Two cemeteries in Washington County are prime examples of the wealth of history that graveyards can hold -- and the hard work required to maintain it.
Amid the hubbub of shopping centers and the din of traffic from nearby Hwy. 61, the cemetery sandwiched between McDonald's and Tires Plus seems jarringly out of place.
Few pause to notice the prim patch of well-tended green, bounded by an iron fence, that holds some of Cottage Grove's earliest pioneers.
The cemetery, designated a historic site by the Washington County Historical Society, has ties to the founders of Mars Inc., the giant candy manufacturing company.
Across the county, another cemetery lies hidden along a gravel road on one of the steep hillsides above Afton. It also holds many of that city's pioneers. Among them are several Civil War veterans, including one known as "the fighting reverend."
Lonely and forlorn, ravaged by vandals and threatened by encroaching buckthorn and other overgrowth from a nearby woods, it is a cemetery in a battle for its life.
Though Atkinson Cemetery in Cottage Grove and Mount Hope Cemetery in Afton are of the same vintage, historic significance and background, their fates have taken decidedly contrasting turns.
The status of Minnesota's historic cemeteries is reflected in these two graveyards.
There are more than 4,000 cemeteries and farm burial grounds in Minnesota; many are abandoned or under threat of vandalism and neglect, their history forgotten. "I would call it a significant problem," said Bonnie McDonald, executive director of the Minnesota Preservation Alliance.
In 2002, the alliance placed Mount Hope Cemetery on its Top 10 list of most endangered historic sites in the state. The cemetery had been abandoned, and Washington County was considering the site as a location for a new radio tower, McDonald said.
Since then, the graveyard has been removed from the endangered list: the county placed its antenna elsewhere because the city's title to the cemetery land was unsettled.
While that may be good news in the short term, McDonald said, Mount Hope still faces the same problems as other historic cemeteries across the state.
"Reinvesting or donating money to preserve cemeteries is a harder sell" compared to buildings, McDonald said. "It takes people."
Two history detectives
Two people, E. Katie Holm and Ken Martens, have taken a special interest in two of Washington County's oldest graveyards, and their work insures that the cemeteries' history won't be lost.
It's not just dry dates and facts, but poignant stories of pioneer lives.
Helped by a grant from the Independent Feature Project, Holm, a Minneapolis writer and photographer, spent about a year researching and documenting the history of Atkinson Cemetery and the lives of the city pioneers who lie there. For her efforts, she was named the city's preservationist of the year in 2005.
"My family has always had an interest in cemeteries and genealogy," Holm said. Specifically, she credits her grandmother for sparking her interest in the stories that cemeteries have to tell.
"Cemeteries show the history of each place -- where it started and where it's been," she said. "They show how people care for their memories."
The cemetery, Holm found, was probably founded on heartache. John Atkinson had been one of Cottage Grove's first arrivals, in 1846. He founded the Universalist Church, set up a private school in his home and became an early city leader. When his 16-year-old son Martin drowned in 1854, he was likely buried on a parcel of land Atkinson owned. That site grew into the cemetery.
In the early 1970s, before the area around it was developed, Atkinson Cemetery had been abandoned for 60 years, so overgrown no one even noticed it was there, Holm said.
Once it was rediscovered, the city, joined by families and the city's Lions Club, began major restoration work. Most of the vegetation, save for a majestic oak tree, was removed. Grave markers were replaced, Holm said, but after years of vandalism and lost records, it's not certain that gravestones were put back in their original spots.
The effort was aided by Forrest Mars, head of the giant candy company whose family -- inventors of M&Ms and Milky Way and Snickers candy bars -- is from the Newport/Cottage Grove area. A large monument in the cemetery pays tribute to the Mars ancestors, though it's unknown if any are actually buried there.
"I would assume there's more people there than there are records for," Holm said. Notably, there is no gravestone for John Atkinson, but it's likely he's somewhere in the cemetery bearing his name. "As far as I know, no one knows where he's buried."
Boy takes an interest
Martens, a local historian who is active in the Afton Historical Museum, first visited Mount Hope Cemetery with his father as a boy, in 1967. The pair hiked up the hillside on Halloween day. "And we had to look for it, because there was no improvement here."
As with Atkinson Cemetery, the first burials at Mount Hope were in 1854, four years before Minnesota became a state.
Among the Civil War veterans buried here, Martens said, is the Rev. Simon Putnam, whose fiery ardor for the Union cause helped recruit dozens ofsoldiers. Many joined the First Minnesota Infantry, the unit credited with turning the tide at the Battle of Gettysburg.
"I call him the fighting reverend," Martens said. Putnam, who founded the Congregational Church in Afton and whose house still stands across from the Afton Historical Society Museum, enlisted at age 39, bringing his 16-year-old son Myron along as a drummer boy.
The Putnams ended up with the Third Minnesota Volunteers. While fewer than 20 members of the unit died in battle, nearly 300 died of disease. That was the case for both Putnams.
The cemetery is actually two distinct areas, Martens said: A Victorian-era cemetery with more ornate stones and formal burial sites and, further into the woods, a primitive burial ground with cruder homemade stones and telltale depressions in the earth with no markings.
"It's been lost and forgotten a lot of times, and then rediscovered and lost again," Martens said. There are 33 burials in the newer portion, though archaeologists suspect there could be 100 more.
Vandals have made it a frequent target, and their damage is still evident. Buckthorn and other vegetation also are encroaching on the site, despite volunteers who occasionally mow it and Boy Scouts who do frequent cleanups, Martens said. "Nature takes over faster than you can clean it up."
Martens has spent much time over the past 40 years poring through records and piecing together the stories of the people buried at the cemetery. "I feel like I'm a detective trapped in a time machine," he said.
Partly through his work, there may be hope for Mount Hope Cemetery.
The city of Afton is in the process of getting a clear title to the land. Once that's done, the cemetery could get the regular care that it needs, said Ken Johnson, head of the city's Public Works Department.
That prospect tantalizes Martens. "There's still mysteries to be solved here," he said. "If we could preserve it, we could probably get to the answers someday."
Jim Anderson • 612-673-7199