Headstones tell the tales of early settlers
By Kristen Berns
Austin Daily Herald
Want an early account of history? Wander the grounds of
You'll see names of settlers -- those who paved the way for
You'll see Norwegian names, German, Swedish, Polish and
English names -- names of people generations ago who settled this area and
are now long gone.
Dead for centuries but their future generations are the
ones taking care of their final resting place.
That's what Gary Braaten, Dale Peterson and Myron Helleck
do on the Red Oak Grove Cemetery Board. Ask them who is buried in
the rural cemetery and it's an easy answer: farmers -- "our ancestors,"
they'll tell you.
They'd bet the farm there are four generations buried at the
Red Oak Grove Cemetery -- they'll even bet there are five generations out there. It's
their grandfathers, grandmothers and even great-grandfathers and mothers.
They're not so clear about the beginning history of the cemetery
but they're sure it was there before the church, the Red Oak Grove Church.
Today the cemetery is an association, which means people can be
buried there even if they're a member of another church. But they admit, most
of the souls buried in the cemetery have a tie to the cemetery, either by family
or with the church.
"Most people now have left the area and are
now in the later part of their life," Braaten said. "They want to get back
to their roots."
Generations of families
Peterson said he remembers hearing or seeing a
date as far back as 1849 or 1851 as a date on a grave marker. "There were
few settlers here at the time," he said.
The only settlers in Mower County and the surrounding area
at the time were Native Americans. The first white settlers didn't "settle"
the land until the fall of 1852, when the first claims in the county were
taken by hunters and trappers from Iowa along the Cedar River where Austin
Later came the permanent settlers like Hunter
Clark, Austin Nichols, Chauncey Leverich, John Tiff, Robert Dobbins, John
Patchin and many others in the county. In 1855, a tide of immigrants
came to the area, increasing the population and plotting homesteads.
In Udolpho Township, William Tullis was the
first white settler in 1855, according to "Mill on the Willow," a historical
publication of Mower County. Later that same year came Thomas Richardson,
Knute Olson, Andrew Anderson, and Ole and Bennett Christianson. In 1856
there were the Nellers, Charles N. Stimson, Nathaniel Reed, George Pierson
and Benjamin Vaughn, and plenty of others.
With numerous Century Farms in the area,
there were many settlers and future generations to ensure the grave of
these settlers would be taken care of.
Braaten, Peterson and Helleck say there are more than 1,000
maybe even 1,500 buried in Red Oak Grove Cemetery. Their great-grandfathers
are buried there. So are their parents. And they plan to be.
History according to them
There used to be a road that treaveled through the old
portion of the cemetery that went to Ramsey Mill, where people purchased
their flour, the three said. Braaten said all the early settlers
in the area were farmers and buried there. And Helleck adding, "The last
two generations haven't been all farmers though." Braaten said, "Look down
through the names ... most of all the people were farmers." So important
that this cemetery isn't a "forgotten" one, they said you can read pretty
much all the names on the headstones, even the century old ones, to see
who's buried in a particular spot.
There have been smaller headstones moved closer to bigger
headstones to make for easier mowing and upkeep of the cemetery. And most of
the older plots have a center family monument. "There will be four
generations on the lots in my family," Helleck said.
Most of the people buried at the cemetery are Norwegians who
settled the area generations ago. Walk down any aisle in the cemetery and you'll
get a lesson and learn some good Norwegian names.
History according to the book
According to "Mill on the Willow," there was land owned by
Gutterm Engen that had burials next to a territorial road and joing the
west line of his farm. "An irregular piece of ground covered with brush,
this spot continued to be the burial ground for the next nine years following
the arrival of the first settlers in 1855," according to the book, which was
published in 1984.
Later, the Red Oak Grove Church formed and took action to
buy the property. The new owner, Simon Ulland, offered to sell it for $10
to the church. In 1864, the church congregation bought one acre of land and
named it the Red Oak Grove Cemetery.
"For many years graves were dug wherever the church members
wished, with the markers being an oak tree, or the name and date panted on a
board; later small marble stones were used," according to "Mill on the Willow.
In 1890 the cemetery grew even larger when the congregation
bought more land, this time from P.S. Ulland at a cost of $25 an acre.
The territorial road was then closed and a new road went along
the west line of his farm. From 1915-1922, great efforts were made by members
to clean up the cemetery and stake lots and survey the whole plot. Additional
land was puchased so roads could be laid out throughout the growing cemetery
with older residents of the area gathering information on unmarked graves.
In 1924 the cemetery incorporated and a perpetual care fund
began. The earliest burial, according to "Mill on the Willow," was Julia
Benson, in 1857.
Future of the cemetery
It has been left up to the next generation to keep the
cemetery looking clean and respectful. Donations and a perpetual
fund allow for clean and short grass, painted fences, spring cleaning,
painted trim -- all done by the eight members of the cemetery board.
The board meets "officially" once a year and have plenty of
"unofficial" meetings to make sure the cemetery is kept up well. They
said there has never been a time when the cemetery was in jeopardy of being
"forgotten" about or left unkept like so many on the rural countryside sadly
have. "We buy more land and keep up with the improvements,"
In the future, the cemetery will continue to grow. Plans
are being worked out with Anderson Memorial to design plots for an additional
purchase of land to the growing cemetery. In the future there will
also be larger and longer grave sites.
In the fall, pumpkins adorn the grave markers. At Christmas
time, it's wreaths. In the summer, flowers are every where.
Is there anyone important buried in Red Oak Grove Cemetery?
The three will tell you everyone buried there is important ... it's their
Young children who were victims of the flu or diptheria. Women
who died giving birth at the family farm house. Men who died an early death
after a hard life farming. They're all important people who were settlers in
this area. "All the people buried out there were catastrophes,"
Peterson said, "They're all V.I.Ps." There are veterans of World
War I and II and even some Civil War veterans. There are mothers, fathers
and sisters and brothers and not many who are forgotten.
The three aren't worried about the future of the cemetery,
either. Although in 2006, there were 10 burials in the cemetery, which
averages about 12-18 burials a year, they say the cemetery will continue
to grow. It will be taken care of by future generations -- their
children and grandchildren, they said. "I think it'll go onto many
generations yet," Helleck said. "We've got the funds and the land."