Millions of Americans will spend a day later this month remembering those who have died while serving in the nation’s armed forces. Memorial Day parades will feature marching units of military veterans, active-duty and reserve troops, and high school bands, while soldiers and civilians alike will gather for somber cemetery ceremonies to honor the fallen.
Out on Nemo Road, in the Black Hills National Forest, 17 miles or so northwest of Rapid City, S.D., Willy Nohr might take a Memorial Day moment to remember a young man who died on a U.S. Cavalry mission there nearly a century and a half ago. But then, Nohr makes a point of keeping an eye year-round on James King’s lonely gravesite, often changing out the worn Stars and Stripes flying above the marker.
He’s been doing it for a few years now.
As a member services and marketing representative working out of the Rapid City office of
West River Electric Association, based in Wall, Nohr spends a lot of time crisscrossing the ranch roads and county highways of the area. Those trips sometimes took him past King’s grave marker, and he’s felt a responsibility to remember the soldier who perished before South Dakota was a state.
“I figured there wasn’t anybody that knew the guy anymore,” he says. “And I figured it was the patriotic thing to do for him.”
The King memorial stands in a meadow on private property within the national forest. Whenever needed, usually a couple of times a year, Nohr brings out a bright new American flag to replace the ones that tatter and fade in the prairie wind and sun.
Nohr, who’s not a military veteran himself, has no connection to King. And he knows little about the young man who died more than 140 years ago.
According to Army records unearthed by NRECA for an ECT.coop story in June 2015, King was a 24-year-old trooper from Indiana serving in Company H of the 7th U.S. Cavalry under Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. He succumbed to the blistering August heat of a long ride during an exploratory mission and was buried where he died as his company made its way back to Fort Lincoln, hundreds of miles to the northeast near present-day Mandan, N.D.
That was on August 13, 1874, less than a decade after the end of the Civil War and two years before the 7th Cavalry would meet its end in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, better known as Custer’s Last Stand, in Montana Territory.
An unknown youth working to become an Eagle Scout placed the gravestone and a small flagpole at the spot he believed was the trooper’s final resting place.
And sometime after that, Nohr began what has stretched into a 30-year career at West River Electric. His work takes him down all sorts of back roads in and around the co-op’s service territory of western South Dakota and the Black Hills themselves when off work. For years, he drove past the King grave, paying it only scant attention.
“I drove by it quite a few times,” Nohr recalls. “You could see the flag and see that it was tattered. So one time, I just picked up a flag and went over there to put the new one up. Now, I do that a couple of times a year.”
He delivers the worn-out flags to the Boy Scouts for proper disposal, but he runs the new ones up the pole on his own. Other grave markers dot the interstate, Nohr says, and at least one that doesn’t have a name. But it was King’s lonesome grave that drew his attention.
“That’s what kind of caught me about the one up there on Nemo Road,” he says. “There’s nobody else out there. That’s just where he died.”
Unlike the Memorial Day events planned for communities across the country later this month, Nohr’s flag-replacement ceremonies at the King memorial are quiet, solitary moments. West River Electric members, he says, weren’t aware he’d been doing this, although his co-workers at the co-op were pleased when NRECA’s news service recognized his work two years ago.
That shared sense of pride came as no surprise, though. Nohr is accustomed to the co-op family feeling, perhaps because of his own family’s long co-op history.
Nohr’s grandfather, Harold Nohr, managed a co-op in northwestern North Dakota years ago and was a founding incorporator of Basin Electric Power Cooperative, the G&T based in Bismarck, N.D. Harold Nohr went on to manage Upper Missouri Power Cooperative, the Sidney, Mont.-based G&T. Three generations later, Willy Nohr’s son, Dalton, worked at Central Electric Cooperative in Mitchell, S.D.
“It’s in our blood, I guess,” Willy Nohr says, before heading out, once again, to check on the flag above King’s grave.
At 50, Nohr expects he’ll be making the trip to Nemo Road, with a fresh flag in hand, for quite a while yet.
“As long as I’m able to, I guess,” Nohr says with a chuckle. “It seems like the right thing to do.”
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