our most expensive projects, close to $4000.00.

There was a large pile of grave dirt and cans piled in the corner that the Prairie Highway men loaded and hauled away. They helped every few years to remove our surplus grave dirt; the city also helped with the dirt removal.

The first mower that we bought was an International wheel tractor with sickle mower mounted on the side that cost us $825.00. Dwight Hunter remembers that he mowed weeds and tall grass in both Nezperce cemeteries. We cultivated, pulled the walking plow to make our ditches for the water pipe, and pulled the two wheel cart to haul our water pipe and plumbing equipment to install the sprinkling system. In 1954 after we had the lawn seeded, we had very little for the tractor and mower to do, so we gave it to the city of Nezperce and Vonley James told me the city still has it.

In 1952 we drilled a well. A.W. McEnroy from Lewiston did the drilling. We had several different people water-witch for water. The well was located along the east fence about five rods from the northeast corner. The first 100 feet was through a decomposed granite formation, and the well caved in. He filled the well with concrete and drilled through the concrete. At 312 feet we had struck some water. We had run out of money, so we sent to Spokane for a test pump. After a twenty-four hour test, we only had 21 gallons per minute and we hoped for fifty. The drilling cost $1818.41, the test pump $265.00, casing $90.21, and the submersible pump $1044.88. The total expense was $3238.75.

We decided to build a 20’x 20’x 6’ storage tank and build a garage and storage shed over the tank. I am now sure that was the right way to go. Joe Wissink dug the hole. When pouring the concrete into the forms, one form broke on the west side. We had a bad leak, which we painted with asphalt many times, but each year a repeat,–water in Mrs. Carlson’s field. Finally we lined the tank with heavy black plastic, but that did not stop the leak.

In the spring we always pumped out the water to clean the floor. The water tank is mostly under ground so when I pumped the water from inside the tank, ground water from outside ran back in. After stopping the pump I immediately went down the ladder and I could hear water running against the plastic. The water was coming in from outside, a stream about the size of a lead pencil, about two feet from the floor, and on the opposite side from where the forms broke. I had found the leak after about twenty years.

The ground in both Nezperce cemeteries sloped one way so the pipes could be drained. We dug the ditches in the city cemetery with a tractor pulling a one bottom walking plow, eight to ten inches deep. We installed a 2” galvanized pipe half way up the east fence to the center driveway, and then down the center driveway to the front of the cemetery and to the highway. We branched off the 2” pipe with 1¼” to 1”, using less 1¼ “ pipe, the closer we got to the storage tank. We installed a 7½ h.p. pump at the reservoir and had no trouble running 10 fifty foot sprinklers. The sprinklers could be set either direction with excellent performance, because of the large pipe.

In 1953 & 1954 the state highway from Nezperce to Grangeville, No. 162, was widened and paved. In 1960 the front of the cemetery was changed. The three driveway entrances were regraded and the first line of sprinklers had to be replaced. We replaced the pipe with all one inch instead of most of the pipe 1¼”, because of the cost, but you could see the difference when sprinkling.

The widening of the highway and changing the front of the cemetery was quite an expense to us, but the oiled road more than made up the cost. The dust was bad all summer but in harvest the lawn was like walking in a dust bed. The cost of operating the mowers was much greater. At the Catholic cemetery we had similar dust problems, and although we tried several ways, we never did quite solve the problem.

After getting the grave stones lined up with concrete bases and the 24 cubs out, I spent two summers getting the ground ready to plant the lawn. I was very fortunate that the city of Nezperce had a small self-propelled power grader which Art Keith let me use. There were mounds of grave dirt and sunken graves over most of the large 6-acre cemetery, and again I say thanks to the city.

At the end of the second summer the ground was in perfect shape to seed the lawn. In February or March when the ground became bare of snow, I hand-broadcast a mixture of ½ blue grass and ½ rec creeper fescue. We bought the blue grass, but the fescue was No. 1 screenings that we had grown on the ranch. It needed no cultivation after seeding; the rain covered the seed. We had a perfect stand of grass.

Our first lawn mower was a 26 inch reel-type and a three foot pull-type sweeper. It didn’t take long for the lawn to outgrow them. We later bought and International Cub 42 inch mower and a power vacuum sweeper, 42” wide, Box 4’ x 4’ x 8’ that proved very successful. In the years to 1986 we bought three more International Cub tractor mowers. The first one we kept and mounted a sprayer, the second we kept as a second mower or to pull the sweeper, the third we traded in, and in 1986 the fourth mower was traded in for a John Deere.

Many people have told us that the Nezperce and Russell Cemeteries were the most beautiful in this part of Idaho and Washington. The city cemetery has a solid row of evergreen trees planted twenty feet apart (now touching each other) about 30 feet high, on three sides….a peaceful place to drive your car, shade any time of day, and spend a half hour meditating about your family, your friends, your Creator, and when Jesus is returning.

In 1967 we contracted to buy city water, as the submersible pump was not giving us enough water. We had two foot ditch dug in the road right-of-way south from Rochdale to the cemetery. It crossed the highway to the cemetery through a culvert, and on to the storage tank through Mrs. Carlson’s field.

