Nine historic Black Hills cemeteries soon will not be under federal government ownership. Last week, President Barack Obama signed Congresswoman Kristi Noem's bill transferring the cemeteries to private groups that have been caring for them in arrangements with the government.
Noem attended a ceremony during the weekend near Silver City marking the transfer of the Silver City Cemetery from the U.S. Forest Service to the local community.
Silver City is off in the forest a ways, in a picturesque setting near where Rapid Creek runs into Pactola Reservoir. The cemetery is even more remote.
It’s a setting that preserves the sense of history at a time when there was little development in the Black Hills. And being there gives a visitor a sense for the people who came and stayed to be buried there.
"What I really like about historical cemeteries like this is the stories they tell - about the settlers back then, about the type of people back then, very different than today," cemetery caretaker and historian John Gomez said. "And for me that's fascinating."
It's important, too. In fact, it was worth an act of Congress directing the Forest Service to turn over cemetery property to caretaker communities in a deal that seems to serve everyone.
Now the communities can continue taking care of the cemeteries, but without federal red tape that complicated their work. The Forest Service supported the legislation, since it eliminates the regulatory responsibilities that go with ownership of the land.
“It requires a fair amount of paperwork on an annual basis for the various cemeteries to interface with the Forest Service,” assistant chief of the Silver City Volunteer Fire Department Todd Tobin said. “We have to get special permits to spray bug trees, for example. And it also creates a lot of extra work for the Forest Service.”
Noem’s legislation, which she introduced in 2012 and twice won approval in the House, was finally passed by the Senate recently and signed by the president last week. Tobin said it was an education in congressional processes that were sometimes frustrating but ultimately worked for the cemeteries.
“Most importantly, it gives us that access that's free from the Forest Service; the Forest Service is free from us," Tobin said. "To be able to have the autonomy we need to not have to go all the special permits and requests."
The act allows each cemetery to expand by up to two acres if needed to handle ongoing requests for burial. That will matter at Silver City Cemetery, where most of the one-third acre is committed.
As Gomez says, the place is full of stories tied to the headstones and their histories. The oldest grave in the cemetery is Martin Wink’s. He was buried there in 1877. A 19-year-old from New Jersey, he came west seeking a fortunate in the gold rush. Instead, his dream killed him.
“He made it out here, and obviously there were mines all over,” Gomez said. “They got him to work in a mine and they probably sent a young kid in, and the mine collapsed on him, buried him alive. They dug him out and buried him in this cemetery.”
Where the story of a young man lost in pursuit of his dream will never die.