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Barnhill Family Photo
Marion Barnhill, 93, stands next to cedar tree in Hampstead LDS Cemetery that was planted by mystery girl's dad.

HAMPSTEAD, N.C. — The father had helplessly watched his little girl deteriorate from sickness to death a few days earlier. And now he stands 2,500 miles from home with a borrowed shovel in his hand.

Besides the company of a 9-year-old local boy who happened upon the scene, the solemn father, a Mormon traveling from Utah, was alone as he buried his child in an unfamiliar North Carolina cemetery just off the Atlantic shoreline. There were no pallbearers or relatives to help carry the actual and emotional weight of it all. There were no flowers. And there were no prayers — at least none uttered aloud.

It was just a father in a grassless, windswept cemetery toiling to tear open a fresh wound in the earth as precisely wide as the size of the hole left in his heart.

That was in 1925. And while the father's pain of burying his toddler might have waned over the years until his own death sometime later, the feeling of that ominous afternoon in Hampstead, N.C., only worsened for the dirty, redheaded Mormon boy who momentarily paused work in his family's nearby garden to aid the desperate father in the Mormon church-owned cemetery.

That boy, Marion Barnhill, is now a frail 93-year-old man desperate for answers to a mystery he's only held a handful of clues to for the past 85 years. He said that before he dies, he wishes someone somewhere will recognize the following story from their relatively recent family history. He hopes they'll come forth with the identity of the unidentified girl, who may have siblings still alive today.

Rewind 85 years

At his mother's request that spring morning in 1925, Barnhill went to work in the family garden, which shared a property line with the graveyard.

"That's when I saw them drive up the dirt road into the cemetery," Barnhill said. "I don't 'member the color, but I know it was a four-door (car)."

The father stepped out of his vehicle, approached the boy and asked for a shovel. While young Barnhill hustled to the barn and back, the man unloaded a smallish, "about 36-inch-long" casket from the backseat of his car.

The man worked in mostly silence, but a few details from their spotty conversation burned into Barnhill's memory.

The father said he and his wife were traveling from Utah eastward through the South when their daughter fell ill and died before they could get medical attention. He said he purchased the child's casket from a morgue 15 miles away in the city of Wilmington and that someone at the morgue — probably after discovering the couple was Mormon — gave the father directions to the Hampstead LDS Cemetery, a small, once-privately owned graveyard close to the coastline that had been donated to the church for its members' use.

Perhaps too stricken with grief, or too upset for having to bury her baby so far from home, the man's wife, the little girl's mother, stayed in the car and watched the unsophisticated interment from a distance.

"She never got out," Barnhill remembered. "Not once."

Was she sick, perhaps too weak to get out after catching her child's contagious disease while caring so intimately for her?

Planting a memory

Although the out-of-town strangers appear to have acted rashly — they didn't get permission for, or officially record, the burial plot; they didn't buy a headstone or a common granite grave marker — the couple acted with apparent tenderness and conceivably with all the sentiment they could afford.

After tolerating the earth swallowing his angel, and while still wearing his suit and tie, the father carefully hand-packed the last of the sandy soil on the unmarked grave and started digging another hole. In that little grave, however, he buried new life: a five-foot-high cedar sapling.

He took a coin from his pocket and turned to the boy.

"He told me he'd pay me a quarter if I agreed to pour a bucket of water on the tree every day for seven days," Barnhill said. "That was a lot of money back then, especially to a kid."

Barnhill walked the half mile from his home to the cemetery every day for a week and fulfilled his agreement by drawing water from a nearby pond.

He never watered it again.

Growing up

While the cedar survived 80-or-so years worth of windstorms and droughts, Barnhill endured his own battles during that time.

After joining the military, German troops shot Barnhill's bomber plane out of the air while he was flying his eighth mission in World War II, killing his co-pilot. Enemies stormed the downed plane, grabbed Barnhill and detained him in Stalag Luft III, a German prison camp, for 18 months. Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army charged into the camp with blazing firepower in 1945 and released the prisoners.

He returned home, married in 1947 and raised a large family in the gospel. And later, he served as stake president and patriarch in the Hampstead area.

But no matter what he did or where he served, that once small and vulnerable grave marker, which eventually grew into one of the largest, most majestic trees in the cemetery, was ever present, always reminding him of the nameless darling at its roots.

Years later, Barnhill briefly mentioned the experience in his book, "History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hampstead, N.C."

Over the years, the story of the little girl has become a sort of local legend, one that sparked fresh interest in 2008 among Hampstead Latter-day Saints.

