(upbeat music) [Narrator] Coming up on "Nebraska Stories."
Faith, dreams and the kindness of strangers on a Midwestern highway.
(upbeat music) A Yazidi refugee finds food for his soul in the Nebraska dirt, (upbeat music) and saving abandoned pioneer cemeteries.
(upbeat music) (upbeat music) (upbeat music) (upbeat music) (upbeat music) (solemn music) [Marie] I was running a filling station on I-80 in Shelton, Nebraska and I looked up one day and here was a Winnebago motor home.
It was just covered with scripture.
Every inch of it had scripture on it and I thought, oh, it's a band of hippies.
And I was relieved to find out it was just one man, 49 years old and he was headed west.
He kept saying the starter kept trying to engage as he's coming up the interstate.
He said, well, I gotta find a junkyard.
He thought he'd only be there a half hour.
And I said, well there's one at the next intersection.
(solemn music) My name is Leonard Knight and I made this mountain 22 years here and I'd love to give you a tour of it.
[Narrator] There's a man-made mountain in California called Salvation Mountain.
(solemn music) The mountain is a sculpture the vision of one man, built by one man, Leonard Knight.
(solemn music) It's also a testament to his faith his holy vision.
(solemn music) Where the air is dry and the sun burns hot Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain is built in southeast California.
The hillside visionary environment is built mostly of hay bale construction and covered with Adobe clay.
Knight used thousands of gallons of donated paint to coat his candy colored mountain that took almost 30 years of his life to create.
In 2002, Salvation Mountain was considered a unique national treasure but before building a mountain in California he tried the skies of Nebraska.
(solemn music) [Hal] Dad and Leonard met, it was a morning I'll never forget it he came in on this little moped.
Long, skinny guy.
He walked in back door of my dad's shop and he said he needed some parts.
That's how the friendship was born.
Leonard didn't have any money but dad tried to help him out the best he could.
And he stuck around.
My name is Hal Jones.
My dad was Coppy Jones, a friend of Leonard Knight.
Dad got that nickname when he was about five years old.
He lost his leg and the nurses up there bought a get well gift.
It was a police hat and they just called him Coppy.
From then on and it just stuck.
He was a self-taught mechanic blacksmith, welder, you name it, dad could do it.
[Narrator] Before Marie Gee passed in 2016 she shared her memories of Leonard in a phone interview.
[Marie] Getting back to Leonard.
He parked his little bus out back of my station.
Oh, he was just really kind of a pleasant guy to have around.
We had some very deep discussions.
His goal in life was to get the word of God out.
(solemn music) [Duane] Hadn't thought about Leonard for several years but his memories linger on.
He had a dream to become a preacher but the way he was going about it was a different way.
(solemn music) When you asked him what he did for a living or you asked him what he was and he said I'm an Evangelist.
Leonard's vehicle, he was driving a piece of art.
It was a Dodge mid-seventies van with a raised roof, white background paint.
Red lettering said, Jesus saves God is love.
The sinner's prayer written on the side of it.
It was unique.
It was, it was something you wouldn't see.
I mean, we didn't have internet or anything like that.
You just didn't see stuff like that.
(solemn music) [Marie] Then he got the idea one day that he bet if he had a big hot air balloon with scripture on it that just maybe, that would work.
(solemn music) Are you on now?
This story starts back in 1970 in Burlington, Vermont.
Approximately 20 years ago I saw a hot air balloon going over the main street and the kids were pulling their parents out of the stores having them look at the balloon and they were saying, daddy, what does the balloon say?
I just wished it said God was love on it.
There could have been a two, three thousand people looking up saying, God is love.
[Hal Jones] And Dad bought into Leonard's story.
Dad believed him.
Dad wanted to see that dream of his come true cause you could see the fire in Leonard's eyes.
And that was Leonard's purpose, was the tell God's story.
As soon as you did something like that back then you were, you were crazy.
You were deemed nuts.
And Dad found a balloon factory in South Dakota and that's the only way they were gonna get this balloon made was either buy enough yardage of fabric to make it themselves or buy the scraps.
