A retiree resurrected an abandoned cemetery, but his spirit outpaced his body.
The 1-acre plot, concealed by brush amid sprawling back roads and cornfields, is Jim Tatro’s workplace — and has drawn some visitors when they spy his red pickup parked roadside.
Last December, Tatro began restoring Spring Lake Cemetery, owned by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, in Nininger Township near Hastings. The cemetery, founded in 1861, houses at least a couple of dozen 19th-century graves and is located beside residential property off County Road 42.
Before throwing his back out, Tatro, 72, labored seven days a week, but he’s lightened the load to prepare for back surgery in September. Arthritis aside, Tatro, who lives in Cottage Grove, missed only 17 days this year, including for a trip to Arizona.
“I really haven’t accomplished much in my life,” said Tatro, while collecting sticks with a pick-up-and-reach tool last week. “This is my dent.”
In his black ball cap, he grinned in the cemetery, which was mostly forgotten until its last major restoration in 2006 by an Eagle Scout troop. The scouts drove white crosses into the ground and also added signs.
Since Tatro began his project, he’s heaved more than 60 bags of Sakrete, concrete that can weigh up to 80 pounds, sawed through tree trunks and raked away brush. A former carpenter, he adhered two pieces of a split gravestone belonging to the Truaxes, whose descendants he happens to know.
The rest of the departed are mostly strangers.
“Out of respect,” Tatro said. “Respect is a very rare thing nowadays.”
This isn’t Tatro’s first graveyard makeover. His work is now done at Union Cemetery in Inver Grove Heights, where he was born.
After his surgery recovery, Tatro is planning to obtain another burning permit for the winter, to clean up excess wilderness, with Broc Leslie, the son of an old friend.
“He seems like the type of guy who always needs one of those projects to keep going,” said Leslie, 45, of Newport. “He’s not one to sit around and rest.”
Wearing bluejeans, with Marlboro reds tucked into his shirt pocket, Tatro glances around at his progress as his flip phone, attached to his belt buckle, buzzes on a recent afternoon. He doesn’t snap before-and-after photos. He believes in spirits (“They don’t hurt ya”). He’s wrangled another helper, a neighbor across the street, who regularly mows the lawn.
“I don’t do it to show what I’ve done,” he said. “I know what I’ve done.”
A border dispute has emerged between the nearest residential neighbors, the Pangerls, and the church over who owns a strip of land between their two properties. The church had the property surveyed this year and would like to claim the land that contains graves, something the township supports.
“It’s a simple solution, and I’d like to see the two parties come to an agreement on it and get it over with,” said chairman Robert Rotty. “You wouldn’t want grave sites outside the cemetery.”
Inside a fenced area, part of a family rests: A.I. Laidlaw — “Gone but not forgotten” — at 47, Sarah Laidlaw — “beloved wife of E.T. Laidlaw” — at 23, and a three-month-old without a name.
“Sometimes you don’t need to have a reason why you do stuff,” Leslie said. “It is what it is — goal-orienting. Then your goals always seem to change.”
There’s something to be said for stepping up for the voiceless.
“These people can’t fend for themselves,” Tatro said.