by Jennifer Finch
When I first heard that the National Honor Society students at Pawnee High School were hosting a fundraiser for the Sligo Cemetery, I was intrigued. It seems rather rare these days for young people to take a true interest in not only learning about their history but also preserving it. When I heard that their sponsor and teacher, Rebecca Atkinson, had produced a documentary on the women who homesteaded in Sligo, I knew that it was time for me to take a trip up north and see for myself what this community was so passionate about.
I must confess, I have lived in Weld County for more than ten years, and had never once gone to see the Pawnee National Grasslands or the Buttes. Needless to say, I was anxious to get my mini-road trip to Grover (and beyond)started.
During my time in journalism school, I had many assignments which took me to various communities. I am used to being the ‘stranger’ among friends; showing up in a new place, trying to meet people and share their stories. In Grover, however, I wasn’t a stranger but rather just another friend who came to support the students and their teacher.
As I entered the school gym, the National Honor Society students were busy in the kitchen preparing to serve chili, salad and homemade desserts to those in attendance. They proudly accepted donations in return for the lunch – donations that will be used to replace the aging sign at the Sligo Cemetery.
As supporters filtered in to the high school gym, friends greeted each other, talked about the wet spring and summer plans. Some looked at items brought into the gym for the event such as family heirlooms and newspaper clippings; others looked for names and places on large map of the area – some remembering neighbors from days gone by.
After I shared my meal with my new friends, Kathy, Elaine and Harold, the gym quieted and the lights dimmed. Rebecca Atkinson took center stage and introduced her documentary about the homesteading women of Sligo. Story after story of women who traveled to northern Colorado and faced the elements and the challenges in order to claim a piece of this country as their own amazed me. As a self-proclaimed city-kid, I can’t even imagine what type of courage that must have took.I was in awe of their spirit.
Following the presentation, I decided to drive out the cemetery myself and see first-hand the remnants of the history this group was trying to save. I was given directions by several people and each time told to watch for the cemetery sign, as it is easy to miss. But as I drove down a dirt road, I quickly spotted the white worn wood standing proud and alone on the prairie – keeping guard of the memories and the loved ones it protected inside its gates.
The ‘C’ in cemetery has surrendered to the wind and paint has weathered in hot summer sun. The gravel path leading through the small plot of land is prominent in areas only where the prairie grasses haven’t taken over. Thanks to the work of the Pawnee High School students and their teacher, I now have a better understanding as to the community’s, desire to preserve this place. The history, the stories, the memories are not only a comfort the families who remain but also are a testament to the history of northern Colorado and the West.
The wind blows so hard that I feel like I can hardly catch my breath, and I try to imagine coming to this open country with the hope and determination to make a piece of it my own. I wonder about the stories of the people laid to rest in this peaceful place. And am thankful that because of the work Rebecca and her students have done this year, this valuable history will be preserved for a little while longer for all of us to benefit from – even a city kid who takes a few years too many to drive up and pay her respects.
I’m happy to report that the students raised enough money to repair the sign and maybe even refurbish a grave marker or two. And Rebecca’s documentary may be available for further viewing in the future.