They loaded up my dad's pickup and shut down the shop for four or five days and away they went.
Come back with a pickup full boxes of pallets of nylon scraps from that balloon place ♪ Every drop till it's gone ♪ Once they got home, Leonard took the scraps he starts laying them out and he started sewing that thing together with a with a sewing machine.
♪♪ These scraps and making the letters.
And by the time they got done with it, it wasn't perfect but it got the job done.
(country music) And I broke down in 1980 in Shelton, Nebraska and I was gonna stay two hours and the people treated me nice and I stayed four years and cut cottonwood and drove a corn truck and met hundreds of nice people in Nebraska.
And they all kind of helped me build the balloon and I sewed it with a sewing machine from scratch and had a lot of fun doing it.
♪♪ [Marie] And he would sew and sew and sew and I don't know how many thousands of yards of thread he said he used, sitting out behind my station.
♪♪ The newspaper in Kearney got a hold of his story and they had it up on the front page of their paper and they likened it to a whale in a harlequin suit.
[Narrator] Two photographs showing the inflated balloon behind Max and Marie Gee's interstate service station have been found.
(solemn music) And several articles appeared in Nebraska newspapers.
(solemn music) A video showing Leonard trying to inflate his balloon in the California Sonora Desert was shot after he left Nebraska.
Leonard never intended to take it for a ride.
Instead he wanted to raise it high into the air to spread the message that God is love which he sewed in big letters on the balloon.
(solemn music) laughing) When you used scraps you used everything you had and he had a dream.
He just kept going till he had all the scraps put together.
[Hal] Dad was the first one that ever gave him the chance for the opportunity.
And even then the money to get the balloon Dad made him do stuff around the shop.
The car that I still have from when I was 16.
Dad had him do the body work and paint that car to get the money to go get the scraps of balloon stuff.
[Marie] He would work out back and he would wait on customers.
And he was always pleasant.
He was always happy.
It was really a comfort to me to have someone else with me at that interstate interchange cause it got pretty scary at times.
♪♪ [Duane] I always said he was on a low budget.
He didn't get too interested in really staying with anything (solemn music) because he had this balloon and God on his mind and he was going to fulfill it regardless.
(solemn music) [Hall] Leonard would survive by generosity.
He never begged.
People would see a need and they'd, they'd pick it up and he might have a few bucks in his pocket but somebody would pick up his tab.
I was out here one year in 1979 and I liked the weather and I always wanted to get back here when it snowed a lot in Nebraska.
But people in Nebraska treated me awful good, too.
Good memories and I guess I got a thousand good memories.
(solemn music) [Narrator] Leonard had spent several years in central Nebraska sewing his hot air balloon after he rolled into the interstate filling station in 1980.
With very little notice Leonard packed up his balloon and in the fall of 1984, headed west.
[Marie] He just headed for California.
Well, he just came in and thanked us for all of our hospitality.
I remember, Coppy Jones was worried about him.
(solemn music) [Hal] To put this vision from his head to fabric from scraps to sewing machine it took a lot of talent to do what he did.
[Marie] Even artists have called him artistic and he'd just laughed.
He says, well, if you call making a lump of clay and running your fist into it and then painting it, an artist he said, I guess I'm an artist.
(laughing) [Leonard] I feel very privileged that I, I can do this.
(solemn music) Leonard had a dream like the rest of us.
We've all had dreams of doing things and accomplishing things (solemn music) and sometimes those dreams kind of go by the wayside.
And I think maybe he'd give up on a dream of balloons and he went to California and done something bigger and better where more people could see it.
(solemn music) [Leonard] And I never did get the balloon up although, I tried hundreds of times in Nebraska.
Probably 40 times in South Dakota and I never got the balloon up (solemn music) because I didn't have the right heat in the propane bottle.
Out here, I had the propane bottles and the people loving me but it got too rotten and it was, it ripped easy.
I'm glad about now because if it didn't have rotten out I might not have put this Adobe Hill up here.
So this is why the hill is up here.
It had the same message and it seems like everybody loves it.
