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September 2005

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CENTERVILLE CEMETERY FROM 1869 TO 2005

This article is taken from the program given by Joan Wittstruck
at the September 26, 2005 Denton Community Historical Society meeting.

I like county cemeteries.  The  big ones overwhelm me, but the small rural cemeteries seem to invite me to take my time and inspect every tombstone.  Centerville, naturally, is my favorite.  Eight generations of Wittstrucks are buried there along with fiends, neighbors, and other relatives.  It reminds me to the theme song of the TV show "Cheers"--a place where everybody knows your name.

The cemetery was platted in 1869 by Henry C. Spellman on land he owned in section 16 of Centerville Precinct--2.44 acres.  However, the first burials occurred three years later, when Henry's mother, Margaret, age 86 and daughter Eleanore, age 8, were interred there in 1872.  Mary Ann Wittstruck, wife of Julius who homesteaded at Centerville, died in 1873 but was buried on the farm, as was customary in those days.  Later, perhaps when Julius was convinced that the cemetery on the Spellman farm, was, in fact, going to be used by the community, Mary Ann's remains were moved there.

Centerville was incorporated in 1927 and in 1928 adjacent land was purchased from the Spellman family at a price of $150.00 per acre--a total of $190.00--bringing the size to approximately three and a half acres.  As part of the sales agreement, John S. and Sam Spellman were to receive the free lots.  From the time of the platting--1869-- and the incorporation in 1928--no official records were found.  The first board members were B.G. Miller, President;  John A. Spellman, Secretary Treasurer;  F.W. Krull;  Emil Beck and W.J. Faig.  Lots with perpetual care were priced at $100.  C. H. Wittstruck apparently served as Secretary prior to incorporation as the first recorded minutes were written by him.  Many board members came and went but John Spellman managed the cemetery as Secretary Treasurer for fifty years.

The little cemetery was growing at a goodly pace--according to the list of lot owners.  Then three events occurred which slowed its growth for almost 70 years. One was the migration of many original families during the Dust Bowl of the 1930's.  The second was the establishment of Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery in 1927.  The Lincoln Memorial salesman hit the country roads, canvassing the small towns and farms, warning folks that their local cemeteries were destined to be forgotten weed patches.  Dwayne Wittstruck recalls the salesman coming again and again.  His parents finally fibbed that they already owned lots in Centerville Cemetery, just to get rid of him.  The salesman's persistence paid off, because many in the area purchased Lincoln Memorial lots, including some who had previously owned lots in Centerville cemetery. When Dwayne became a member of the board in 1989, everyone on the board owned lots in Lincoln Memorial.  The "farm crisis" of the 1980's was the third event that slowed Centerville's' growth.  Empty farmsteads and the migration to the cities made it appear that perhaps those Lincoln Memorial Salesmen were right.  But the little cemetery carried on, slow and steady and persevering.

What makes Centerville Cemetery special are all the interesting people there.  You'll find names of pioneer homesteaders and their descendants.  I counted thirty three Spellmans, twenty Wittstrucks, over twenty Krulls, Buettenbaughs, Geselmans, lots of Bargmans, Hollmans, Zimmermans, Freyes, Bohls, Bohmonts, Kruegers, etc.  Folks who settled her and stayed for generations.  There are quite a few Civil War veterans.  What stories they could tell.  One I'm well aware of is Henry Armann, Dwayne Wittstruck's grandfather.  Henry was a member of the 56th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  He fought at Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, the Red River campaign, was shot in the hand and through the head, rejoined his unit and marched to the sea with General Sherman.  After the war he ran a general store and a brewery. Came to Nebraska in 1880--bought 240 acres in Section 17 Centerville  Precinct and had the good sense to marry Regina Livingston.  What a book, or movie, his life would make.  Makes our lives seem pretty dull, by comparison.  And there are many more stories like his in the Centerville "congregation".

There are also "historical" figures in the cemetery.  The first permanent settlers in Lancaster County, John and Margaret Prey, also their son and daughter-in-law are there.  The Preys farmed their homesteads for some thirty years--through the 1880's.   Recently a descendant had a new monument erected between John and Margaret's.  On the back are the names of their twelve children.  But although they were first, none  remain in the area. 

"George Washington" can also be found in our cemetery.  That's George Washington DeBolt.  He was a brother of Mary Ann Wittstruck, wife of Julius. Their maternal grandfather was a French physician, Captain Armand Vogluson, who served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War.  George Washington Debolt followed his sister to Nebraska but died two year later at age 22,  He is buried next to Mary Ann.

Like all cemeteries, Centerville embraces the very old, and sadly the very young.  The names of six Krull children appear on one monument, the children of Frank and Adeline Krull.  Two died in Iowa, three in Missouri and the last one, Elizabeth, in Nebraska.  After the death of Elizabeth the remains of the others were brought to Centerville so the family could be together.  Anita Lampila, granddaughter of Roy and Anita Spellman contributed research that suggests Elizabeth, age 12 was killed by Indians in 1892. The family had gone out to work in the fields, all except Elizabeth, who remained at the house  They saw a group of Indians ride through and when they returned to the house, they found the daughter "hurt" by the Indians.  She was taken to a hospital in Lincoln but died several days later.  There are so many other little ones--so many sad stories.

More recently, the community was shocked by the tragic deaths of Kirk and Brady Wendelin, sons of Scott and Diane.  They were killed on their way to school on a foggy October morning three years ago, when their car was struck by a truck.  The boys' gravesite became a shrine for their grieving family,  I'm proud to say that the sympathetic policies of the Centerville Cemetery board allowed them to express their grief in ways that probably wouldn't have been permitted in most other cemeteries.

