Although Elwood J. Hanson is buried far from his Ashville home, his grave hasn't lacked visitors.
In 1946, a young girl named Catherina Van der Woude made her first visit to Hanson's grave in the American Military Cemetery near Margraten, Netherlands. She and her descendants have cared for it ever since.
Seventeen of Hanson's relatives visited the grave and spent a few days with a now 82-year-old Catherina and her family this summer.
Led by Hanson's great-niece Marsha Cheney of Frewsburg, some of the relatives will give a presentation on the trip Monday at 7 p.m. at the Carroll Historical Society. Hanson's last surviving sibling, Franklin, will be in attendance.
Hanson, who enlisted in the U.S. Army, was killed in action Nov. 25, 1944, near the Roer River in Germany. He became one of 8,300 soldiers buried in the cemetery.
Catherina had witnessed the liberation of her country after years of German occupation. Her gratefulness for freedom led her to adopt Hanson's grave.
"Anybody who lived in Europe during the second World War and saw the liberation was quite grateful," said Carolyn Moynihan, a Carroll Historical Society board member. "Catherina just wanted to do that."
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Catherina visited Hanson's grave often and tried to obtain the address of his family in the U.S. She hoped to set their minds at ease.
The cemetery's American gatekeeper was not allowed to divulge information on Hanson's living descendants. However, he finally gave in years later after seeing Catherina's devotion.
Catherina corresponded with Hanson's parents and his sister Hilda until their deaths. She lost contact with his American relatives in 1991.
"To the people of the Netherlands, it is an honor to care for these graves," Cheney said. "Of the 8,311 graves in the cemetery, all of them are adopted by someone from the Netherlands. There's a waiting list for people to do it, still to this day. It was just by chance that she picked Elwood's grave."
Catherina has been unable to negotiate the terrain of the cemetery in recent years, but her son, Ter, and grandson, Pieter, have cared for the grave.
"I speak for the whole family when I say that honoring Elwood J. Hanson is the least we can do out of gratitude for our freedom," said Pieter, who reconnected with the Hanson family in late 2010 through the Fenton History Center.
On Christmas Eve that year, an email from Pieter to the Fenton History Center ignited the search for Hanson's relatives.
"He wanted some background information about Elwood, but mostly he wanted to contact living relatives," said Barb Cessna, research assistant at the Fenton and assistant historian for the town of Carroll. "We found the Hanson family genealogy. It included Elwood and said he had died during World War II. I was able to scan that and send that to Pieter in the Netherlands before I left that day. They enjoyed that during their Christmas."
Pieter and Cheney began emailing each other. Cheney's grandparents had sent many letters and photos to the Van der Woudes over the years. She saw some of them firsthand thanks to Pieter.
"He was a complete stranger, but he sent me pictures of me holding my two-week-old baby," Cheney said. "It was just crazy."
The families reunited via Skype in 2011 during a Flag Day ceremony at the Robert H. Jackson Center. A year later, Hanson's relatives, who represented 10 states, made the trip to the Netherlands.
Cheney and her relatives will share memories from their trip and a history behind Hanson's grave tender.
"It's personal to me because it's my family, but I think people will find it very interesting to see the care that's taken of our servicemen's graves over there and to hear the story of this young girl and how this was passed down from generation to generation," Cheney said. "I have his Silver Star and his Purple Heart. I have pictures that we're going to put out of his regiment. There's a lot of history involved. ... To listen to Catherina talk first hand, seeing all of this, it really was just an amazing trip."
The presentation will be held in the rooms of the Historical Society, behind the Carroll Town Hall, which is on Main Street in Frewsburg. Admission will be free, and the public is welcome to attend.
CARING FOR LOCAL GRAVES
After learning of Catherina's story, the Carroll Historical Society started the Old Soldier Adoption Program. When making presentations on the program, Cessna discusses the connection between the Van der Woudes and the Hansons.
"I was trying to figure out how we could take care of all of these graves that are starting to lean," she said. "When Catherina and that whole story came to light, I thought, 'As a historical society, we could have a program where people could adopt a grave, and then they could watch over it like Catherina did.' She was the inspiration."
The Old Soldier Adoption Program includes veterans from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Spanish American War.
"When you're in a cemetery on Memorial Day, the program speakers are always talking about World War I on, but you're standing among the graves of Civil War, War of 1812, and Revolutionary War soldiers," Cessna said. "The focus is on the newer wars."
The Carroll Historical Society has made a list of the soldiers buried in the town's cemeteries who don't have anyone to care for their graves. Eighteen graves have been adopted so far.
North Harmony created its own adopt-a-grave program, and Cessna believes other towns have considered starting their own.
"We're hoping that all of the towns in Chautauqua County will do it," she said, noting those interested in adopting a grave should contact their town historian.