And I'm excited about this mountain because I could have Catholics, Baptist, people who love God people who don't, black and white and they all seem to love me and gimme a compliment.
And I think love is like a snowball going downhill.
If they treat me good, I want to treat them good.
And in town, when I go into the restaurant I wanna check my mouth to make sure I'm as good as they are.
And the better I try to be, the better they are.
It's a beautiful thing.
God, I wouldn't want to trade this place for any place in the whole world.
(solemn music) [Narrator] Leonard never sought attention but with his many attempts to send his message into the skies and his three story tall and 100 foot long mountain adored with a cross, Leonard became a celebrity of sorts.
He's been featured in numerous newspapers, magazines videos and films.
Salvation Mountain is a destination and a pilgrimage for thousands each year and is maintained by Salvation Mountain a nonprofit organization which continues to fight for preservation and ownership of the land.
(solemn music) Put the camera where you think it should show God is love, real good.
[Narrator] With declining health Leonard Knight entered a nursing home in 2012 never to work on his mountain again only to visit on rare occasions.
Leonard passed away February 10th, 2014 at the age of 82.
(solemn music) (solemn music) (solemn music) (soft music) [Narrator] At a weekly produce stand at a Lincoln Farmer's Market.
Shahab Bashar helps his customers find just the right fresh ingredients, green peppers and tomatoes or more specialized items like pickling peppers and shishitos.
[Narrator] Shahab helped grow this produce as part of a nonprofit called Community Crops designed to help people grow their own food.
[Narrator] Shahab also works part-time at Community Crops as the Yazidi cultural liaison.
[Narrator] Providing interpreting and translation assistance including advice on how to get the most out of Nebraska soil, which differs from the sandier soil of his homeland in Northern Iraq.
[Narrator] Shahab is part of Lincoln's Yazidi refugee community.
A non-Muslim ethno-religious minority, many of whom like Shahab and his family, were forced to flee from Iraq after multiple genocides.
(soft music) Lincoln is home to some 3,000 Yazidis, the largest such community in the US.
[Narrator] Shahab's family served as translators with the US Army in Sinjar, Iraq before receiving visas to come to the US, joining Lincoln's growing Yazidi community in 2017.
(soft music) With the trauma of the genocide back home and the culture shock of their new home.
The family struggled to adjust.
(soft music) [Narrator] Part of the culture shock had to do with food.
[Shahab] [Narrator] That's when Shahab and Community Crops launched the effort to find the seeds to grow food that is culturally important to the Yazidi community.
[Shahab] [Narrator] When Shahab is attending rows, he's helping other immigrants and refugees navigate some of the same struggles he and his family faced.
[Shahab] At the Yazidi Cultural center, (soft music) (soft music) [Narrator] Friend and fellow Yazidi refugee.
Nawaf Haskan was also an interpreter for the US military.
(soft music) [Narrator] 6,000 miles from Sinjar.
Food is key to preserving cultural traditions in his own family.
(soft music) Both Nawaf and his wife Layla are skilled chefs cooking elaborate feasts from unwritten recipes passed out from one generation to the next.
(soft music) At their home in Lincoln, the camera eats first, so Nawaf can post images to his Instagram site, Yazidi Kitchen in America.
[Nawaf] [Narrator] Over aromatic plates of Dolma, lamb stuffed Kutelk dumplings, and pickled shishito peppers.
Nawaf and Shahab are not just planting seeds, they're planting a future in the US with their growing families.
[Nawaf] [Narrator] Shahab has his farm and the culinary traditions, it inspires, only strengthens the connection of his soul to the Nebraska soil.
[Shahab] [Narrator] Shahab likens his existence to that of a tree or plant part of the land here, ready to grow roots in his new home.
(soft music) (soft music) NARRATOR: One of Polk Co unty's longest unsolved crimes was recently put to rest here, in this quiet country cemetery located just five miles west of Stromsburg.
In 1945, someone, for some unknown reason, took the headstone of an eight-month-old infant named Lena Davis.
For the next 70 years, Lena's marker would take on a life of its own, and its eventual return exposed a growing issue surrounding many of Nebraska's rural cemeteries.
