Oldest graves get upkeep, even if abandoned

Mike Blum trims the grass around gravestones at the Clay Hill Norwegian Lutheran Cemetery east of Flandreau. The fenced in area where pioneers are buried is one of the county’s abandoned cemeteries. He has always been interested in this gravestone that is shared by two infants who died less than two years apart in the 1880s.

Markers provide look at local history; tell a story

Remains of several pioneers and early settlers lay under the thick Moody County sod that holds their forever resting places.
For a few, those graves that date back to the 1880s are gathered in three small abandoned cemeteries that are rarely visited and have limited or no access to the public.
That doesn’t mean they’re forgotten, however.
“It’s just a tribute to these people,” Anna Duncan, president of the Moody County Genealogical Society, said. “If we don’t do this, the history is lost, and they are no longer an individual. To me that’s tragic.”
The Moody County Genealogical Society has records of each of the three officially abandoned cemeteries, others that are not used much anymore and active cemeteries in the county. With the help of $2,000 from Moody County each year, the organization makes sure the abandoned cemeteries are kept up.
Mike Blum, along with grandson Blake Thielsen, mowed the Clay Hill cemetery last week, trimming around six gravestones inside of a chain-link fence on a wind-swept hill east of the Flandreau golf course. The job takes about a half hour, but the stones get Blum thinking about the past.
One in particular, a marker that lists two infants that died within two years of each other in the mid- to late-1880s stirs his curiosity.
He wonders about the children, Bernhard Johan—born June 22, 1885 and died April 11, 1886 – and his sister Bertine Johanne –born July 18, 1887 and died Feb. 28, 1888. Their parents are listed as O.W. and Gunhild Erickson, and the rest of the information is in Norwegian.
When he mows it, he senses the respect, reverence and importance of the cemetery that was part of a Norwegian Lutheran church in pioneer days.
“You just feel the respect of the people that passed away and are buried there. Give them the reverence for a resting place,” he said. And there is value in the upkeep.
“You never know, somebody might come back and search,” he said. “You’d hate to have it look like nobody takes care of it.”
Blum also mows the abandoned Van Nice Cemetery, located east of Highway 32 near the Flandreau Indian School. The property is in a cow pasture so access is often closed, but the cemetery was fenced off several years ago.
The Van Nice Cemetery is the earliest settler’s cemetery in the county, Duncan said. P.A. Van Nice, one of the first teachers at the Indian school, started the cemetery in 1882. His young son Robbie, who died at age 1, is buried there but his monument is gone, she said. A daughter also was buried there after dying in 1884 of scarlet fever.
“There were so many diseases back them. Babies, if they got sick back then, there wasn’t much for them,” Duncan said.
County Commissioner John Schiefelein, a retired county employee, remembers working on the cemetery decades ago. He found the sexton’s map for the cemetery, which included plans to make it larger than it is.
He thinks about the hardships of those buried there and the sacrifices during that time. “These were our original pioneers that were here many years ago. It was neglected. It was terrible,” he said of the condition of the abandoned cemetery. With a fence around it, it is better.
“They’re people, too. They should be recognized for what they did. They were very important people,” he said of early settlers.
The third abandoned cemetery is the Martinson Cemetery in section 26 of Jefferson Township, west of Interstate 29 from Flandreau. The family plot holds the Martinson girls and several others, Duncan said. But it is not accessible most of the year and is in the middle of farm ground, surrounded by fence.
A couple of other cemeteries in the county are rarely used, including the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Freemont Township, Duncan said. Yeo Cemetery in Riverview Township also is not officially abandoned yet.
But other old cemeteries continue to be maintained.
In Flandreau, the original SS. Simon and Jude Cemetery, east of the current cemetery shed, holds the remains of Cornelius Malone, one of two or three Confederate soldiers buried in the county, Duncan said. The cemetery still is mowed, and around Memorial Day, it’s been a community tradition for hand-made white crosses to be placed on graves.
The Happy Youngster 4-H Club took on the effort a few years ago as a community service project when older community members could no longer do it, said leader Sandy Sheppard.
“We just thought it was important to carry on a tradition that had been going on in the community,” she said. “Our club also took on this project because we thought it was important for the families and individuals in that area of the cemetery to be honored and remembered.”
Moody County has 37 cemeteries, including the newest one established last year by Rolling Plains Mennonite Church.
Under state law, the county is responsible for maintaining cemeteries that no longer are taken care of by those who started them.
In visiting cemeteries that hold some of the oldest graves, there’s so much history of the people who have lived here, Duncan said.
“You think what life was like in the county at that time,” she said. “Some of them, it is marked on there what they died of.”
Gravestones also indicate how wealthy a family might have been or how important it was to honor their family member with a large monument. Some with angels, indicate a baby’s death, while others have symbols important at the time.
“You can tell there’s a story,” Duncan said.


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