By Janet Heimlich
She died in the 19th century on the way west, but an unknown girl lives on in the hearts of strangers.
As he does every day, 85-year-old Herman “Tex” Dukes parks his rickety pickup truck at a special place along a county road near Sipe Springs. The town — pronounced “Seep” Springs — is located about 100 miles west of Fort Worth. Dukes is checking on a grave believed to have been dug more than 130 years ago. Even from far away, the 6-foot-long grave site is hard to miss because it is covered with about a hundred colorful objects — flowers, dolls, teddy bears, jewelry, coins, a large rubber duck, an American flag and a pair of tiny shoes that would fit an infant. They are gifts left by residents of the area and visitors passing through.
Dukes has been the gravesite’s self-designated caretaker for more than 35 years, picking up trash and keeping the donated items clean. On this visit, he spies a ripped Styrofoam cup across the road and, scowling, leans down slowly to pick it up. “It gets in a mess,” Dukes says. “This is a favorite spot for young couples.”
For all the work he puts in here, one gets the feeling that the grave site is also Dukes’ favorite spot. “It is of historical importance to me,” he says.
Yet no one — including Dukes — knows much about who is buried there. He and others from this small community say they have always heard it is a 3-year-old girl who died of sickness in 1870 (or thereabouts) while her family was traveling west in a covered wagon. Before the family moved on, they buried their daughter by the side of the road. No documents prove this, but three stone markers at the grave disclose the girl’s age and the approximate year of her death. The most recent is an elegant marble headstone donated by the Sipe Springs Volunteer Fire Department in 1989. Another has been there as long as anyone can remember. Its crude, hand-carved letters read, “Who is the little girl, age 3, 1870s.” Her name has been lost to history, but some people have nicknamed the child Penny or Heidi.
Her story is all too common. During the late 1800s, an untold number of children died on the westward trails their families were traveling, looking for places to settle. The county road on which the grave is situated was used heavily during the Gold Rush and afterward. Stagecoaches carrying passengers from Fort Worth to El Paso took this route, and it was part of an immigrant trail that ran from Louisiana to California. When children died in transit, often there was no money or time for a formal burial, so their families hastily dug graves along roadsides and marked them with stones or two sticks in the shape of a cross. Locals say they know about other children’s graves in the area, but those have not been preserved.
This little girl’s grave, on the other hand, seems to have been tended since her death. Mae Leonard, who died three years ago at the age of 97, was known as the town’s historian. She passed on this account: It was snowing hard when the family came through and their child died. After burying her, the grieving family, cold and hungry, sought refuge at a nearby cabin. When interviewed by the local newspaper, The Comanche Chief, Leonard said: “The mother of the little girl grieved so much for her baby. It worried her that there would be no one to look after her grave, that she couldn’t even put a marker on it so people would know who she was… When the travelers left, the woman in the cabin told the parents not to worry. She promised that she and her family would look after their little girl’s grave.”
In 1903, at age 17, Dukes’ mother, Minnie McNeely Dukes, began teaching school a stone’s throw from the grave. She had her students care for the grave by keeping it clean and decorating it with broken crockery. Herman Dukes’ sister, the late Jewel Dukes Huddleston, was a columnist for The Comanche Chief and kept readers informed about the grave’s history. In 1989, Huddleston wrote how her mother “told of cleaning the little grave and placing wildflowers at the pasture rock headstone… the twice-told tale never came up with the name of the family headed west.” The Dukes family and neighbors continued to keep up the grave throughout the first half of the century. When Herman Dukes returned home from the Navy in 1967, he took over the duties. “Today, he keeps the site as neat as it was 90 years ago when our mother looked after it,” wrote sister Jewel.
Dukes has picked up many coins over the last few decades. “I’ve rolled 2,000 pennies twice and picked up hundreds of dollars worth of dimes and quarters. When my conscience goes to botherin’ me, I write a check to the Sipe Springs Volunteer Fire Department for $50.” Dukes’ wife, Jill, helps out too. “You cannot imagine how many stuffed toys and muddy ceramic items we have washed and taken back,” she says. Although Jill Dukes did not grow up here, she feels attached to the child and her family. “They probably buried her in a little dress. You wonder if she was blonde or brunette. I don’t know why I think she was blonde, but I do. And I think she was pretty.”
Two other neighbors, Dale and Hue Gilchrest, come here every weekend to leave something they think the little girl would have liked. They planted a Christmas tree during the holidays and left a large stuffed rabbit last Easter. The couple regularly mows around the grave and places rocks between it and the road to prevent people from driving too close. Hue Gilchrest, who left her family in Vietnam in the late 1960s, sympathizes with the abandoned child. “She is not alone,” she says. “She has a home.”
Allen Piper is a hunting guide who takes clients by the grave every morning during the winter months. Piper says he tells the hunters what he has heard about the grave — that those who do not leave anything will be cursed. Piper says he knows of two people who did not donate and, within days, one shot himself in the foot and the other had all four of his truck tires go flat. (It’s also said that if you toss a coin on the grave and make a secret wish, it will come true.)
Piper is bothered that so little is known about the dead child. His other job is running Hope for Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization in Early, about 20 miles away, that finds foster homes for abused children. Piper believes the buried girl is symbolic of the many children he works with who “live their lives with no identity, no connection, no purpose or fulfillment in life.” Asks the frustrated Piper about the girl from 1870: “Does anyone know who she is, who she belongs to, and what she’s doing here?”
But many others, like Herman Dukes, are satisfied simply knowing that the grave is not forgotten. And he feels assured that his work will continue after he is unable to carry on, because his two sons and daughter, all of whom live nearby or plan to retire in Sipe Springs, have agreed to look after the grave. “This is part of our history,” says Dukes emphatically, “and if you don’t take care of your history, you ain’t gonna amount to anything.”