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Patrick Springer, Published May 26 2013

New life for old cemetery: Eagle Scout project helps revive graveyard near Rollag

Rollag, Minn. - The Yankee Cemetery, nestled among a grove of oak trees on a hilltop, has long been a landmark on the rolling prairie of Parke Township.

It’s also been an island, ethnically isolated, which helps to explain how this resting place for pioneers gradually fell into abandonment and neglect.

As the name implies, those buried here starting in the late 1800s were Yankees, either immigrants from England or migrants from New England.

They were a tiny enclave in eastern Clay County in the midst of an area overwhelmingly settled by Norwegians and other Scandinavians.

One of those Norwegian immigrants was the great-great-grandfather of Shaun Aakre, age 17, whose father and uncle farm the fields near Yankee Cemetery.

“I’ve always liked the spot,” he said. “It’s really pretty.”

For several years, Aakre has taken it upon himself to mow the hilltop cemetery a few times a year, including before the Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion every Labor Day weekend.

“I usually try to clean it up so it looks good,” he said.

Despite Aakre’s periodic mowings, years of neglect had left the cemetery overgrown and looking more than a little forlorn.

Grass from surrounding pastureland was encroaching upon the grounds, giving the cemetery a shape more circular than rectangular.

The graveyard also lacked a sign, leaving it an anonymous landmark to passersby, even though the old stately oaks were visible a mile or two away.

Those deficiencies began to nag at Aakre, who can see the cemetery overlooking his family’s farmyard.

“It’s something I’ve always seen and I thought it wasn’t really taken care of,” he said.

But how to turn those vague thoughts into action?

Edna Middagh Robinson was born in Parke Township to pioneer parents in 1880, just a few years after what eventually became known as Yankee Cemetery was established.

Years later, as a middle-aged woman in the 1930s, she would agitate for preservation of what she called Oak Grove Cemetery.

The first settlers came to the area when the railroad reached Pelican Rapids. Some pioneers thought the railroad would continue to the Rollag area, but that never materialized.

With the area filling up with pioneers, one of the settlers, Dr. Charles Sill, a dentist from New York who owned a hobby farm northwest of Rollag, donated land for a cemetery.

The first person buried in the graveyard was Mensel Merry, Jr., who died in 1875. Old settlers recalled that his grave was dug in a north-south orientation.

A few years later, however, when the cemetery was formally organized by a church group, Merry’s body was exhumed and reburied.

People thought it was more appropriate to lay bodies to rest east and west, so they would face to the west, symbolic of the pioneers’ westerly journey.

Diseases now largely eradicated swept through the pioneer settlements. A diphtheria epidemic in 1881-82, for instance, took the lives of five children.

Tuberculosis claimed the life of the first woman settler to be buried. Others succumbed in the 1880s to jaundice, typhoid fever, water on the brain, inflammatory bowels, pneumonia and cancer.

One man, who got lost on the prairie in a snowstorm, froze to death. Another man was killed in a sawmill accident.

Funerals in those early days were often informal affairs, since ordained clergy members were not always available.

“At times on the pioneer burials I have been told if there was no minister to be found someone read from a prayer book,” Robinson wrote. “Often Mr. Charles Rugg did this, reading from an Episcopal service.”

Rugg immigrated from London in 1872, after having been educated at Oxford University, bringing his wife and 10 children. One of his daughters died in the diphtheria epidemic.

To support a church, families of varied denominations organized as Parke Union Church in 1871-72 – Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Episcopalians “pledged themselves to be tolerant of each other’s views,” Robinson, whose parents were members, wrote in a history of the cemetery.

Catholics, however, weren’t welcome at first, but later were allowed to conduct services.

Gradually, the Yankee pioneers of Parke Township either died or moved away. By the late 1930s, the cemetery was showing signs of neglect, and Robinson began to advocate for the cemetery’s upkeep.

She wrote a series of letters to record what she had been able to compile about the history of the cemetery and those buried here.

Only about five of the estimated 30 to 35 graves have markers, all weathered with age. One of the monuments is for John Calvin Davis, a veteran of the Civil War.

Hard times explained the paucity of markers. After the Clay County Historical Society acquired the cemetery in the 1940s, it erected a single granite monument with the names of those known to be buried here.

“It must be remembered that in the ’70s and ’80s the U.S. was recovering from the Civil War and times were very hard,” Robinson wrote. “The early settlers could ill afford grave markers and where whole families died there was no one left to care for the graves.”

Robinson, who attended school in Moorhead, married a farmer. The couple raised a family of seven children on a farm near Rollag, where they operated the Rollag Store for many years.

She also served as Rollag’s postmistress from 1914 to 1928. When she died, in 1973, the daughter of Yankee pioneers was buried at the Rollag Lutheran Church Cemetery. Many Aakres are there, too.

With Memorial Day weekend approaching, and with the help of fellow Boy Scouts from Hawley’s Troop 656, Shaun Aakre went to work.

Aakre had been looking for something that would qualify as a community project to enable him to become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America.

It dawned on him that Yankee Cemetery was the perfect project.

A Hawley business, Rapat Corp., donated the coated metal boundary posts and sign, “Yankee Cemetery, Est. 1878,” the words and date arched over the entry road.

A resurvey of the cemetery determined that the original survey in 1940 was off; the farmer who owned the surrounding pastureland, Aakre’s uncle Roger, graciously deeded over a bit of land to correct the error.

For years, an electric fence has kept the cows away.

Mark Peihl, archivist for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, joined Aakre and the Scouts last weekend, when the posts were placed and the sign erected.

It’s possible, Peihl said, that the cemetery was once much larger than the current size, estimated at 125 feet by 125 feet when acquired by the county in the 1940s.

The archives contain references to a two-acre cemetery, Peihl said. He was a bit nervous that when they dug holes for the boundary posts and sign that they might find a coffin. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

Might some unmarked graves be located outside the known boundaries?

“That’s the concern that many people have expressed over the years, including Mrs. Robinson,” Peihl said.

He’s been in touch with earth scientists at Minnesota State University Moorhead about the possibility of using magnetic resonance technology to see if it detects anomalies that could indicate the presence of graves.

“It’s had its ups and downs over the years,” Peihl said.

But, thanks to the efforts of Aakre and his fellow Scouts, it’s probably been many years since Yankee Cemetery has been as well kept. It’s never been as well marked.

“It does look really good now,” Aakre said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522