Prairie Village: Our Story, a history of the community in which the Highland Cemetery is situated, notes the historic mix of native and immigrant peoples in the area.
“The pioneers weren’t the first to discover this treasure...” the history explains. “What today is Prairie Village once belonged to the Kansa, Osage, and Shawnee Indians, who moved into the Kansas Territory from Ohio and Missouri. The settlers and their families befriended many of the native peoples and began staking claim to the prime acreage—sometimes buying the land from the Indians, who were also moving west and into Oklahoma.”
Although some datelines regarding the cemetery aren’t consistent, they tell the same general story.
One history, compiled by the most recent Highland Cemetery board, reports that in “around 1870,” following the Civil War, Thomas Nall purchased land in northeast Johnson County from a Native American family named White. The Nalls built a house at what’s now about 5100 W. 67th St. and set aside a half-acre of ground on top of the hill for a cemetery. Early burials in the cemetery were members of the Nall and White families. Twenty-nine Nall family members are recorded as buried in Highland; three White family graves are recorded.
Local cemetery historian Linda Lewis, who has documented the grave markers within Highland Cemetery for The Digital Cemetery, a Johnson County history project, wrote:
“In the 1850s, this [cemetery] land was part of the Shawnee Nation reservation. When the Shawnees were later removed to Oklahoma, pioneer brothers John and Thomas Nall and their families squatted out 200 acres and became prosperous farmers. Half of this cemetery was owned by John Nall, the other by an Indian named John A. White, who was a friend of Nall’s.”
A charter and official status
In February 1919, members of the farm families in the area filed a charter with the State of Kansas, registering the Highland Cemetery Association as a corporation in Johnson County.
The plat document described the cemetery’s site as “one-half (1/2) acre in the Southeast corner of the Northwest quarter (1/4) of the Northwest quarter (1/4), and one-half (1/2) acre in the Northeast corner of the Southwest quarter (1/4) of the Northwest quarter (1/4) of Section Sixteen (16) in Township Twelve (12) of Range twenty-five (25) in Johnson County, Kansas.”
The persons listed as directors in 1919, all residents of Merriam, Kan., were Annie E. Henderson, T.C. Porter, E.A. Porter, E.L. Miller, and Percy L. Miller.
The charter recording fee was $2.50, and the principal office of the association was listed as the Prairie School House, District 44, Johnson County, Kansas. The nature of the business, as stated in the charter, was “to sell and convey cemetery lots, to use the money in keeping up the grounds and to protect the property, no dividends to be paid or profits and no salaries or other payments to officers…” The term of the charter was 50 years.
No records are available for the ensuing quarter-century. In 1946 the Highland Cemetery Association seems to have first met. The Nall and Porter families and neighbors made up the association. They met annually, usually around Memorial Day and usually at the cemetery. There, officers were elected and donations were received to help fund the cemetery’s care. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these donations were sometimes made in exchange for cemetery lots. (In a departure from the practice of most cemeteries, the Highland association actually sold lots to residents and registered the land deeds.) The association continued to hold yearly meetings and provide donations into the next generation of the Nalls and neighboring families.
The challenge of long-term upkeep
During the cemetery’s first century, descendants of those interred often visited the graves and lovingly maintained the grounds. But things changed after World War II, as they did with many small, historic cemeteries. Loved ones dispersed with the increasing mobility of the population, memories of the original cemetery faded, and its well-being was left in the hands of a few dedicated volunteers.
In 1965, A.C. “Clint” Langworthy became interested in the cemetery. A.C. was a local businessman who was developing 120 acres of the property around the cemetery into single-family residences. With the help of the two Nall descendants living at that time, he had the cemetery platted in Johnson County.
In 1970, following a severe heart attack, A.C. purchased several lots in the cemetery and asked his son, Asher Langworthy, to become part of the management of the Highland Cemetery Association.
A few years later, when the two Nall descendants had died, Asher took charge of the cemetery along with his wife, former Kansas Sen. Audrey Langworthy. Asher served as sexton for decades. The Langworthys’ concern for the cemetery was supported by nearby residents, members of the Prairie Village City Council, survivors of persons buried in the cemetery, and Prairie Village Boy Scout Troops 99 and 199. Still, some deterioration caused concern.
In 2005, for example, the Kansas City Star published a story about the cemetery, noting “a lack of interest, manpower, and money to turn it around.” The cemetery, noted the writer, “has a charm and a rich history that cannot be found in today’s manicured cemeteries. It’s easy to imagine what it would be like restored to its original condition.”
In 2010, as they sought freedom to retire and travel, the Langworthys found a local couple who agreed to succeed them as the cemetery association board. The agreement, however, floundered. The Langworthys once again cared for the cemetery. They received help in 2013 from Logan Bennion, who completed his Eagle Scout project at the cemetery. He placed markers to help identify plots, cleaned up brush and created a QR code to help visitors learn about the cemetery. In 2015 a new board was formed to manage and care for the cemetery, allowing the Langworthys to finally retire from the cemetery.