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Tom Watts is buried here.

So are Sarah Hickman, Prucius Wood and Chris Tank.

Since its dedication 140 years ago, Ridge Municipal Cemetery has become the final resting place of the prominent and the impoverished alike.

Freed slaves, a bullwhacker and also a man, whose huge hands attracted the notice of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, are buried in this historic cemetery on the west side of Fremont.

This year, the Ridge Cemetery Association has begun seeking donations for improvements. The next major project is an online directory and/or a kiosk and apps, which people could use to find graves.

“The beauty in doing that is that people will be able to put in a picture of their loved one or stories or information about them so when you go to visit you can look up people and learn a lot more,” said Cherrie Beam-Callaway, historian.

Accessibility to the information could help with family genealogy research.

And a directory and/or kiosk could help people who come to the cemetery in the evening or on weekends. Currently, there’s no place they can go to locate graves they want to visit at those times.

Those who choose to make a tax-deductible contribution will be providing a donation for a cemetery with a long history.

Originally purchased in 1878, the cemetery was named because of the sand ridge situated along the back of it.

Ridge consists of 42 acres of land and has 13,000 graves with room for 40,000 more.

But Ridge is more than a cemetery.

“It’s not just a cemetery, it’s a park where all day long people come to push their babies in strollers, teach their kids how to ride their bikes and just come for peace and beauty,” Beam-Callaway said. “It tells the story of not only our founders, but of those who are buried every day. They have a story and are part of our history. Their lives are important.”

Throughout the years, many improvements have been made, said Kim Beam, association secretary.

The ornamental fence, security gate and entrance arch were replaced in 2017, she said. Other improvements have included the paving of cemetery roads, installation of north and south prayer gardens, new stone street signs and a columbarium.

Recently, the City of Fremont installed a new irrigation system.

The city owns the cemetery, but the association pays for items not covered by the city, Beam said. The association is a group of volunteers, who want to preserve the cemetery’s historical aspects.

And they want people to know about the history. Some of the people buried here include:

Thomas Watts and Sarah Hickman.

  • Both were freed slaves. A news account says Watts was born on a cotton plantation in Virginia and was a slave until President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation. In Fremont, Watts became a mason’s helper. He helped construct what’s now called Fremont Opera House and a fire hall and the former West and North schools. His beloved wife, Jenny, is buried at Ridge. Every Sunday after church, Watts would buy a flower from Green’s Greenhouse to put on her grave. Watts was 106 when he died in 1936.

Hickman, who spoke fluent German, had been a slave in Mississippi. She made her living by washing and ironing clothes for Fremont families. She lived in Fremont for 40 years and died at the Dodge County Poor Farm. Hickman was believed to be 90 when she died in 1926.

Chris Tank.

  • The palms of the Ames area farmer’s hands were 13 inches in circumference. His index finger was 4 ½ inches around, a previous Tribune article stated. Tank’s hands were so big that he could catch a fast-moving baseball without a glove. In 1939, his hands attracted the attention of Robert Ripley, the cartoonist behind “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” A plaster cast made of Tank’s hand — to show Ripley that Tank had the most massive mitts in the world — amazed area residents. Tank was 87 when he died in 1966.

Prucius Wood.

  • Nicknamed, “Timberwood,” he was a bullwhacker (also called a freighter or mule skinner) who walked along oxen and mules from Omaha to Denver, taking goods back and forth. Bullwhackers were very important to taming the West before the railroads. Wood would walk 550 miles – one way—in heat, snow and rain. He later worked in constructing the Union Pacific Railroad before buying property west of Fremont. Wood was 39 when he died in 1871.

Many other people are buried here, including more than 200 Civil War veterans, Union and Confederate.

So are children from the former Lutheran Orphans Home. A past Tribune article said there are a total of 45 graves at “Orphan Ridge” in the cemetery. Many of the orphans buried there were younger than a year old when they died.

Other cemetery facts include:

Causes of death.

  • In her research, Beam-Callaway found many causes of death listed for people buried here throughout the decades. Causes include: shot by the sheriff; summer complaint; bad whiskey; cave-ins at the brick factory; drowning in the Platte or Elkhorn rivers; mountain fever; small pox; acute insanity; killed on the railroad; exhaustion.

Civil War statue.

  • In 1924, a bronze monument honoring Civil War veterans was erected for $1,500. In 1942, it was suggested that the statue be removed and donated to aid in the defense program (melted and used for the war effort) during World War II. The statue remains to this day, however.

The cemetery sexton’s house.

  • A house was built on the cemetery’s northeast corner for $450 in 1879. A new house was built in the current location in 1906. In 1914, lightning struck that house and it burned entirely. The current house was built in 90 days for $2,330. This house is used today as the sexton’s office. Plans are to build a new office eventually.

Bubba and other mole hunters.

  • Years ago, the cemetery had a problem with moles. The gray, furry varmints, about 3 inches long, would burrow into the ground, making it lumpy and difficult to walk on. Efforts to get rid of the varmints were unsuccessful, until Betty and the late Dale Reandeau’s miniature dachshund, Bubba, came to the rescue, getting rid of an estimated 600 moles throughout the years. Bubba was 13 when he died in 2012. Betty has a dog named, Beans, who helps keep the mole population down as does Beam’s beagle, named Basia, who gets a few moles, too.

Area residents who would like to donate to the cemetery may send checks to: The Ridge Cemetery Association, 1761 W. Linden Ave., Fremont, NE 68025.

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News Editor

Tammy Real-McKeighan is news editor of the Fremont Tribune. She covers news, features, religion stories and writes the weekly faith-based, Spiritual Spinach column.

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