Some people play pickleball when they retire. Others knit or play cribbage. Carol Kissner had a different idea. She became a volunteer cemetery sleuth, poking around the tombstones of her hometown graveyard: the 155-year-old Eden Prairie Cemetery south of Hwy. 212.
When she leaned down to check out a broken, thigh-high grave marker on a recent research trek, she said to herself, "Now here's a mystery."
There was no name or date visible, just a partial inscription: "He lived a life of usefulness … was beloved by all who knew him."
So Kissner started digging around cemetery records, old newspapers and computer databases. And she thinks she knows to whom the tombstone belongs: Levi Neill, a Canadian-born private who served in Company D of Minnesota's Sixth Infantry Regiment nearly 160 years ago.
Neill, the fourth of Sarah and Richard Neill's eight children, was 25 when he left the family's farm in Eden Prairie to enlist on Aug. 18, 1862, just as the U.S.-Dakota War erupted about 100 miles to the west. He died less than three months later on Nov. 11 in Mankato at the start of a measles outbreak that killed more than 200 Dakota and white settlers by the end of that deadly year. His body was transported 70 miles up the Minnesota River valley for burial.
"That Levi is buried in the Eden Prairie Cemetery is a fact, but the location is a bit wobbly," said Kissner, 71. She found an index card at the Minnesota Historical Society that put Neill in Plot 46. The broken headstone is at Plot 93, about 30 feet away.
Both plots belong to the Neill family, and his parents are buried nearby. The numeral "2" of his age is visible on the broken gravestone. Levi's story gets fleshed out further, thanks to Corinne Monjeau-Marz's 2006 book on Dakota internment at Fort Snelling, 1862-1864.
"There were two brothers by the same name of Neill from Eden Prairie, both were taken down with measles nine days ago," according to a letter the author found dated Nov. 11, 1862, from Rev. Stephen Riggs to his wife, Mary — detailing Levi's death, the first recorded in the measles outbreak.
"The eldest one took cold three days ago and died last night," Riggs wrote, adding that the younger one "seems quite disconsolate, spoke of what a blow it would be on his Mother."
That younger brother, according to Kissner's research, was named Wesley Neill, who enlisted with Levi and outlived his brother by 45 years, dying in 1907 after working as a grocer on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. He's buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Kissner has loved tracking gravestones since she grew up on a farm near Jeffers in southwestern Minnesota. "We had headstones on our farm and they always fascinated me," she said.
She spent 47 years at the Faegre & Benson law firm — one of Minneapolis' largest, now known as Faegre Baker Daniels. She started running the print shop and became a computer graphics guru — creating court exhibits and charts. When she retired three years ago, she had the longest tenure of any employee since the firm started in 1886.
Her volunteer work at the graveyard started when the cemetery board president asked her to help sort out the graveyard's history. Although Eden Prairie Cemetery was first surveyed in 1864, Kissner said the land was used as a cemetery for a decade before that — often with wooden crosses and coffins that have disintegrated.
"Each plot equals eight graves and the original plots were sold about 150 years ago," she said.
Those original plot owners, like the Neills, paid for grave site but often moved on or forgot about their plot. So Kissner is helping the cemetery track down any descendants before reselling unused spots.
She estimates she's spent hundreds of hours stomping around the tombs and countless more scouring her computer, old newspapers and church records.
"I find cemeteries wonderful places, but people's eyes glaze over when I tell them what I do," she said. "They think I'm a freak."
A California 14-year-old named Preston Sharp recently brought his national campaign to Eden Prairie Cemetery — pledging to plant flags on veteran graves in cemeteries across the country.
"Why he picked THIS cemetery I don't know," she said. "I didn't have too much difficulty finding the more recent veterans but the Civil War veterans are more difficult."
But not tough enough to prevent the tireless volunteer cemetery sleuth from putting a name — Levi Neill — together with his weathered and cracked headstone. She recently persuaded cemetery president Mike Rogers to restore Neill's fractured headstone.
"Mike asked me to do something and I said, 'for a favor?' and he agreed," she said. "I asked that at least a bucket of cement lock in the current headstone by wintertime."
Then a new or repaired stone will put that mystery to rest, "but I have 30 more people to go," she said, 30 more people's stories to unearth at the Eden Prairie Cemetery.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.