I'm not aware of any murderers buried here but there are two, possibly four, murder victims.  The first occurred in 1882 when nine year old Gertie Beriman was killed by her adoptive parents, Frederick and Margaret Classen of Hallam.  She had been overworked, underfed and physically abused by the couple and after her death, witnesses came forward to describe the horrible condition of her body.  It was decided that her body be exhumed and examined with the result that the Classens were charged with her death.  The details were reported in the Nebraska State Journal and reprinted in the Hickman Voice.  After the story was published, Butherus, Maser and Love donated a marker for the poor murdered child.  It was placed among other Bergsman's at Centerville.  Although her name was spelled differently, it was thought that she might have been related.

In a macabre twist, Mrs. Classen, who was known in the Hallam area as a witch, planned to be buried sitting in her rocker.  She had the rocker placed in a cement lined vault in the Hallam cemetery. They attempted to fulfill her wishes, but had to break the vault to open it, the rocker was broken and the vault full of water.  There was no record of any jail time for the pair.  the second murder victim was Jeremiah Peck, shot to death in 1894 by Arch Jones.  His wife, Helen Peck, died forty years later.  Both were buried at Centerville.

Many of you will remember the story of the Blockowitz brothers, George and John, who died in a fire in their farmhouse on Wittstruck road on May 5, 1966.  The cause of death was listed as asphyxiation, burns and trauma, but many believe they were murdered.  George and John were bachelor farmers who were very frugal to a fault.  Dwayne Wittstruck recalls that they had a truck and a car, but one battery that they switched  between them.. Their brother Frank attempted to become their guardian, stating in court that they hid their money, rather than putting it into a bank. So when their charred bodies were found in the ashes of their house, rumors abounded.  The mail carrier stated that one of the brothers was always at the mailbox when he arrived.  That morning he thought it strange that neither one was there.  Also, if you died in your sleep of asphyxiation why would your body show signs of trauma?  Most believe the brothers were held inside their house, tortured until they revealed the whereabouts of their money, then murdered and the house set on fire to cover the deeds.  No trace of the money was ever found, not for the lack of trying so it stands to reason that they murderers made off with it.

Centerville has also had a death occurring during, or slightly after a funeral.  It happened in 1940. A funeral service was held for Roy Spellman, great-grandson of the cemetery's founder, husband of Anita Zimmerman Spellman and father of four young children.  Shortly after the internment, Anita's father, William Zimmerman, collapsed and died on his son-in-laws grave.

On a lighter note, some of the headstones remind me of amusing stories, such as Charley Wittstruck courting Lena Krull until his father, Julius, ordered him to break it up because "he didn't like red-headed women".  So there lies Charles and his wife Amelia directly across from Lena and her husband Hubert Frohn in almost identical above ground vaults.  And to top it off, Charley's son, Harlan, married Lena's' red headed daughter, Leona, and Julius wasn't around to say anything about it.  Teresa Sullivan contributed the interesting fact that Charles Krull was the areas "first manufacturer of salt," according to his obituary.  And Fred Krull weighed 400 pounds when he died in 1888 at age 62.  God only knows what other facts are buried with the folks in Centerville, some trivial and others important.

Through the years Centerville Cemetery has been under the care and guidance of able, dedicated people, and thanks to the repopulation of the area, it is growing like the weeds those Lincoln Memorial salesman predicted would cover it.  New names are popping up among the predominately German ones.  We became multi-cultural a few years ago, when Maria Lopez was laid to rest. It seems she and her husband "Puri" lived in Martell at one time.  During the past 75 years we find that B.G. Miller, Bill Faig, and Harvey Beck served as president for ten years or more.  More recently, President Clarence Freye left his mark on the cemetery.  He spent countless hours indexing and straightening out the grounds. He made all the markers using cement stamped with numbers and rebar so they could be easily found with a metal detector, and platted the unmarked sections.  After 50 years of service, John A. Spellman turned the reins of Secretary Treasurer over to Carol Krueger in 1976.   Carol undertook the marathon job of straightening out the books and runs the association like a CEO, only she's not paid like one!  She probably knows more about the cemetery than anyone and we hope she'll keep the job another 20 years of more.  Joining Carol on the board today are Mike Mitchell, President Rodney Hollman, Lynn Freye, Vise President, and Dwayne Wittstruck.

They have obtained an easement on land owned by Ron and Judeen Oelling that will almost double the cemetery's size as soon as needed and it is filling up fast.  A recent improvement is a covered directory stand built by Justin Popek, a Hickman boy scout, with help from his Troop #64,  President Mike Mitchell put a lot of work into making it easy to find where the graves are, who the lot owners are and who are buried in each plot.  A couple of weeks ago two women from Puyallup, Washington were able to find the grave of their ancestor, Reverend Albrecht, even though he doesn't have a stone, thanks to the directory.  And thanks to Mike.

It's nice to see that the newer monuments list the wife's maiden name and sometimes the names of the children.  It's a big help to genealogists.  And it's time that women received proper recognition.  Henry Zimmerman must have been a forward looking man.  When his wife, Magdalena, died in 1913, he had her maiden name, Freye, engraved on their stone. I think I would have liked Henry.

I hope that you have learned a little bit about the history and inhabitants of Centerville Cemetery. If you haven't been there lately, I invite you so do so.  Take your time, browse, and you'll find that Centerville is not only a place of rest, but a place of inspiration.

Joan Wittstruck dressed up for the 2012 Centerville Cemetery tour as a woman might have dressed for a funeral years ago.  Remember when no self respecting woman went out without a hat.  The photos were taken by Eunice Cenohlavek  who takes pictures of all our events to be placed in our archives.


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