As Halloween approaches, several cemeteries across Colorado are offering guided tours highlighting their most famous residents, and this weekend Claire Martin rounded up the events for the Denver Post (“Grave Histories”). The article points out that instead of dwelling on the macabre, most cemetery tour guides focus on teaching regional history. I’ve long enjoyed stopping in cemeteries in little towns and reading the inscriptions to see what I can learn about the lives of the pioneers who settled in these places. My favorite such discovery is the Keota cemetery in Weld County, which I found a few years ago when I was heading for a hike at the Pawnee Buttes in the northeast corner of the state. Keota itself is considered a ghost town, though there are apparently a few people still living in the area.
Most of the attention-getting ghost towns in Colorado are the abandoned mountain settlements that prospered during mining booms and faded when the mines did. Keota is a good example of a ghost town that followed a different course. The town of Keota was an agricultural settlement established in 1888 after the Colorado & Wyoming Railroad laid some tracks nearby. Keota seems to have never been particularly prosperous; Marek Uliasz, whose website features gorgeous, haunting photographs of northern Colorado places, summarizes the town’s history:
“Even during its most successful time, just before the World War I, Keota never had a population of more than 150, but it served some 1000 to 1500 homesteading neighbors. At that time Keota had daily passenger service on the railroad, then service became weekly, then not at all. The water from wells became undependable and during the driest years water had to be shipped in by railroads and trucks. The bank failed in 1923. The high school built in 1915 was closed in 1951. Railroad tracks were dismantled 1970s and, finally, the post office was discontinued in 1974. Today, the remaining ruins including the church are being repossessed by the prairie.”?
The town’s cemetery occupies a small plot of fenced land at a remove from the remaining town buildings, and the way that this little graveyard is situated alone among the vast prairie evokes the hardships the town’s residents must have experienced. Nareen Lake has done an excellent job of recording the information from all the gravestones here. The headstones reveal that childhood mortality was appallingly common early last century—there’s two-year old Nellie Cowley (1911-1913), eight-year-old Clyde Parsons (1904-1912), and almost four-year-old Carolina Schreiner (1910-1914) among many other children buried there. There are also a host of men and women who made it past their childhoods but still died too young, such as 19 year-old Grace Stewart Hodson (1912-1931) and 18 year-old Harry Baker (1903-1921).
But there are also plenty of Keota residents who lived to a ripe age, such as ninety-year-old Molly J. Bennett (1907-1997). The out-and-out star of the Keota cemetery, though, is Ms. Edith Grace Steiger (1912-1989), whose headstone bears an informative and intriguing description: “In loving memory of Edith Grace Steiger’s life and efforts to preserve the Colorado Prairie. Edith was an accomplished pilot, pianist, author, professor of economics and environmentalist.”? Ms. Steiger sounds like a fascinating person—a vigorous, engaged, intelligent, true Colorado pioneer woman—and I’ve always meant to find out more about her. Alas, she lived in the era before Google, so I haven’t discovered much.
Someone named Edith Steiger Phillips of “near Keota, Colorado”? was featured in a September 1984 National Geographic article about soil conservation, which was likely the woman I’m interested in. I found another mention of her in Douglas Helms’ 1990 article from Agricultural History, “Conserving the Plains: The Soil Conservation Service in the Great Plains.”? Helms writes that “between 1977 and 1982 wheat farmers planted large tracts of grassland in Montana (1.8 million acres), South Dakota (750,000 acres), and Colorado (572,000 acres). In some places the resulting wind erosion proved a nuisance to neighbors. Some vocal and effective local landowners such as Edith Steiger Phillips of Keota, Colorado, wanted action. The Coloradans persuaded Senator Williams Armstrong in 1981 to introduce a bill that would deprive those who plowed fragile lands of price support payments…The Armstrong bill, finally dubbed the ‘sodbuster bill’ did not become law.”?
But that’s where my trail on Ms. Steiger runs cold—I can’t find any record of where she might have taught, or what has become of her writings. Still, when I visited her grave in the little Keota cemetery not far from the town where she spent her life, I felt I could almost picture her, a formidable woman gazing out at the beloved prairie that she worked so hard to protect. And that’s the kind of ghost that I can live with.