Going beyond the graves

Guided tours will explore the history behind gravestones that date back more than 100 years in some of Anoka County's cemeteries.

Vickie Wendel doesn't use a shovel to dig up the history of area cemeteries and the citizens buried within.

Instead, she relies on research.

Wendel, the program manager with Anoka County's Historical Society, writes and guides the Monuments to Life Cemetery Tours offered at three cemeteries on evenings in early October.

"With Anoka being the Halloween capital, we were looking for some way to fit into the overall celebration and yet stay historical and dignified with it," she said.

Her first tour, seven years ago, began at Oakwood Cemetery, a small piece of land sandwiched between Hwy. 10 and W. Main Street in Anoka. Established in 1857, the cemetery contains many of the towns' first citizens, including former Anoka mayor and Civil War veteran Marcus Q. Butterfield. His 4-foot-tall marble gravestone stands a few feet from the eroding dirt road that allows access to the cemetery from W. Main Street.

Butterfield died in 1886, and his gravestone is one of several from that time period. Some are obelisks; others are small stones in the ground. Some are located beneath trees; others have been disturbed by roots. Many are worn and unreadable.

Wendel's other brainchild, The Ghosts of Anoka Tour, contains stories of hauntings and things that go bump in the night.

The Monuments to Life tour focuses on history, and Wendel explains the meaning of gravestone carvings to better understand the deceased's life.

Butterfield's final resting place lends itself to such gravestone iconography. Among the engravings on the stone is a drape over a column. Wendel said a drape is sometimes used to indicate mortality, while the column can symbolize a noble life.

Interpreting the carvings is not a perfect science, she said. For instance, a Victorian-era gravestone featuring a rosebud or lamb might indicate a child's grave. However, Wendel saw a lamb on the gravestone of an 80-year-old woman. And she was told about a family in the 1890s that planned to bury the bird it kept for a pet. Uncertain how to carve a bird, the stonecutter made a lamb instead.

Wendel is the primary guide of the hour-long tours, but costumed actors speaking in first person provide a sense of theater. An actor will portray the Rev. James Peet on the Oakwood tour scheduled for Oct. 9. Buried in 1866, Peet left a detailed diary, excerpts from which will be read by the actor.

Wendel's research starts in the Anoka County Historical Society library or in the cemeteries themselves. She looks for gravestones containing familiar names -- she has worked at the Anoka County Historical Society for 17 years -- or unique characteristics. From there, she interviews cemetery caretakers or, if possible, descendants of the deceased. She plans to write a tour for each of the county's 39 known cemeteries.

Other related topics covered include a history of funeral and mourning customs and how to best preserve loved ones' gravestones.

"I have all this extra knowledge in my head, so when someone asks a question it can send me off on a tangent," she said. "But it allows me to go in different directions based on the needs of the group."

David La Vaque • 612-673-7574

  • ANOKA'S GHOSTS AND GRAVES TOURS

    MONUMENTS TO LIFE CEMETERY TOURS

    When: 7 p.m. on Thurs., Oct. 4, Sat., Oct. 6 and Tues., Oct. 9

    Where: Twin Lakes Cemetery in Burns (Oct. 4), Fridsborg Cemetery in East Bethel (Oct. 6) and Oakwood Cemetery in Anoka (Oct. 9)

    Cost: $6 for Anoka County Historical Society members, $8 for nonmembers

    More: Reservations are required. Call 763-421-0600 or go to www. ac-hs.org

    THE GHOSTS OF ANOKA TOUR

    When: Various Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Oct. 4 through Halloween

    Where: Downtown Anoka

    Cost: $6 for adults, $3 for children

    More: Reservations are required. Call 763-421-0600 or go to www. ac-hs.org

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