SPARTA, Wis. - Katelyn Peters hung a raspberry-colored bell, on which she had carefully written "Merry Christmas" in black pen. Kayla Bush added a purple star.
Children giggled and jostled for position as they dotted the 7-foot evergreen with construction paper ornaments. The mood was light and festive - even if the setting wasn't.
The tree they were decorating Wednesday is at the gate to the Child Center Cemetery, a place where for almost a century orphaned or neglected children were buried when no one claimed them after they died.
"It's sad, 'cause these children died, and they didn't have anyone," said Bush, 8.
The laughter and chattering quieted to a near-whisper as the group later walked through the rows of weathered cemetery markers. Even though the stones have numbers rather than names, most of the young visitors seemed to understand the markers represented children who might have been about their age when they succumbed to polio or smallpox or influenza.
"They asked a lot of questions on the way up here," said Natalie Contario, executive director of the Sparta Boys and Girls Club.
This is the third year the club has decorated a tree at the cemetery, which is in the Sparta Municipal Golf Course, a short walk down Montgomery Street from the club's headquarters.
The cemetery was affiliated with the former State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children, later the Wisconsin Child Center, which operated in Sparta from 1887 to 1976.
For decades, no one knew who was beneath each numbered marker, until June Laxton of Sparta, a former counselor at the center, located a handwritten chart in the Monroe County History Room. On Memorial Day in May 1999, a granite monument was set in the cemetery that provides names for 283 of the 305 numbered headstones.
Caroling and a colorful tree might seem out of place at a children's cemetery, even for the season. But to the 9-year-old Peters, it made perfect sense.
"They might not have had a Christmas tree," she explained. "So we made them one.