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Pioneer cemeteries fall under plow's threat

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Before and after
In the top frame, the cluster of trees on the left marked the location of the Boerner family cemetery in Grant County. The lower frame shows where the trees were removed.
Photos courtesy Boerner family

The last time anyone was buried in the Boerner family cemetery in Grant County was in 1892. For about 20 years before that, it was where early settlers laid at least 10 family members to rest.

Then for more than 100 years, the western Minnesota pioneer cemetery remained mostly untouched, a small island in the middle of a farm field east of Herman. Until last month.

That's when a descendant of those pioneers called Grant County Sheriff Dwight Walvatne to report something amiss. A small grove of trees at the cemetery was gone. When investigators got a search warrant they found evidence of what Minnesota's state archeologist says is a growing concern, the destruction after years of abandonment of one of the state's thousands of small cemeteries.

Investigators found only a few fragments of headstones and noticed buried debris.

"So we came in with another search warrant and dug out the hole because we wanted to save evidence, the grave markers and stuff, and we did find several of them in that hole," Walvatne said.

The farmer whose field included the cemetery acknowledged clearing the cemetery, Walvatne said, and is cooperating with the investigation.

Investigators will return to the site in the spring to look carefully for any sign that bones were dug up.  

Cemetery markers
At left: a marker from the Boerner family cemetery, which was established in 1872. The last burial was in 1892. At right: An abandoned cemetery in a wooded area of northern Minnesota, photographed in October 2010.
Photos courtesy Boerner family, Yvonne Gunderson

The county attorney said it could be several weeks before he decides on charges in the case.  Damaging a cemetery can be a felony under Minnesota law even if it's abandoned.  Even though the farmer owns the land, the cemetery is protected.

State archeologist Scott Anfinson called the Grant County case the most egregious case of cemetery destruction he has seen but certainly not the first.

"I'd say it's not unusual," Anfinson said. "I have three or four active ones right now, instances where farmers have either started to nibble away at the boundaries of a cemetery or removed the headstones and plowed over the top of it." 

Anfinson said in one case a farmer simply piled the headstones in a ditch and plowed up the cemetery. As farm equipment gets larger, farmers have a more difficult time maneuvering around obstacles, he said.

In addition, as small country churches close, more cemeteries are neglected and abandoned, Anfinson said. He recently compiled a list of more than 6,000 cemeteries, about 3,000 of them unrecorded. That means there is no official record, but they are still protected.

His list does not include more than 12,000 known American Indian burial sites, which are also protected.

Townships or counties can care for the abandoned cemeteries, but Anfinson said tight local budgets make the extra work a burden.  

In the Grant County case, Anfinson was told the farmer thought the cemetery was abandoned. 

"Maybe no one had been out there for 10 years and he finally said 'no one will notice.  And it's really a hassle for me to plow around it.' But it's still against the law."

The Boerner family cemetery was a special place for 49-year-old Scott Boerner.  He grew up in Grant County and lives the Twin Cities. 

Boerner said he didn't visit often because he needed to ask the landowner for permission to cross a farm field to get to the cemetery.

He described it as a peaceful place with lilac bushes and a towering cottonwood tree. Boerner said when he learned the cemetery had been bulldozed, it felt like a death in the family. 

"Every time I drove past it before this I'd look out and see the grove of trees and I'm like OK, there's our cemetery," Boerner said. "That's where Frederick and Christine are buried and their grandchildren. And you felt, there it is and everything's fine.  It was difficult to drive by after. It was not a good thing to see."

Boerner often puzzled over why the cemetery was in the middle of a farm field, nearly a mile from the family homestead. 

"Why did they pick that site?" Boerner wonders today. "There had to be something special about it at the time. And I think about that. It was special at that time, it's still special today. It should be there to be special to future generations. 

Anfinson isn't sure what the solution is. 

"Maybe we should start an adopt-a-cemetery program," he said. "If we can keep our highways clean maybe we can start helping the cemeteries, which are important. And everybody recognizes not only their historic value but their spiritual value and family value. "

Anfinson said he would like to see state law not only protect burial sites, but ensure they are cared for in the future.

— Follow Dan Gunderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gundersondan