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ACT Graveyard Restoration

April 16, 2009 at 3:06 pm
By Margaret Taylor '10

Carleton students are notorious for keeping packed schedules, so many of us can’t afford the one or two or several hours a week it takes to participate in a regular volunteer program through the ACT office.  That’s where the ACT one-time-volunteers mailing list steps in.  For students who can spare an hour every now and then, this list offers the opportunity to get involved in some pretty interesting volunteer projects.  Ever wanted to restore the graveyard of an abandoned frontier town?

That’s one of the projects that came through the one-time volunteers list last week.  Timothy Lloyd, an emeritus art professor, his wife Sue, and Peggy Kelly, an emeritus music professor from St. Olaf have been conducting an ongoing genealogy project about pioneers in the area.  Through their research, they’ve discovered that there was once a settler town about fifteen miles outside of Northfield.  Nobody knows for sure why the area was abandoned in the 1920s, but now nothing remains but an old fence that used to go around the town church.  When the three genealogists first approached the area, the old graveyard looked like a clump of woods by the side of a cornfield.

They have already gotten permission from the county to clear all the brush away from the site.  But the tombstones have tipped over in the course of time and become trapped under about six inches of dirt.  Enter a handful of Carleton volunteers with strong backs and an interest in historical preservation to free the stones.

Timothy Lloyd, who goes by Tim, picks us up Saturday morning and drives us to the site.  He’s the sort of person who’s full of stories.  On the 20-minute drive to the graveyard, he manages to tell us all about the town, to watch out for the rain-collecting wells in the back, why there are roads every square mile in this area of Minnesota, and the story of the neighbor with the sled dogs.

When we arrive, we are truly in the middle of nowhere.  The graveyard is a patch of trees with bare fields around it in all four directions, broken up by a few telephone poles and a house.  It’s quite windy here, with nothing around to brake it.  Tim points out the fence where the church used to be.  We get the shovels out of the back of the car and get started.

A lot of the tombstone surfaces have already been exposed from previous work, but the stones are still embedded in the earth.  We dig trenches around the edges and lever the stones up with the corner of shovels or wooden slats.  We have to be careful not to scratch the marble, so whenever we do scraping, we switch to a plastic shovel.  While we work, Tim tells more stories.  Marble was a luxury in the days these graves were made because it all had to be imported.  One grave belongs to an old lady who only came out here to visit relatives, but died of old age before she could get back home.  Another set of stones with death dates near each other belongs to victims of a cholera outbreak.  The larger gravestones are 200-300 points each, and it takes three people to lift them up and out.  Then we backfill the hole underneath the stone to raise it up, and lay the stone back on.  When we are done, the gravestone gets the display it deserves.

The old gravestones are works of art as well as being of historical interest.  They have intricate carvings of roses, willows, and clasped hands, as well as the motto, “Gone home.”  The dates show that a lot more people died in childhood back then than we moderns are used to.  Bodies were laid to rest facing east in the belief that, at the time of the Resurrection, they would rise up to face the rising sun.  Footstones demarcate the eastern ends of these graves, a practice that’s mostly fallen out of fashion nowadays.  They’re lot more challenging to lift up than the headstones.  Though footstones appear small and less decorated, most of them lies beneath the surface – a typical one that we dug up was six inches wide by two inches thick, and eighteen inches deep.  They require a lot of digging around the edges and cooperative pulling to loosen them up.  When we do succeed in getting them out of the ground, we lay them flat next to the headstone instead of reburying them.

We break around noon for a picnic lunch of bagels and hummus.  Sitting around on rocks with our hummus sandwiches, the topic is, not surprisingly, more history.  Peggy shows us the big binder of clippings and photos she’s amassed about this graveyard.

In the future, there is going to be grass put into the spaces between the trees that were originally covered by undergrowth.  Someone from the county will maintain it so it continues to look like an actual graveyard.  Somehow, daylilies have managed to get naturalized here despite not having any access to light or air.  Now that we’ve cleaned the graveyard up, the little sprouts that are just poking out of the ground are going to become a massive bloom this summer.