We then installed a two-inch plastic pipe to the cemetery. The water free-flowed into the tank when we were sprinkling and had turned it on. The plastic pipe was over one-fourth mile long. The storage tank would be filled at night from the well and shut itself off. When we started the sprinklers, the city water was turned on into the tank and the submersible pump started. We could run ten fifty-foot sprinklers for eight to nine hours. We tried to cover the cemetery once a week by changing the setting twice a day.

We followed the recommendation, in most cases, of the Nezperce Garden Club about planting trees. The Garden Club bought most of the deciduous trees and we planted them in groups of three in the city cemetery: twelve blossoming crab, nine hawthorn, eleven cutleaf birch, and three native birch. The evergreens were planted on three sides: twenty-five fir, eleven ponderosa pine and two black pine. My sister, Goldie Berger, gave the cemetery the trees and shrubs for all there driveway entrances at the city cemetery.

The owners of the Winchester Mill, Hollock and Howard, gave us permission to dig the evergreen trees on the logged-off land south of Winchester. The timber had been logged off for several years with no pasturing with livestock,–perfect for young trees,–and today they have uniform beauty.

A part of around eight people took their lunches, dug, balled, and tied a string on the south side of each tree so every tree would be exposed to the same sun when replanted. Gorden Daily remembered the string and I remembered leaving Dennis Giles digging holes at the city cemetery. We dug a total of 38 fir and 13 pine for the tow cemeteries.

To have a place to plant trees along the south side of the city cemetery we exchanged some grave lots with Lola Chandler for a 12 foot strip from her field. In the city cemetery the pine trees were planted on the north side, from the building to the highway.

When the trees were around 30 feet high, some kind of a beetle started to drain the sap from the two black pines next to the building, and threatened all the pines. The University of Idaho’s Extension Service said that we would lose all of them. We didn’t have spray equipment that would reach the top of the trees so the Nezperce Storage helped us out. Thanks to them and the persistence of Clarence Nau, we saved them all.

Lightning hit the big fire that stands just inside the cemetery at the center driveway. The lightning hit close to the top and left a two inch wide opening through the bark to the sap. The open strip came down the tree to 8 feet from the ground. The tree is still alive.

The settling of the new graves was and is one of the big problems of maintaining a beautiful lawn. When the district was first organized, we made a few rules for the public to follow: 1)  Every new grave had to have a concrete liner around the casket or have a vault (In 1973 we bought a tamper to help settle the grave as it was being filled), 2)  There would be no planting of trees or shrubs around the grave, 3)  Every memorial stone must have a concrete base that extended out eight inches, so the big mower could mow the sides and the trimmer mower could mow between the stones.

The graves were hand dug with pick and shovel for many years after the lawn was seeded.   At first we laid down a heavy tarp to protect the new grass lawn and shoveled the dirt off of it. If it was raining, the heavy tarp was almost impossible to handle.

The next procedure was to make a box using ½ inch plywood 4’x8’. This method helped but didn’t make less work. We were trying to find a method of cutting down hand labor that we could afford. In 1965 Ralph Mitchell was still digging graves by hand.

In 1966 Vonley James started to dig graves with the city backhoe. The Cemetery Association bought a bucket to fit the backhoe that was the exact width of the grave. We had purchased a used Jeep pickup several years before and George Brink, a blacksmith in Nezperce, had built a hoist under the bed and we equipped it with balloon tires. Our other pickup truck was a used International, a larger pickup. Arlie Hill built a hoist on it and equipped it with extra large balloon tires, duals on the back wheels.

Arlie Hill designed and built a two-wheeled trainer with a tip bed that would haul the mower and sweeper at the same time. He also designed and build (sic) a machine to trim the grass sod that grows around the concrete base under the monuments.

We built a platform using a doubled 2” x 12” plank—sized 6’ by 8’. We pulled it out to the grave for the backhoe to turn on, to dig the grave. We used ½ inch plywood to lay down at the Catholic Cemetery to turn the backhoe and also to cover the new graves when we crossed them with a tractor or loaded pickup.


To the many dedicated people who made the cemetery program a success from 1949 to 1986:

The Commissioners who worked without pay or expense money;

The Secretary-Treasurer Ellamae Fischer, who spent many hours keeping the records, and Earnest Fischer, for locating staking many burials;

The Caretakers:     Normie Stillman                       1953 to 1955
                                  Leslie Basket                             1956 to 1959
                                  Wallace Hill                               1960 to 1975
                                  Clarence Nau                             1976 to 1986
                                  Harold Beam                             1975 and 1980
                                 Don Dee Moores                        1975 and 1977
                                 Jim Buttrey                                 1976 and 1977
                                 Dennis Giles                               1953, 1955, 1958;

The carpenters: Bob Wright, Phil Ingram, E.S. Adkinson, Oval Schlader, Howard Belknap;
Jack Colley, who fertilized the cemetery with an airplane most years;
Ralph Mitchell, who dug graves with pick and shovel until 1966;
John Stout, who installed the sprinkling system in the City Cemetery in 1953;
Billy Braun and Larry Braun, who worked at the Russell Cemetery;
Carl Bubel and Family and Fred Vogel, who worked at the Catholic Cemetery.

Compiled by Bert Ralstin, February, 1992