Bernice Wenzel is running out of time. Near the entrance to Pine Bend Cemetery, she can see from the driver's seat of her car that the oak leaves need raking, the gate is still missing and few people have left flowers on these graves, some of them as old as the state of Minnesota.
There's work to be done here, and for now she and the remaining members of the Pine Bend Cemetery Association will see to it that the chores are finished. But for how long? She's 88 and her husband died two years ago. The other volunteers aren't much younger.
"There are only three of us left on the board," said Wenzel, who has served as chairwoman of the association for some four decades.
For years now, Wenzel has implored local governments and boards — historical societies, the Elks, a local American Legion post — to find someone who will donate time and concern to the souls of Pine Bend. Though the Rosemount cemetery has historic status, serving as the resting place for Civil War veterans and farm families who first settled the area, no one has stepped forward.
"It sure is hard to get anybody to take care of it," Wenzel said.
Some 27 other cemeteries in Dakota County have fallen into "unrecorded" status, meaning there's no official record of their existence with state or county authorities, according to a 2011 study for the Minnesota Historical Society.
Slipping into history
That's not yet the case for Pine Bend. But smaller cemeteries, or those cast adrift when a church shuts down, can fall into disrepair, said Gerald Mattson of the Rosemount Area Historical Society.
"It takes money" to keep them going, he said.
Some of the unrecorded cemeteries in Dakota County have become overgrown and inaccessible, while others have self-appointed caretakers. At one cemetery, visitors first need to ask permission from a farmer to cross his property, Mattson said. Another has been abandoned, some of its tombstones embedded in trees.
Minnesota has some 5,900 cemeteries in all, both recorded and unrecorded, according to the 2011 study.
Today, someone driving past Pine Bend on Hwy. 52 in Rosemount may not even recognize the cemetery, thanks to the wild array of pipes and tanks that sit just across the highway at the Pine Bend Oil Refinery. The facility stretches for acres, and at night it's lit up like a city unto itself. The road to the cemetery is blocked by a "Road Closed" sign at E. 117th Street, but it's only there to prevent semitrailer trucks from accidentally pulling in.
Pine Bend Cemetery was established in 1863, followed by the cemetery association just a few years later in 1876. The earliest graves may have been moved there from somewhere else, said Mattson, but that's not known for certain.
Scottish immigrant brothers Walter and William Strathern were among the first settlers in the area, and their families are buried at Pine Bend. Walter served in Company F of the 8th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry and was wounded at the Third Battle of Murfreesboro in 1864.
The cemetery's oldest known marker is for Capt. Warren Bissell, who fought in the War of 1812 and served with Rayen's Regiment, Ohio Militia. He later moved to Minnesota Territory with his family, where he died, according to his tombstone, on Nov. 2, 1856.
A city plan, forgotten
At the time Capt. Bissell died, big plans were underway for the future metropolis of Pine Bend. But whatever forces must conspire to raise up a settlement passed over the riverside site. A wealthy settler built a flour mill, saw mill, shingle mill, store and several houses, but the town petered out by 1880. A two-page plat map showing where the streets would have gone, and how blocks were to be carved into neat rectangles for houses, is all that remains.
The history of the land itself goes back further, to when it was a Dakota village led by Chief Medicine Bottle, uncle of the Dakota leader Medicine Bottle hanged at Fort Snelling in 1865. The tribe moved to the Redwood Agency on the Minnesota River after the Mendota Treaty of 1851. A historical marker telling the story of the village was removed around 2005 during construction of a bridge.
It's more than local pride that keeps Wenzel coming to the cemetery, just 3 miles from her home. Her husband Victor is there, beneath a tombstone etched with a steam-powered tractor and a snowmobile. Vic loved steam engines and Bernice drove an Arctic Cat, she said, though she stopped snowmobiling about three years ago. "It stopped being fun," she said.
On a recent day, Wenzel pulled up to the cemetery in her BMW, the one with the Betty Boop license plate holder, and took stock. Her gaze settled on the entrance, which had its gate stolen two years ago; it was a replica of the original gate, which was stolen 15 years or so ago.
The leaves were still thick but the maintenance man from Hastings would be out soon to clear those away, she said. "There's lots of cemeteries that are in the same shape we're in," she said.
She planned to drive a short distance to her office at the company she and Vic founded, Vic's Crane and Heavy Haul, to leaf through her cemetery files. There was still time — not much, but some — to find a new caretaker.