"I had a burning desire to have the child's grave marked, as it broke my heart to think of how her parents, so far from their home in Utah, must have felt leaving their little daughter behind," said Laura McLeod, the Hampstead Ward activity days leader.

McLeod's passion stirred others to help, like Michael Cole, owner of nearby Hanover Monument Works, who stepped up and donated a stone monument engraved with a six-sentence synopsis of the story.

A trace of evidence

It was during that same time, when the ward was buzzing about the girl, when Ruth Shingleton, a longtime ward member, raised her hand during Relief Society. She spoke up and corrected a sister who expressed regret that the little girl's family "just forgot about her," Shingleton remembered.

"I said, 'No, they didn't forget her. Her family came looking for her a few years ago,' " she said. "Twelve to 15 years ago," a couple from back West traveled through Hampstead looking for local Latter-day Saints who might be able to help them find "the unmarked grave of a little girl buried in a Mormon cemetery," Shingleton said.

Locals directed the couple to Shingleton and her late husband, both prominent Mormons in the community who lived in a distinguished home along a main highway.

Shingleton answered the door and briefly spoke to the couple. She regrets not asking more questions. Today, she can't recall their names but described them as white and between 30 and 40 years old.

"They said (the story) was in their family records," she said. "They seemed to be close to her, at least close enough they wanted to place a (grave) marker."

She sent the searching couple to Henry Maples, president of the volunteer-run Hampstead LDS Cemetery Association and also longtime ward member.

And that's where the story, or rather its clues, dead-ends. Completely. The couple never placed a marker and, to anyone's knowledge, never returned.

Henry Maples died not too long after the couple visited, taking the family's identity with him. Henry Maples didn't appear to have left any notes on the grave plat or other records about the visit behind, according to his son Duane Maples, the new association president who lives in his late father's home next to the cemetery.

Duane Maples peered out his window during a recent phone interview. He looked out over the neighboring cemetery, over his "quiet neighbors." He glanced at the towering cedar tree. "There it is," he said. "Miracles happen, I guess. It's always possible someone reads the story and comes forward. But I just don't know. ... It's a long shot."

But it's exactly the kind of long-shot miracle Barnhill still wishes for, even expects from the help of other church members inspired by the promised help of the biblical spirit of Elijah.

"Someone out there knows," Barnhill said. He started to cry. Then, with a kind of emotional, high-pitched tone that often accompanies tears, he asked to be excused. "I'm sorry. Please understand. This is close to my heart."

What we did:

We started by assuming possible scenarios: If the girl's parents reported her death in the area, perhaps when they bought her casket, it would appear on a death certificate in the county in which she reportedly died, not necessarily where she was buried.

But we discovered each county's public online database required the one thing we didn't have, a name; databases couldn't be searched by other defining criteria like birth place, ethnicity, age or even a death date — all information traditionally included on death certificates at the time.

We contacted several register-of-deed officials in those counties. They had a few more search tools in their belt and graciously obliged our request to search the total deaths in a four-to-six-month spring period in 1925. Each county returned a list of about 100 to 200 names for that time. But that's largely — and understandably — where their generosity ended. None, except kindhearted Brunswick County, took the hour or two to personally click open each name on the list to see if scanned-in information on death certificates matched with the girl's identifying criteria.

Therefore, further research naturally falls to interested local members in surrounding counties in North and South Carolina already positioned to physically visit such offices where they have access to more robust search capabilities.

Of course, there are two more obvious scenarios: First, they may not have officially reported her death at all; or, second, they had it recorded in their home county, a common occurrence in those days, according to David Rencher, chief genealogical officer of FamilySearch. And just like the state-run databases, FamilySearch, too, requires a name.

After meeting with Rencher, we spent time with several genealogy experts at the church's Family History Library in Salt Lake City. We seemingly exhausted possibilities. After finding an accurate list of funeral homes existing in the Wilmington area in 1925, we discovered since none of them appear to exist today, there's no chance of finding a record of the identity of people who purchased a child's casket during that time period.

What you can do:

1. Do you remember this story, or a close version of it, in your recent family history? If so, contact Laura McLeod at 910-620-1399.

2. Use these clues to search:

A white girl

Likely born in Utah, or at least in the West

Age 3, but possibly 2 or 4

Died sometime in the spring but possibly in the summer

Died in 1925 but possibly in 1924 or 1926

Died in a county at least somewhat near Wilmington, N.C., where the parents purchased her casket

e-mail: jhancock@desnews.com