After staying three days in Karrer Park—a free campsite with electricity and showers [although the showers were FILTHY]—we leave McCook, Nebraska for Benkelman. I have been wanting to get to Benkelman ever since I dug up confirmed information that my grandmother died here. She took her own life and no one in the family would talk about it. Now that all those who knew anything have passed it’s become kind of an obsession with me, this quest to find out why.
Burger, The Chiweenie Brothers, and I arrive on a Sunday. I stop to photograph the welcome sign and immediately someone stops behind me to ask if I need help. Everyone waves! Such a friendly little town of 900+.
I steer Freedom into the heart of this little burg and locate the newspaper office. Of course, being a Sunday they are not open, but I now know just where to go tomorrow morning. I am not holding out much hope, but you never know. I want—need—to knock on this door and if it doesn’t open, so be it, but I have to try.
We find a place to park for the night at a little city park, the Ward Bond Memorial Park honoring the late actor Ward Bond who was born here in Benkelman. Anyone remember the television show Wagon Train? It’s lovely and the dogs enjoy the lush green grass.
Evening brings wind, fluffy clouds that soon turn menacing, and then a light show off in the distance. Which I did not get a photo of, cowering on the bed like I was, but it soon passes and I fall into a fitful sleep.
Up early filled with anticipation and a knowledge that today I will either find some answers or the doors to my grandmother’s death will be closed to me, at least during this lifetime.
I take a slightly different way to the center of town and find the courthouse, famous for being the building that led the powers that be to decide on claiming Benkelman as the county seat. It was also where they took my grandmother’s body for the autopsy and preparation for burial in her hometown of Hastings. This I did not know when I took the photo. I just thought it was a wonderful old brick building and enjoyed reading the history of it from Benkelman’s website, HERE. This little town has an interesting past.
The Benkelman Post is in the heart of town, and I push the door open with so many mixed emotions. I ask the young man who comes to the counter if this newspaper was in publication in the 1930s and if they have kept the papers archived in some way. He says yes to both questions.
I tell him what I am seeking but that I only know the year of my grandmother’s death, not the exact date. He doesn’t seem to mind that I am asking him to go through an entire year of weekly papers, papers that are bound into large books. He retreats to the back of the office and comes out carrying one of these large books and proceeds to meticulously look through it.
It is hard waiting; it seems like it is taking forever, time dragging, almost at a standstill. As he gets closer to the back of the book and the end of the year I feel the dread of learning nothing start to envelope me. As soon as that feeling tries to take root the young man begins to take the book’s cover apart and he pulls out a sheet of newsprint. “There’s something there?” I ask, barely able to speak. “Yes,” he says and tells me he will make me a copy. I can barely hold back the tears threatening to spill out onto the counter. There’s something in the paper! I can hardly believe it.
He hands me the copy, I pay for it, and just glance at the headline. Not wanting to read it in front of anyone, I thank the young man for his help and his kindness and I almost run back to the van. I read the headline Woman Stranger Takes Own life Here Monday (so she didn’t know anyone here!) and just part of the first paragraph of the first column and I cannot read any more.
My mind on the fact I finally have some answers I start the van, back Freedom out of the space, and point her nose toward St Francis, KS. Or so I thought. Thirty miles later I realize from the road sign that I have gone in the wrong direction!!
After backtracking the thirty miles I am back at Benkelman and take the correct road,
arriving in St Francis and their town park behind the fire department. I take the boys on a quick walk, stake them out, and read the article.
If this had been published now and not in 1932 it would have warranted no more than an inch or two of space, a mere announcement or just a death notice not the two columns, almost a half-page of the account of my grandmother arriving in Benkelman, Nebraska intent on ending her life. Small town newspapers!
She arrived in Benkelman, procured a hotel room for 50 cents (they found she had 12 cents left to her name after renting her room), washed out her hosiery and changed her clothes, neatly arranging her meager belongings, drank two bottles of strychnine that had been bought in Utah, and lied down on the bed to die an agonizing death.
They surmised that she had hitchhiked to Nebraska from California as she had done it once before, and because the bus and train schedules didn’t coincide with her arrival. She had been seen in town earlier in the day. She had been identified by a post card she had with her, thus they were able, through law enforcement to track down family in Hastings, who in turn were able to contact my grandfather in California. He informed the authorities that he had no means or funds to come get the body nor to bury her.
It was disclosed by family who arrived from Hastings to transport her body back there for burial that she had mental issues and had been a patient at a mental facility at one time in Nebraska and also once in California.
There’s more, but I will leave it at that. It was—coming to Benkelman—the reason I am in this part of Nebraska and a big part of the beginning of my gypsy life, not to burden readers with this family tragedy.