The Road Home: Pauline Diede has Made her Mark
on the Hills of Hebron
Donovan, Lauren. "The Road Home: Pauline Diede has Made her Mark on the Hills of Hebron." Bismarck Tribune, 15 June 1998.
Pauline Neher Diede sits by her gravesite and a monument she had erected in Homesteaders Cemetery outside Hebron. Photo by Lauren Donovan of the Bismarck Tribune.
When she climbs into the car for a short drive to her eternal resting place, she's prepared.
The tapestry bag at her feet holds a thermos of hot coffee and a two-day supply of old-fashioned homemade cookies.
Coffee and cookies, bitter and sweet in combination, are bodily comforts. They're a mobile morning brunch down winding gravel roads to the place where her grave awaits her.
Diede, 86, is a diminutive woman whose life and great love are written on the stony hilltops in southern Mercer County.
Her grave is on one of those hilltops, not a half mile from the long-gone sod house in which she spent her childhood.
Her name, the date of her birth and her epitaph "Consider God's Promises," the title of her last book, are already inscribed on the granite gravestone. Behind it is a monument she had made, paid for with slim profits from the six books she's written about Hebron's homesteading history.
The monument is inscribed with words she's penned: "I took to the hills and beheld the rainbow. Take me back to where I first believed."
Death is a road trip
Diede is ready.
"You've got to make your mark!" she says. Her laugh, large for a woman so small, is a strong life force. Her grave will wait awhile.
It is no coincidence that Diede chose this remote spot, miles from her home in Hebron, which is sometimes called "The Holy City" for the cemeteries at the city's corners.
In the early 80s, Diede was among those to activate a crew of homesteader's children, her former playmates among them, to reclaim the old cemetery far north of town. She successfully pestered Mercer County commissioners to fence off the burials from surrounding pasture.
Weeds and rubbish had taken over. Depressions signaled old burial sites, about 20 in all, some of them unmarked.
Old by now, these children of homesteaders had a sign made and spent a day pulling weeds. They filled in the low spots with rich soil from a summer fallow field and planted buffalo grass to blend with the hardy native grasses they uncovered. Then they had a picnic and looked with pride at their work.
They named it the Homesteaders Cemetery, a tribute to those who came first and passed on.
Today and forever, the cemetery has more wildflowers than graves, more native stones than headstones, more memories than future.
When the tough prairie sod is cut open and Diede's body lowered in, it will likely be the last to take rest there. But she'll be in good company next to the ashes of her mother and sister, not far from three of the 10 Boehler children who died of diphtheria in 1925.
Neighbors gathered at the cemetery that April morning to dig the small openings. Diede, 14 then, ran across the prairie to watch. Her mother gestured her to get back home. The young girl shook her head no.
"I sat over there on that rock. I can still remember when the last child was buried. Mr. Boehler fell to his knees and called out, 'O, Gott, dez isch doch net die willa.'" Oh, God, this can't be Your will.
Diede knows something about that. It's her inspiration.
The Homesteaders Cemetery is so important to her because in itself it's a monument to the sheer will the homesteaders exerted to survive in the hard country drained by Elm Creek.
"I think I was destined to do that," she said of her cemetery project. "You can call my whole venture a labor of love. It's all related to the frontier times of our parents."
She can look at her own gravestone with dispassion.
"I feel it's all part of the story. I only feel gratefulness that my parents had enough vision to bring us here, to dare the wild prairie land."
Theirs was a road trip into history, lovingly detailed by Diede in her books and in her weekly column. "Prairie Echoes" in the Hebron Herald.
In 1995, she was awarded the North Dakota Communicator of Achievement by the North Dakota Professional Communicators. She continues to write and hope that someday, someone will compile her books and perhaps even film a movie about homesteaders set against the very hills overlooked by the Homesteaders Cemetery.
Diede has claimed her place in those hills. In a way, she's never left.
In the car again, out of the drizzle and cold wind, she takes a last look at the cemetery, to the hills and to someplace far beyond. She shrugs back into her jacket and says what's on her mind.
"I'm looking forward to the other life, to seeing all the people I loved."
"I told my children they should plant wildflowers on my grave and to make sure there's one Russian thistle."
And again that laugh, that strong life force bubbling from her throat.
She is the daughter of homesteaders. She knows the road home.
Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.