DANBURY, Iowa -- The messages came rapidly a week ago. One reader figured the tombstone found by Kirk Montange of the Iowa Department of Transportation along U.S. Highway 20 came from a Sioux City cemetery.
Another reader suggested we check a cemetery at Ida Grove, Iowa, as the name on the stone sounded vaguely familiar.
Others tracked the information to an Ellen M. Lacey. A little girl called "Nellie" by her mother, Eva M. Sprague Lacey.
She was buried in the St. Patrick's section of Danbury Catholic Cemetery in Danbury, Iowa. St. Patrick's Catholic Church served Irish Catholics in this Woodbury County community until St. Patrick's merged with St. Mary's Catholic Church (the German parish) of Danbury in 1950.
I wrote about the tombstone a week ago. Montange found it a couple of miles east of Sioux City's city limits this fall as he mowed the ditch. It said "Nellie" and listed the dates 1901-1903. It also said, "Our darling." That's it. No last name.
Montange wanted to get the 190-pound stone back where it belonged.
I asked readers to send information. A half-dozen or so came up with the connection to Danbury Catholic Cemetery. A "Nellie" Lacey with those corresponding dates was listed.
According to Megan Smolenyak of Haddonfield, N.J., there were roughly 25 Nellies in the U.S. born in 1901 who died in 1903. There was only one from Iowa, "Nellie" Lacey from Danbury.
I enlisted the support of Mary Ann Sohm, historian for St. Mary's in Danbury. Church records show an Ellen M. "Nellie" Lacey was buried there after her death on Feb. 6, 1903, six months shy of her second birthday.
"At 18 months old, she probably would have had a funeral, unless the family was quarantined because of something like diphtheria," Sohm said.
The girl's parents: James and Eva M. Sprague Lacey. Eva's obituary in a 1924 Danbury Review newspaper noted Eva had nine children, seven of whom survived her. Of the two children who died, one was "Nellie." The other, daughter Ethel, died 27 days before Eva died.
Eva's husband, James Lacey, was 55 when he died in May 1901, two months before the birth of "Nellie," his ninth child. Sohm cannot access an obituary for James as a fire at the Danbury Review in 1910 destroyed issues of the 1901 newspaper.
"I'm kind of known in the genealogical community for enjoying a good history mystery, so someone posted your article to my Facebook page and I couldn't resist," Smolenyak noted.
How did Lacey's grave marker end up in the south ditch of Highway 20? Good question.
Sohm's husband, Marshall Sohm, went to the Lacey plot at the cemetery on Wednesday and scraped away snow. He found newer stones for James, Eva, Nellie and Ethel. How new? He's not sure.
"Nellie's stone is next to her father's and it matches his in style," said Mary Ann Sohm. "Nellie is not without a marker. That's a better ending for us."
"It could have broken off at some time," she said, trying to explain the Highway 20 mystery. "We do have a number that were broken off, especially the markers for children as they might have worked with a cheaper material."
Chances are, the old stone was removed and was to find its way to a landfill or another destination. For some reason, it never got that far.
Mary Ann Sohm said she'll head to Sioux City soon to pick up the marker from Montange. She and Marshall plan to tuck the stone safely away in the cemetery storage building at Danbury.
"I'd hate to have them pitch Nellie's stone or put it in the landfill," she said. "Because then there's the chance we'd start this story all over again."