- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

MADELIA, Minn. (AP) - Jenny Yates was searching for a Christmas tree in a nursery outside Madelia in about 2009 when she noticed the top of a headstone peeking out from the heavy snow.

There was no sign the marker was anything other than a lonely outlier. Even in the summer, the cemetery was overgrown with shrubs. A casual observer might mistake it for an ancient family plot.

In other words, it didn’t look like a pioneer cemetery with perhaps dozens of burials, some nearly 150 years old.

Yates was part of the cemetery association for a nearby church, so she asked a friend there in 2011 to help her clean up the pioneer cemetery.

“We had no idea what kind of a project we were getting into,” she said.

Since then, Yates has pored over records and tracked down descendants of people buried there. She believes there are up to 42 people still interred in the old church cemetery, which was created and maintained for a time by a Lutheran church started by pioneers, The Free Press (https://bit.ly/1Iv9ThA ) reported.

She has no connection with the church, though she “cares very deeply about our forefathers.”

“I do not think it’s right for them to be forgotten about in that cemetery,” Yates said.

Despite three years of work, the 1.5-acre cemetery is no closer to being restored or cleaned. Private land surrounds the cemetery, and landowner Dick Koberoski has refused to allow heavy equipment to cross his land, Yates said. He declined comment for this story through a relative.

Faith Lutheran Church tried to clean the site last fall, but canceled after the landowner objected, pastor Salim Kaderbhai said. The church still owns the property and has the legal right to reach the cemetery. An ethical responsibility remains, too, he said.

“We feel we have a huge obligation to that cemetery,” the pastor said.

Translating that responsibility into action has been complicated by parishioners’ long-standing relationships with the landowner’s family. Kaderbhai said families pass land through generations, so neighbors can expect to know each other for decades.

More than legal barriers, it seems to be small-town politics, the cemetery’s obscurity and an uncooperative landowner that are standing in the way of the cemetery’s restoration.

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Norwegian pioneers in Madelia founded their church, then called East Evangelical Lutheran Church of Madelia, in a dugout house in 1870, according to Yates’ research.

One of its earliest members, Martin Gjertson, had been burying his children on part of his land since 1868. First to be laid to rest was 15-month-old George C. Law Gjertson.

Yates has found records of about 65 burials there, as recently as 1908.

That’s about when the church received in donation the land its current cemetery sits on. Yates believes the church switched cemeteries because the new one was much closer to Madelia.

A bit later, around 1920, a road that ran next to the old cemetery was moved, likely because of frequent flooding on the Watonwan River.

The road’s movement all but consigned the cemetery into obscurity.

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Last fall, the church organized a volunteer cleanup day that was to involve 15 or 20 people. They canceled the plan once Koberoski heard about it and said he wouldn’t allow more than two or three people there at a time, said Kaderbhai, the pastor.

But an effective cleanup of the site will require heavy equipment and more than a few people, Kaderbhai said.

That said, Yates’ vision for the cemetery, including the removal of trees, is “way too ambitious for what this group is willing to do.”

“They’re willing to keep it clear and have some kind of acknowledgement of who is buried there,” Kaderbhai said.

The pastor said casting a different vision for the future is part of his ministry, but so is respecting the traditions of his flock.

“Tradition is not so strong that it suffocates us but strong enough that you’re dragging this weight behind you,” he said.

Yates has also learned there was a serious cleanup effort in the 1980s, but she found little before or since.

What is clear is that the church has a right to access the cemetery.

Steven Sunde, a St. James attorney, looked into cemetery laws at the request of a relative of a person buried in the cemetery. He found the original deed for the cemetery includes a right of entry, called an easement.

There’s also a common law right for landowners to cross private property if it’s necessary to access their land. This right would apply to the church and people visiting family members in the cemetery, but that right would be hazier for a curious member of the public, he said.

Furthermore, it would be a felony for a landowner to destroy a cemetery and a gross misdemeanor to remove monuments.

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Though the pastor is an advocate for fixing the cemetery, it’s not clear how many of his parishioners share his thinking. The Free Press left messages with a handful of lay church leaders, but didn’t get any return calls. One such woman who answered the phone said she didn’t want to be quoted about the cemetery.

Yates thinks this go-along-to-get-along attitude plays a role in the lack of action in the cemetery.

“A lot of the people in town want to play nicey nicey nice and not make any waves,” she said.

Kaderbhai said this is the first time he’s preached in a small town, and he’s learned about some of the politics that come along with it.

“The problem, I shouldn’t say problem, is that they’re more timid about things,” he said, adding their hearts are in the right place.

“There’s no doubt that people want to do something about it,” he said. “I guess they’re just stymied as to how to go forward.”

Money has been another barrier.

“We can barely keep our cemetery in shape,” Kaderbhai said, though even he’s not satisfied with that explanation.

“I always hate it when money becomes the obstacle to doing what is right,” he said.

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With only a handful of headstones, learning who remained in the cemetery was a major part of Yates’ research

Some bodies were moved as the church transitioned to a new cemetery, but poor record-keeping prevents her from knowing exactly how many.

Yates looked over death notices, examined genealogy and walked through cemeteries to winnow the list of unaccounted-for bodies. Her belief that up to 42 bodies remain is based on a lack of evidence that they exist anywhere else.

She’s found several people with ancestors buried in the Faith cemetery, including a Kansas woman named Jan Leines who has three relatives there. They include Leines’ father’s maternal grandfather, David Anderson, and his son, Ole, who died at the age of 18 or so.

Leines was shocked to see the cemetery’s condition, she said in an email.

“Without a couple of inscribed stones visible, we wouldn’t have been able to tell it was a cemetery,” she wrote. “The people buried here were pioneers. This cemetery, then, is our very own ‘history.’”

Sue Craig of St. James said her family didn’t know where her great-great-grandmother Anne Marie Johnson was buried, until Yates contacted her. Johnson died in 1877.

“She’s been lost from our family for so long,” Craig said. “There was always a mystery about where she could be.”

After more than 135 years, there won’t be a body left to move. But Craig would like to set a stone there, at least.

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Despite her work, Yates has made little progress and her work will be complicated by a move. But she’s not ready to give up. With summer comes a new opportunity to restore the cemetery.

The same difficulties remain, but the cemetery, and the stories of the people buried there, have something of a pull on her.

One was a baby girl named Henrietta Gerlinger, whose father was the first postman in town. After she died, her father moved to South Dakota, providing a good example of how families can lose track of their ancestors.

“She had no family to move her, so I know she’s still out there,” Yates said.

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Information from: The Free Press, https://www.mankatofreepress.com


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