Krieger gravestone, Pilgrim Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Emmett Jordan


An Abandoned Prairie Cemetery, Immigrants and the 1918 Flu Epidemic in Weld County

Earlier this month, Emmett Jordan, a friend who lives in the Briggsdale area, sent a photo of a lone gravestone in an abandoned cemetery (on private property) near Briggsdale. In a snow-dusted field, the top of the stone, with its irregular saw-toothed notches, reminded me of the hardships inherent in farming and ranching on the drylands of Weld County. The inscription on the stone piqued my interest, as I wondered if Catherine was a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic:

In Loving Memory of
Nov. 21, 1905
Oct. 26, 1918

With a few more clues from Emmett, I launched my quest via archival and online resources to exhume information about a young girl who died less than a month before her 13th birthday. I learned that Catherine was buried in the Pilgrim Cemetery, established circa 1910 on five acres donated by Henry Mitzel and John Zimbelman [some references indicate Henry Deines was the donor] and located 11 miles east of Fosston in Section 20, Township 7 North, Range 60 West. It was later moved to the Northwest Quarter of Section 19 (same Township and Range) in 1920, where the Sunnydale Church was established. Three “Sunnydale” schools, were established at different locations and times in Weld County. A Sunnydale School was established in 1922 in Section 8, Township 7 North, Range 61 West, and moved in 1924. Emmett said, “I always found it odd that the cemetery is a stone’s throw from where the Sunnydale School was located.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, members of the Genealogical Society of Weld County (now the Weld County Genealogical Society) initiated a project to inventory and record inscriptions on extant grave markers in all Weld County Cemeteries. In 1982 the society published Weld County Colorado: Tombstone Inscriptions, Volume I, which includes information about the Pilgrim Cemetery. Society members found two stone markers there, those of Catherine Krieger and William F. Brunmeier (15 Nov. 1894 – 21 Oct. 1918). Emmett mentioned a third marker, that of Ane K. Kerber (1858 – 1916). William (“Bill”) Krieger of Briggsdale was the custodian of the Pilgrim Cemetery records in 1973, and said, “Most of the burials were victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.” His list provides a sober glimpse of how families in the “Pleasant Prairie” area were impacted by the flu epidemic, if the Pilgrim Cemetery burials’ list and his recollections were correct:

Brunmeier, infant of Elizabeth B.
Brunmeier, George Sr.
Brunmeier, John “Lefty”
Brunmeier, William F.
Deines, infant twins of Henry Deines Sr. and one other infant
Duetcher, Emma
Esterling, infant of Ed E.
Hart, George: veteran of World War I; removed in June 1944 to KS by the V.A.
Heinle, Eddie, infant of Adam Heinle Sr.
Heinle, Elmer, infant of Adam Heinle Sr.
Heinle, Herman, infant of Adam Heinle Sr.
Kerber, Ane (Mrs. George), aunt of Mrs. Barrett of Briggsdale
Krieger, Catherine
Krieger, infant of George K.
Reichel, infant
Reichel, infant
Sauer, infant of Alec S.
Speaker, Henry Sr.
Speaker, Mrs. Henry Sr.
Schmidt, Emma, about age 1, daughter of Fred Schmidt Sr.
Zimbelman, Lydia, age 8 or 9, daughter of John Zimbelman, Sr.

Based on the list, 15 infants and children were buried at Pilgrim Cemetery. What more can be learned from these names?

William F. Brunmeier died at age 23 on October 21, 1918, perhaps a flu victim, but I haven’t yet verified this. Five days later, Catherine died. Fortunately, Krieger family information was provided by Pauline (Mrs. William) Krieger, the wife of the keeper of the Pilgrim Cemetery records, and published in Homesteading the Dryland (1986), edited by Bud Wells.

The Krieger family lived in the area of Baden-Baden in the Black Forest east of the Rhine River in the state of Wurttemberg in Germany. They left Germany to settle in Norka, Russia. George and Katherine (Helzer) Krieger left Norka in 1900 and traveled 30 days by ship to Ellis Island, New York. Next, they took a train to York, Nebraska, where Henry Helzer, Katherine’s brother lived. The family moved to Lincoln, NE, when George found work on the railroad. They continued traveling west, first to Denver, then Grand Junction where George did construction and worked in the beet fields.

The Kriegers were in Johnstown, CO when they learned about homesteading opportunities in northeastern Weld County. In 1915 they settled on Section 31, Township 7 North, Range 60 West. George and Katherine had five children born in the United States – Henry, Katie, John, Mary and William (the keeper of the Pilgrim Cemetery records). Pauline noted that, “Katie died in the 1918 flu epidemic”, which affirmed my original hunch.

