In 1999, Sean Dougherty found a tombstone in the yard of his new Fort Collins, Colo., home.
The stone — dated 1889 — belonged to Hattie Cowger. Intrigued, he did some preliminary research and discovered there were no records of anyone being buried on his property.
“I then did some research over the next five years trying to find out where she belonged,” Dougherty said. “Somehow I found using Ancestry.com that she belonged in the old Jerusalem Cemetery (in Creston).”
In about 2005, he tried contacting people from Creston about Cowger, but hit multiple dead ends. Dougherty said work and life got in the way of his search, so he stopped for a few years.
During this time, Doughtry moved to a new home, but brought Hattie’s stone with him.
“I took her with me, because I didn’t want to leave her there like the previous owners did to me,” he said.
Then earlier this year, Doughtry found out he would be traveling to Paul Smith College in Lake Placid, N.Y., for a class reunion, so he decided to bring the stone with him and return it to the burial ground.
“Part of the reason I wanted to drive to New York was to return Hattie,” Doughtry said. “I thought, ‘This is perfect.’ Creston is not far out of my way off of I-80 and I can bring her home.”
This is when he started the search again and began contacting people in the Creston area.
Chris Fredricksen, owner of Fredricksen Memorials in Creston, was a big help to Dougherty. He contacted her in March 2014.
“I told him I knew where the cemetery was and that I would see what I could find,” Fredricksen said.
Fredricksen then got in touch with one of the township trustees, Jack Bakerink and his wife Fran. Jack is the Lincoln Township clerk and groundkeeper of the Jerusalem Cemetery.
“That cemetery is called a pioneer cemetery, because there haven’t been any burials there since probably the 1870s or 80s,” Bakerink said.
Bakerink has been restoring the cemetery for about 15 years. Before he started taking care of it, the cemetery was overrun by weeds and most of the tombstones were covered. Today, Jerusalem Cemetery is better kept.
“The township trustees are looking at a project where we can reset some of the stones there, and this (Hattie’s stone) is a nice starting point,” Bakerink said.
Bakerink had a hand-drawn map of the cemetery layout that was made in 1946. From this he was able to locate Hattie’s burial site.
“It was pretty easy once we knew her name to find the location on that old map,” Bakerink said.
From there, the plan to return Hattie fell into place. The stone was brought to the cemetery on the morning of July 24 with a small group of about eight people.
“It took a little sleuthing, and one thing led to another,” Fredricksen said. “Everyone kept communicating and we found her.”
The Fredricksens donated a base for the tombstone to be placed on. The process of installing the stone and paying respect to Hattie took a little over an hour.
“The big mystery is how it was in Colorado while she was buried back here,” Fredricksen said.
No one may ever solve that mystery, but Dougherty said some people at the Iowa Genealogy Society and Iowa Cemetery Group were able to uncover a few facts about Hattie Cowger.
She died on July 18, 1889, when she was almost 38 years old. She was married to J.H. Cowger, but her maiden name is unknown.
She died around the same time as her one-month-old baby boy in 1889. It is possible that Hattie died during childbirth or from complications of childbirth. She is buried in the Jerusalem Cemetery near her baby.
Her husband and children moved to Denver, Colo., soon after her death, and they are buried there.
“A lot of people would have found that in their yards and just thrown it away and not given a second thought about it,” Fredricksen said. “For some reason or another it got Mr. Dougherty’s curiosity going, and he made a project out of it.”
Dougherty still plans to research Hattie, but in his spare time. He said he would like to know if there is any family around today. He also hopes that by getting the word out about Hattie, they will be able to uncover more of her history.
“I would hope that if something similar happened to me or someone I cared about, someone would do the same thing,” Dougherty said. “It felt like the right thing to do.”