Shell Cemetery: A piece of history

Jade Smith

As Memorial Day rolls around, many local residents will make their annual trek to the cemeteries to honor the dead by leaving flowers and spending time reflecting on the family members, friends and community members who touched their lives and are no longer with them.  
At least one cemetery can be found in each community, some claiming even more than one.
In the Shell area, there are three cemeteries, each with its own special ambiance and each having its own special story.
Across the road from the Historic Stone School between Greybull and Shell is the Odessa Cemetery, established in 1902. Farther east, off Beaver Creek Road, is the Whaley Cemetery, also established in 1902.
One cemetery often missed except by those who have family ties to the place is the Shell Cemetery, also known as Smith Cemetery and Upper Shell Cemetery. Officially it is recorded at the Bighorn County Courthouse as Community Cemetery Association of Shell.
Land for the cemetery was donated by Joseph L. Smith in 1886, shortly after the family had relocated from Long Island, N.Y., to the Shell Valley.
The first grave in the cemetery was for Mary Colyer Smith, Joseph Smith’s wife, who passed from complications of childbirth at the age of 42.
Joseph, known as J.L., died in January 1901 and was laid to rest next to his wife and son, Jordan Jr., who died from gangrene at a young age.
J.L. was remembered for carrying a shovel, not a rifle. He also gave and laid out the site for the town of Shell as its now known. His picture and a tribute to J.L. Can be seen on a plaque at the Shell Canyon Visitor Center.
Over half of the graves were dug and filled in by hand. The introduction of the backhoe to the area in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s must have been greeted by relief to the hard workers who were often unrecognized.
Charles “Chot” Smith, grandson to Jordan L, owned the land bordering the cemetery.  When the family of the deceased requested they be laid to rest in the Shell Cemetery, the mortician from Basin would notify Chot and he would go with him to choose the grave site. As far as it is known, no price was or is today asked for the family plots. A crew of four to five men in the area were called to bring shovels, picks and gas burners to prepare the grave. Often these same men served as pallbearers for the family.
Once the service was over, the men would return and fill in the grave, despite extreme heat or below zero temperatures and frozen ground.
There are several veterans’ graves at the Shell Cemetery, including Silas M. Coburn and William Shaddock, who served the Union in the Civil War. Also the graves of James H. Ruddy and Lester Hale, who were veterans of the Spanish American War, can be found in the cemetery. Floyd “Cub” Smith, grandson to Jordan L., placed flags on Memorial Day at all the veterans’ headstones. After Cub’s passing, Morris Smith, great grandson of Jordan L., donated a flagpole and a flag to the cemetery.
In September of 2023, an informational sign was donated by the sons and daughters of Charles C. Smith, Marilyn Smith Fredricks, Carolyn Smith Wertman, Edgar C. Smith and Morris C. Smith. Marilyn also compiled and printed a page of historical information about the cemetery and included a box beside the sign with copies available for those who wish to take one with them.
For those of you who enjoy a walk through history, you may well want to take the time to walk through this unique cemetery, which has been left in its natural state with no tended grass, a few trees, some sagebrush and a breathtaking view of the Big Horn Mountains that were so dearly loved by those resting there.
Many thanks to Marilyn Smith Fredricks for providing the information for this article.