Omaha Memorial Day tradition continues at Prospect Hill

Updated: May. 31, 2021 at 2:07 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The Prospect Hill Historic Cemetery and Arboretum, located near 32nd and Parker in North Omaha, has put on a Memorial Day ceremony for 40 years.

The group portraying the first Nebraska volunteer’s march into Prospect Hill wanted to enforce the fact that Nebraska played a role in the war of the state even though Nebraska was a territory at the time.

“We don’t become a state until 1867, but Nebraska answered the call they fought at Donaldson, they basically saved the day at Donaldson. The confederates counter-attacked and Grant said it was a good thing the first Nebraska was there to stop them,” said Bill Deardoff, First Nebraska Volunteer.

There are more than 70 Civil War veterans buried at the cemetery. Some homegrown and some who made Nebraska their home.

“Many Omaha residents did fight in the Civil War, some of them for Nebraska but many of them for other states then eventually throughout their lifetimes they made their final residence in Omaha which is how we ended up with so many in our cemetery,” said Shannon Lewis, Prospect Hill Board of Trustees.

“And you’ll notice there will be a marker, a metal maker by the grave saying Grand Army of the Republic which will be a precursor to days America legion and Americas VFW and that’s how they were commemorated and the Civil War vets would get together every year until finally the last ones past in the 1900s.”

Bill Deardoff is one of the Civil War reenactors, he says Nebraska soldiers continued the fight after the Civil War.

“The first Nebraska fought in the Civil War when the country needed them again in the Spanish American War. First Nebraska was also reformed and they fought in the Spanish American War too and the Philippines.”

Buffalo soldier Allen McClare who served with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders at San Juan Hill is buried here. There’s a monument honoring Capt. Lee Forby who died in the Philippine Islands.

Deardoff and his colleagues believe it’s important to react to remember the sacrifices Nebraska soldiers made to protect our county in the early years.

“It goes right back to the very beginning Nebraskans answered the call.”

The band played, the flag was raised and, for the first time in two years, crowds of people came out to the historic cemetery for Memorial Day.

Barb Naughtin, president of the cemetery’s board of trustees, said, “We’re just thrilled to be here and have all these people.”

There was a pretty good crowd. Many of the people milled around to read about and look at the final resting places for veterans who gave their lives for the country, and for many of Omaha’s pioneers.

There are people buried there who have streets, schools, and parks named after them.

“Prospect Hill Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in Douglas County. We have 15,000 people buried here. We no longer take interments, so people don’t really get here to see it unless they know their very old ancestors are buried here. Many people in Omaha have ancestors here but they don’t know about it.”

Jennifer Griess has known about this place. She’s been coming to the cemetery a day before the holiday for about a dozen years.

“We come every Saturday before Memorial Day. We place the flags for the vets and pay our respects. ... 55 Troop 88 does that. It’s been a tradition for about 30 years. Once my son has joined it, and we just continue to do it.”

“It just kind of hits the heart,” she said. “The last couple of years we haven’t been able to do it so it’s nice to be back to listen to the music, the 21-gun salute, paying your respects to those who led the way so we could be here today.”

Organizers say it’s important to continue the event to help preserve the cemetery and the history of Omaha that lives on in the stories behind many of the names on the monuments. The cemetery was founded in 1858 and is one of the state’s oldest cemeteries.

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