When Yvette Waters visited “Shafter Jane’s” gravesite in the Elko County Cemetery last September, she knew something major was happening. So did the couple from Utah who were there to pay respects to their son. Their boy died in infancy nearly 60 years ago in Elko, and they still come to the cemetery in northern Nevada every year to visit and lay flowers at his grave.
No one knows exactly how old the Elko County Cemetery is, though some headstones date back more than 100 years. What most local residents will tell you is that, until recently, the cemetery had been in a sorry state for as long as anyone could remember. The grounds were a desert of hard, brown dirt and the only greenery on display was the weather-beaten shrubs and weeds that obscured the graves. “It wasn’t respectful of the people buried there,” says Carol Buckner, a local real estate agent who spearheaded a project to beautify the cemetery.
When Waters visited the cemetery in September, the project was in its final stages. Workers hired to restore the cemetery were installing sprinklers that would sustain the fresh sod being laid across the four-acre cemetery. Waters was aware of the project, but didn’t realize it was actually going forward. “I happened to be visiting the cemetery that day and that couple from Utah who lost their little boy also just happened to be there, and told me what was going on,” she says. “They were so pleased that their baby would get to have grass around his gravesite. This project has made a difference to everybody who has a loved one buried in this cemetery.”
Waters is Executive Director of the Elko Committee Against Domestic Violence. She visits the cemetery regularly to bring fresh flowers to Shafter Jane’s grave. Shafter Jane was about 27 when she died, murdered, her body discovered in late 1993 at the Shafter exit from Interstate Highway 80, about 80 miles east of Elko. She was about 5’7”, weighed 140 pounds and had given birth to at least one child. Beyond those sparse details, her identity remains a mystery and she is known only by the name of the highway exit where she was found.
Jane’s fate resonated strongly with Waters, whose brother was also murdered. “We were lucky,” she says. “They found his body and we had the right as a family to have closure. Some place, Shafter Jane has a family that had no closure.”
In a way, Shafter Jane is a metaphor for the Elko County Cemetery; she too had been abandoned and forgotten by many in the community. But not everyone forgot. The cemetery is the final resting place of many members of the Te-Moak Tribe of the Western Shoshone. Every year, just before Memorial Day, the Shoshone community would flock to the cemetery to pull weeds and clean the debris that had accumulated around their loved ones’ graves. “Everybody used to go down there and clean the cemetery,” says Davis Gonzales, Chairman of the Te-Moak Tribe. “We’d clean the whole thing up. I remember doing this with my mother when I was growing up.”
But, within weeks, the weeds would resurface and the cemetery would slip back into a state of disrepair. Projects to restore the cemetery had been mounted in the past, but they never went very far. But Buckner and her friends, Kathy Polkinghorne and Lois Nannini, who collaborated with her on the project, were determined. “We just decided we would try and get it done,” Buckner says.
Their first step, back in the summer of 2009, was to seek the support of the Elko Band Council, who represent the Te-Moak Tribe in the Elko area. “They gave us 100 percent support,” Buckner says.
The Elko County Commissioner’s Office and Elko City Council also offered their full support. In fact, the city of Elko agreed to supply the water to maintain the grass at the cemetery free of charge. “That was a big deal,” Polkinghorne says. “If we didn’t get that, we couldn’t have put down the sod and kept it green.”
The next step was to find donors and it was at that point, Buckner says, that “we went to Barrick.” The company didn’t hesitate, agreeing to provide the initial $10,000 toward the $40,000 cost of the project, she says. The Elko Band Council was another major donor, contributing $10,000, as did Newmont Mining. Barrick later donated another $13,400 to the Elko Band Council to fund the paving of the roadway that leads into the cemetery.
When the project was completed, the newly restored cemetery was unveiled at a ceremony last September. Many members from the Shoshone community attended and a Shoshone elder led a blessing to mark the occasion. “It makes us feel really good that we were able to do this for our loved ones,” Gonzales says.
Buckner says the response in the community has been overwhelmingly positive. “We have received calls from people just thanking us and saying that they can’t believe this got done,” she says.
Waters refers to Buckner, Polkinghorne and Nannini as “three earthly angels.” She says she recently visited the cemetery to place a new bouquet of flowers at Shafter Jane’s grave. While there, she also laid flowers at the grave of the Utah couple’s boy — something she will do regularly from now on. “I heard the story about him,” she says. “I know what they lost. He was the only child they ever had.”