Article about Red Oak Grove Cemetery, from Austin Daily Herald, May 2007.
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Headstones tell the tales of early settlers

By Kristen Berns
Austin Daily Herald

    Want an early account of history? Wander the grounds of a cemetery.

    You'll see names of settlers -- those who paved the way for future generations.

    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 now is.

    Later came the permanent settlers like Hunter Clark, Austin Nichols, Chauncey Leverich, John Tiff, Robert Dobbins, John Robinson, Lewis 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," Braaten said.

    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 family.

    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."




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