CINDY DRAKE: My name is Cindy Drake, and I'm the librarian for the Nebraska History Library located at the Nebraska State Historical Society and one of my assignments is the Nebraska Statewide Cemetery Registry.
NARRATOR: Established in 2005 by the Nebraska Legislature, th e Statewide Cemetery Registry will eventually be a comprehensive database of burial sites across the state.
CINDY: The true intent of the statute was to compile listing of all the cemeteries, burial grounds, mausoleums, crematoriums located in the state of Nebraska, to give their exact location, and who is responsible for them.
(file drawer opening) NARRATOR: It's estimated that there are 3,500 burial sites and of those, only about half are registered.
Without a dedicated staff person, Cindy, by default, now manages the registry, al ong with all the other duties she performs as the State Librarian.
Since taking on the registry, Cindy has discovered a common concern among the people who've reached out to her.
CINDY: One of the major things that I've learned is the number of abandoned cemeteries that are in this state, and when I say abandoned, I mean, all that's left of them are the tombstones.
NARRATOR: Many rural cemeteries were created by Nebraska's earliest la ndowners, the Pioneer Settler.
A number of these burial grounds did not have formal cemetery boards, and if there were burial records, they were donated to local libraries or simply lost to time.
In what can only be described as a twist of irony, what puts rural cemeteries at the highest risk of disappearing, is encroachment by agriculture.
CINDY: If a abandoned cemetery does not have a fence around it, and that the farmer with a bigger machinery keep encroaching upon the cemetery.
The most horror stories I hear, or that I've heard of was years ago about farmers who just removed the tombstones and threw them in a ditch, and farmed over the property.
NARRATOR: This is an experience that is all too familiar with Richard Boston.
RICHARD BOSTON: I wouldn't call it a cemetery at the time.
It was an open, grassy space that was maybe 80 feet long by 40 feet wide in the center of a cornfield at the time.
NARRATOR: Though his family homesteaded in Pawnee County, Richard lives in Colorado.
It was during a series of visits to the resting place of his ancestors that he witnessed Prairie Star Cemetery's transformation into cropland.
RICHARD: Originally in the 1870s, it was two acres and it was down now to, a dozen square yards at the most, maybe the size of two automobiles.
Christina's headstone was in one of the furrows in a bean field.
NARRATOR: With the assistance of the county attorney's office and the cooperation of the landowner, the cropland was seeded back to Prairie Star Cemetery.
One year after the discovery of the cemetery's demise, Prairie Star Cemetery was restored to its original two-acre footprint.
RICHARD: There's no way to put the stones back exactly where they came from.
So we're still trying to figure out the best solution for those stones.
The other kind of worry is that, some people do collect those things, and so, we're still a little torn about how to ensure that they're there and don't disappear.
CINDY: There are no local laws in regards to the protection of abandoned cemeteries unless the county government themselves put it on their books.
I have learned throughout the state with 93 counties, you have possibly sometimes 93 different ways abandoned cemeteries will be taken care of.
NARRATOR: If abandoned cemeteries have a friend, it's sure to be in pint-sized dynamo Louella Hinrichsen.
LOUELLA HINRICHSEN: I started on Find-A-Grave in 2009 and then volunteered to take pictures and you just put the information up of whoever's buried in each cemetery.
NARRATOR: In seven years, Luella has documented more than 18,000 graves working as a volunteer for the Find-A-Grave website.
LOUELLA: I do it all year long, even in wintertime.
You can get real good pictures in the wintertime.
I just enjoy the cemeteries.
They're a peaceful place, and those records aren't always gonna be there.
The stones that are, even in the years that I've been doing this now, they're deteriorating something terrible, a lot of them.
I don't want people to be forgotten, whether they're rich or poor, regardless their age.
There's so many babies.
- [Narrator] Including little Lena Davis.
(upbeat music) (upbeat music) Watch more "Nebraska Stories" on our website, Facebook and YouTube.
(upbeat music) "Nebraska Stories" is funded in part by the Margaret and Martha Thomas Foundation, and Humanities Nebraska, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment.
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