The surnames of the deceased revealed a network of people whose lives were entwined through kinship and friendship. For example, Henry Krieger married Lydia Speaker; Katie [Catherine] died in the flu epidemic; John Krieger never married and Mary Krieger married Henry Speaker, who died in 1952. William married Pauline Woolard, both residing on “the old Krieger place” when Homesteading the Dryland was published.

The Pilgrim Cemetery is the final resting place of German-Russian immigrants and their children. John H. Brunmeier, for example, was born in Russia, circa 1892. In 1917, he applied to the clerk of the District Court to become a naturalized American citizen. He was living 12 miles southeast of Briggsdale when he died at the Greeley Hospital on May 7, 1931. His funeral was held the following Sunday afternoon from the Salem schoolhouse, with interment in the cemetery [Pilgrim/Sunnydale] nearby.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Speaker, Sr. came to the United States from Russia in ca. 1899 and homesteaded in the Briggsdale district in 1910.

Adam Heinle, Sr. was born Aug. 11, 1885 in southern Russia, came to the United states in 1906 and homesteaded south of Keota in 1912, where he and his wife, Julia (Muhlbeier) Heinle (married in 1908) lived until they moved to Greeley in 1952. Of his 12 children, five preceded him in death, according to his obituary in the Greeley Tribune, Jan. 16, 1963, and the names of Elmer, Eddie, and Herman on the Pilgrim Cemetery list, are most likely his sons. Unfortunately, without dates and definitive proof, it remains anecdotal that they were 1918 flu victims.

“Z” is the last letter of the alphabet, and something compelled me to find out what happened to Lydia Zimbelman. Luck was on my side. In 2010, Robert Zimbelman had posted online his article, “The Zimbelmans Who Came to Colorado”, followed by his 2014 article, “My Father and My Recollections of Him.” The Zimbelmans were Germans descended from Jacob, a relative who immigrated to Russia in 1809. Johann “John” Zimbelman, Sr. and his wife, Elizabeth (Muhlbeier) Zimbelman immigrated from Russia to America in June 1906. The couple had nine children (Frieda, Henry, George, and Martha), five of them (Pete, John Jr., Rosie, Lydia and Anna) born in Keota, CO. In 1910, John homesteaded in the dryland area of Keota where there was a large community of Germans-from-Russia. He went broke in the 1918 drought and then rented land and operated a general store, cream station and pool hall to provide for his family. A daughter, Lydia, was born in 1919. It was only after Robert’s father, George (1908 – 1968) died, that he learned the tragic tale of Lydia, George’s sister: “While on the farm in Keota, my father was driving a farm truck [in 1927] with some of his siblings hanging on to various parts. One younger sister fell off and was killed when she was run over. We never talked about that while he was alive, but I can imagine that was another burden he had to bear.”

Tough times continued for Weld County’s dryland homesteaders and residents during the drought and depression of the 1930s. John Zimbelman Sr. desired better farm land and in 1928 used his savings of $3,000 to buy a $19,500 160-acre farm in the Prospect Valley (Keenesburg). Soon, he purchased other farms and in 1933 drilled the first irrigation well in Prospect Valley, and was affiliated with the Henrylynn Irrigation Company. My quest for information about the Pilgrim Cemetery took me down many roads, uncovering stories of the 1918 flu epidemic and tragic accidents that unexpectedly changed the course of history and the lives of families.

A pandemic is a covert opportunist that preys on the young, the old, the healthy and the ill, a sniper in our midst, randomly striking without warning in 1918-19 and in 2019-20. Today, those who succumb to COVID-19 leave in their wake grieving family and friends who, of necessity, suspend indefinitely traditional funerals and life celebrations. Quarantine restrictions keep us in our protective trenches; days pass and perseverance, humor, helpfulness and new styles of productivity become the key components of our SOPs (standard operating plans) while we SIP (Shelter in Place). There is much to contemplate and accomplish as the days unfurl into the blizzards of April, Spring (perhaps?), and eventually a time when dutiful citizens are released from the tethers of COVID-19. In the meantime, we wait. We “incubate” at home and develop better, more resilient and patient versions of ourselves to share with those we love and the rest of the world. We acknowledge human strength and fragility. Collectively we share and preserve stories of loss and survival, our character and values tempered and transformed as the hammer of this pandemic resounds daily on the anvil of our lives. We are patient at home because we do not want to become a patient at a hospital.

Stay tuned for the final article about the 1918 flu epidemic in Greeley and Weld County.

Peggy A. Ford Waldo
April 16 (AT HOME), 2020


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