A little-known burial ground overlooks Concord Boulevard in northeastern Inver Grove Heights.
Established just after the Civil War, Union Cemetery is the final resting place of several of the area's early and notable residents, including Dr. Percival Barton, a surgeon and cousin of American Red Cross founder Clara Barton.
Now the city, which owns the 1.3-acre property, is trying to figure out how to manage it, including whether to make necessary repairs or sell any remaining plots. Officials recently decided to look into the cost of a ground survey, possibly with ground-penetrating radar, to figure out which, if any, plots are vacant.
"It's not that the cemetery was not maintained; it's just that over time, some of those headstones kind of went down underneath the dirt," Judy Wonick, the city's administrative support specialist, said.
Cemetery records were scattered, and Wonick has spent almost two years compiling them and walking through the cemetery to map headstones.
"What actually started out as a chore ... turned out to be such a joy to me," she said.
There were originally 512 plots, and Wonick said she identified the owners of about 500 by using receipts, interment certificates and other city records.
"My home office was filled with cemetery documents," said Wonick, whose great-grandmother, grandparents and parents are buried there.
Twelve people are on a waiting list to purchase plots, a city memo said, though prices haven't been listed in the city fee schedule since 2009, when a plot cost $60.
'Lost to time'
Matt Carter, executive director of the Dakota County Historical Society, counted 14 cemeteries in the county older than Union Cemetery.
Citing a 1981 article in the historical society's "Over the Years" publication, he said the cemetery's location was chosen because it was on high ground and had sandy soil instead of clay. Plots were $25 to $50, he said. Some could hold up to six interments.
Several metro-area cities, including Anoka, Eden Prairie, Bloomington and Minneapolis, own cemeteries, said Ron Gjerde, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Cemeteries.
However, most municipally owned cemeteries don't start out that way, he said, but are the result of negotiations that end with the city taking over.
Union Cemetery became city property in 1965, according to an Inver Grove Heights city memo, and the association that once supported it disbanded shortly after.
Most cemeteries are "good with records," Gjerde said, so doing a ground survey isn't a common move, but it may be helpful at Union Cemetery. "They probably want to err on the side of caution," he said.
The standard of care for cemeteries includes mowing grass and picking up leaves, but it's not expected that the owner trim grass around graves or reset sunken headstones, Gjerde said.
Inver Grove Heights officials said the city does maintain the cemetery and regularly mows the lawn, but time has taken its toll.
Local historian Lois Glewwe said the city "has never paid much attention" to the cemetery.
"It's kind of like a little best-kept secret, tucked away," she said, noting it's not easy to visit because the only access is through Fleming Field, the South St. Paul airport.
Glewwe included the cemetery on local bus tours she gave until four years ago and said there are at least 100 identifiable headstones there. Others, she said, "just got lost to time."
The 'spooky cemetery'
Jim Tatro, who grew up in the area, remembers visiting the cemetery with friends when he was young.
"Every kid in town knew about this spooky cemetery," he said.
By 2013, the cemetery was filled with weeds and strewn with garbage — and Tatro decided to clean it up.
"I went through I don't know how many pair of gloves and three bouts of poison ivy. And then right toward the end I got a tick bite ... and I ended up in the hospital," he said.
He said his best friend, Robert Moser, is buried there, along with probably 25 other people he knew.
Tatro's cleanup project involved digging up hundreds of buckthorn and lilac bushes, rediscovering and unearthing sunken headstones, planting grass and cleaning up debris, he said, out of reverence for those buried there.
"I thought they deserved more respect than that — and especially my friend," he said.
He noted that in addition to many veterans laid to rest in Union Cemetery, Timothy Boche, a Simley High School student and accomplished athlete who is remembered on a plaque at the Inver Grove Heights school, is also buried there.
Tatro said the cleanup has made a noticeable difference — he even saw a few burials while he tidied up.
"Once people saw how nice that cemetery was, they decided they were going to use those plots," he said.
Amy Looze, the city spokeswoman, said the additional study of the cemetery could help guide maintenance on broken fences and gates, and determine what may lie underground in a portion of the cemetery without headstones.
"We want to be sure we aren't disturbing anyone's final resting place," she said.