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Arts & Life

Colorado Historical Group Seeks To Remember Children From Unmarked Graves

Stacy Nick
Bethene Ainsworth and Pauli Smith stand over the grave of Paul Torries.

Amid the 50 or so headstones at Highlandlake Pioneer Cemetery, visitors can find some interesting characters.

There’s Mary Bumstead, Colorado’s second female Congregational pastor; Paul Mead, who founded the town of Mead; and Charlie Waite, a precocious 12-year-old.

“He didn’t always listen to his elders, and he decided to go out onto the ice on the lake and fell through and drowned,” said Pauli Smith, president of Historic Highlandlake Inc., which owns the cemetery.

Smith can tell you the history behind every headstone here. But there are some residents of the cemetery that even Smith can’t tell you about.

“Since 2010, we’ve known the children were here,” she said.

That year, researchers from the University of Denver used cadaver dogs and ground-penetrating radar to scan the cemetery. On the east side of the property, they found 120 bodies. Based on the sizes, they determined that most of them were children.

“There are graves on top of graves, butted up against each (other), graves catty-corner -- they’re not even straight,” Smith said. “It was almost impossible to distinguish one from another.”

The field where they were found is known as Potter’s Field, it was the area of the cemetery for those too poor to afford the $1 fee for an official plot in the cemetery.

Thanks to donated records from the family of the town’s founders, there is a little information about some of those buried there. Of the 45 they have burial records on, most of the children -- many of whom died during or around the Depression -- were stillborn, or died from malnutrition or pneumonia.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
There are 120 unmarked graves in Potter's Field in the Highlandlake Pioneer Cemetery.

“That was a really hard time and the majority of these children were children of field workers,” Smith said.

Many of the families were brought to Colorado by the “boxcar-load” by the Great Western Railroad Co. They worked long hours in the sugar beet fields.

“What gets me, some of these -- their parents didn’t even get to hear their babies cry,” she said. “And then they had to take them out here in this -- what was an inactive cemetery -- and bury them and not even be able to give them a stone or something to recognize that they existed.”

At the time, there was also no official undertaker, which meant no real supervision as to where bodies should be buried.

“They just kind of pointed out: ‘There’s Potter’s Field; go find a spot,’” Smith said.

While there were no headstones, at one time there were wooden crosses marking many of the sites. But in the 1970s, a fire came through the area, burning the markers and leaving the graves a mystery -- except for one.

Paul Torres’s grave has a small stone with a wooden cross precariously set atop it. According to his burial certificate, in 1940 he died of acute encephalitis. He was 3 years, four months and 21 days old.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
A marker for Paul Torries.

Since 1996, Pauli Smith has been trying to find out more information about Paul and the other children and adults buried without a marker in Pioneer Cemetery. She’s particularly eager to find photos, but even after more than 20 years of researching, she still only has a handful.

“Somehow just being able to see a picture of somebody makes them real. I love genealogy but just names and dates is nothing to me,” Smith said. “I want the stories. I want the pictures and the stories, and that’s what brings them alive and makes them real people.”

Mead resident Bethene Ainsworth wants to know those stories, too.

“There’s gotta be somebody out there that knows something. You know?” said Ainsworth, who regularly goes to the cemetery to help pull weeds and volunteers with the historic organization. “Those stories get passed down and then they kind of get lost, and if somebody has one of those stories, it would be great to know it.”

While Ainsworth can’t give each child a marker, she is working to make sure these children are remembered. As part of a fundraiser, she and Smith are part of an effort to sell bricks that will be used to create a memorial path through Potter’s Field.

“People who come here 50 years from now will know that there are over 100 children here in unmarked graves that now aren’t forgotten,” Ainsworth said.

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