Courthouse lawn: Pieces of fascinating history
September 13, 2013
The lawn on the west side of the Hill County Courthouse is always an attractive shaded area. In early spring the sidewalk into the west entrance is decorated with big colorful peonies.
An assortment of other flowers and plants grace the area along those same walks later in the season. When Veterans ceremonies are held there, the walks are lined with American flags. That same area of the lawn has been the site of other special events including weddings and pie socials. It also contains some impressive and interesting memorials.
On the southwest corner of the lawn is a large and lovely three-piece stone monument to our local World War II veterans installed in the 1950s. The centerpiece of the memorial is a 39-by-75 inch slab of pink marble inscribed:
In Solemn Tribute To Our Former Comrades.
Below that title are 69 names of local residents that gave their lives in World War II. Flanking this impressive piece are two 14-by-48 matching pink granite benches providing a perfect setting for reflection or meditation.
On the same side of the lawn but closer to the building is a smaller 19-by-17 inch marker with a smaller metal plaque attached to its face which reads:
Presented by Lt. Col. Mary J. Dover. C.W.A.C. Retired. OBE., CM., DAC. And Alberta Steel Scouts in honor of the Montana Centennial June 1989.
The marker refers to the gift of a specially developed variety of lilac which unfortunately died. Efforts made to get a replacement were not successful. The marker remains however, as a reminder of a thoughtful act on behalf of our neighbor to the north.
A few feet away on the north side of the west entry sidewalk is a much larger marker sheltered by a beautiful big spruce tree. The inscription on the plaque attached to this marker reads:
The Freedom Tree with the vision of universal freedom for all mankind This Tree is dedicated to Major Richard D. Oppelhans and all prisoners of war and missing in action 1975.
It acts as a solemn reminder of another segment of local residents participation in wars both past and present.
Almost invisible on that same piece of lawn but located near to the northwest corner is a small, almost hidden 15-by-12 inch monument with an attached metal plaque which reads:
Planted in 1937 by Bear Paw Post VFW in memory of Schuman Heink Noted Soldier Friend. 1861-1936.
Why in 1937, 19 years after the close of World War I with Germany and with rumblings already beginning in Europe, would our Havre VFW present a memorial to a person with such a Germanic sounding name? An Internet search revealed a 20-page article on the lady in question.
Born in poverty near Prague in 1861, she began singing publicly at age 13 and in opera at age 17. With no money, no formal training and unable to read music she relied on kindly superiors to coach her and to provide her with clothing suitable to her singing appearances.
Married at age 21, she promptly had four children. Ten years later she was divorced and remarried adding three children by her second husband and adopting a child of his bringing her total to 8. Her debut in the U.S. came in 1897 and there her operatic career took off. By 1909 she was being described as the “World’s Greatest Contralto”
She became an American citizen in 1905. A year later she returned to Germany to bring six of her eight children out. Despite other family attachments there, when the United States declared war in 1917 she promptly declared her support for U.S. intervention and willingly sang at bond drives, veterans’ benefits and war rallies all around the United States.
When she died in November 1934, several funerals were held in commemoration. Her funeral in Los Angeles was held at the clubhouse of Hollywood Post 23 of the American Legion. Legion honor guards stood at attention at all the funerals in that area and even along the train tracks as her body was moved to the San Diego area for burial.
A 5-foot bronze tablet installed in San Diego’s Balboa Park four years later identified her as a "Gold Star Mother” and “Star of the World."
The marker in the courthouse lawn denotes that our local WWI veterans chose to honor her too.
(Toni Hagener is a longtime Havre resident and an expert in Hi-Line history.)