During the decade after 1916, settlers fled the drought-ridden plains of southeastern Alberta en masse. As David C. Jones outlines in his book, We’ll all be buried down here- The Prairie Drybelt Disaster of 1917-1926, homesteaders often alighted with few possessions, many carrying only “the shirts on their backs”.
In some instances settlers were forced to part with something more dear, the remains of loved ones who had passed on, left behind in lonely, sometimes forgotten, prairie graveyards.
“We’ll all be buried down here in this dry belt, if we wait for the government to get us out,” Jones quotes one settler, who expressed his desire to “Quit the Dry Belt” in no uncertain terms:. “And parts of it are desperately desolate places to be buried in.”
One such desperately desolate place was Taylor Cemetery, located in Vulcan County:
Along an unremarkable stretch of road, about seventeen miles northeast of the village of Lomond, lie the forgotten dead of Vulcan County.
On a wind-whipped knoll, just to the north of Secondary Highway 539, a lonely pioneer graveyard endures, as it has for almost a century. Within rest the remains of a forgotten few, the only legacy left by a handful of pioneer families who were driven from these drought-stricken plains after 1916. Today this little cemetery on the prairie holds a mystery, the identities of those laid to rest, and the number of individuals interred here, having been lost over time.
Motorists passing by to the south wouldn’t know a cemetery exists here. No headstones were installed to mark the gravesites. There isn’t even a sign identifying this humble pasture as sacred ground. All that remains are a few sunken indentations in the prairie, and a scattering of weathered wood, strewn amidst the crested wheat grass and clover.
Over the years, families and neighbours have passed down recollections about the occupants of the old graveyard along the highway. George Ketchmark, whose family has farmed the land east of the abandoned cemetery for three generations, has heard a few stories about the forgotten souls buried less than a mile from his doorstep.
“There’s supposed to be a couple of babies buried there, and a mother who passed away in childbirth,” said Ketchmark. “I was told there was a child that was scalded buried there, and another guy who was poisoned.”
As the story goes, one of the early pioneers liked to enjoy a nightcap before retiring for the evening. One night, unbeknownst to him, his wife had moved the whisky bottle, leaving strychnine in its place. Fumbling in the dark, he took a swig, and soon succumbed to its lethal effects.
Concerned a pipeline or seismic crew might disturb the unmarked graves, Ketchmark registered the graveyard with Alberta Land Titles. He named the ground “Taylor Cemetery” after the family who originally homesteaded the land in 1910.
A few years ago, Ketchmark, who currently leases the Taylor quarter from the province, paid several thousand dollars to have ground-penetrating radar scan the property in hopes of identifying the number of graves located there. The results were inconclusive.
Burial records that would reveal the identities of the deceased have either yet to be located or don’t exist. Their next-of-kin are unknown, having joined the exodus of homesteaders from the dry lands west and south of the Bow River after 1916. Any first-person recollections about the individuals who came to rest here, and the circumstances of their deaths, seem to have been buried along with the pioneers who first settled here after 1907.
The most solid evidence pointing to the identity of the occupants of Taylor Cemetery comes from the recollections of Earl Taylor, youngest son of the property’s original homesteader, George Taylor. The Taylors, a family of nine, arrived from Ontario via Oregon in 1910 to join other relatives homesteading in what was then known as the Kinnondale district.
According to a family history written by Earl in the ‘70s, and newspaper accounts of the time, Taylor’s sister, Mary Beatrice, died of tuberculosis in February of 1918, and was buried on the family farm. Shortly afterwards, most of the Taylor family moved north to start life anew in Eckville. Eldest brother, Ernest, stayed for a time, and was later joined by Earl in 1920. Both, however, had vacated the property for good by 1924.
Following the burial of Mary Taylor in 1918, settlers from the surrounding districts continued to use their land as a community cemetery. Different accounts peg the number of individuals buried here in the years that followed between five and 14.
Earl Taylor passed away in 1989, but some of his recollections about the graveyard on the family homestead were preserved. In 1986, Rosemary Koch of Brooks recorded her late father-in-law, Kinnondale pioneer Frank J. Koch, and Earl Taylor discussing the tragic circumstances surrounding individuals who may have been buried at Taylor cemetery. Frank J. Koch told the story of an infant, whose name he could not recall, who was scalded as his father prepared to butcher a pig.
The July 19, 1918 edition of the now-defunct Lomond Press newspaper provided an account of a child who was “fatally burned” at Amethyst (in present day Vulcan County) in July 1919 as his father prepared to butcher a hog.
“[L]ittle Leonard Gould, aged 1 year and three months, fell into a kettle of boiling water. The little lad was rushed to the Bassano hospital but the burns were of too severe a nature to give a chance of recovery and the child died the next morning. The funeral was held at Amethyst, Rev. Bird of Bow City conducting the services.”
Taylor recalled that an “old Mr. Hill… a grand daddy of a homesteader” might have also been buried at the farm. The register of deaths for Eyremore, held in the Provincial Archives of Alberta, indicates that a Thomas Hill of Amethyst passed away in August 1919. Unfortunately local histories and period publications fail to list his final resting place. Koch and Taylor also identified the baby of a local blacksmith named Graham, and the infant daughter of area settlers named Herrick, as those who may also be interred at Taylor Cemetery.
In another interview from 2001, George Ketchmark’s father, Louis, recalled that individuals by the name of Taylor, Herrick and Partridge were buried at the cemetery. The elder Ketchmark, who passed away in 2010, also speculated that in total 12 to 14 individuals were buried there, with eight of them having been registered.
While several questions remain unanswered, perhaps the most compelling mystery surrounds the identity of the mother who allegedly passed away in childbirth, as alluded to by George Ketchmark.
Ketchmark’s neighbour to the west, Frank K. Koch, recalls visiting a gravesite on the old Taylor farm in the ‘40s. Even then, the site was overgrown and neglected.
“I remember my mom and dad would stop on the road and walk into the field,” Koch recalled. “Mom used to break down in tears because I’m sure she said the grave was a mother and her baby that died in childbirth.”
Koch remembers a small picket fence surrounding a gravesite at the crest of the hill. On a recent trip to the old Taylor homestead, he discovered desiccated lathe scattered around a six-foot indentation in the ground. The lathes were blackened and brittle, and had weathered considerably. Nail-sized perforations in the wood were also visible, possibly where pieces had been nailed together to construct a fence.
Both Ketchmark and Koch agree the area should be fenced off, and a marker put in place to preserve the memory of those who were laid to rest at Taylor farm.
Complicating the issue is the imminent transfer of the land in question from the province to Vulcan County, part of a larger transfer of 20,000 acres of tax recovery land acquired by the provincial government over 70 years ago. Until the land ownership is resolved, the future of the Taylor Cemetery seems uncertain.
Then there’s the biggest uncertainty of all, one that may never be resolved: Who is buried at the Taylor Cemetery?
If you have any information on Taylor Cemetery, please contact Jonathan Koch at [email protected]
This article first appeared in the 30 Sept 2011 edition of the Medicine Hat News, and a slightly modified version in the 20 Nov 2011 edition of the Calgary Herald. Thank you to Chris Brown and Michele Jarvie for helping me bring this story to light.