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Nineteen nearly lost to history

Photo provided The neglected cemetery was overgrown with trees and brush in the 1950s.1 / 7
Pioneer Cemetery Association members Paul Sailer, left, and Loren Gunn have made improvements along with other community-minded people to fix up the once neglected cemetery.2 / 7
Pioneer Cemetery Association Vice President Paul Sailer shares the history of the cemetery on the day 19 markers were delivered for previously unmarked graves.3 / 7
A weathered grave marker for Bengta Johnson.4 / 7
Pioneer Cemetery Association President Loren Gunn stands beside the grave of his wife, Pearl, who died in July. Pearl was a director with the association and is buried in Pioneer Cemetery not far from the farm where the Gunns lived.5 / 7
Paul Sailer, left, Loren Gunn and Greg Karvonen search for the marker for Doris Sophia Johnson's grave. Doris died at age 1 and 3 months in 1899. Her grave was the first recorded burial in what is now known as Pioneer Cemetery in Bluffton Township.6 / 7
Photo by Sara Hacking Two of the 19 formerly unmarked graves in Pioneer Cemetery are the resting places of unknown pioneers.7 / 7

Doris Sophia Johnson was buried in Pioneer Cemetery 110 years ago, but she is not forgotten. The girl who died Nov. 30, 1899, at age 1 now has a marker for her tiny grave years after the original turned to dust.

The Pioneer Cemetery Association installed granite markers on 19 unmarked graves last Saturday in the small country cemetery in Bluffton Township in rural Wadena.

"We just feel an obligation to honor the deceased," said Paul Sailer, cemetery association vice president.

Members have worked for decades to improve the cemetery established on property purchased from Skinner Johnson and Mary Johnson in 1902. The last burial in the old cemetery was a Larson in 1942, according to a history compiled by Sailer. There were no other burials until 1967 because the property became overgrown with brush and trees. William Larson and Fred Berglove were involved in restoration efforts beginning in the 1950s. They both had relatives buried in the cemetery. The Pioneer Cemetery Association took over the property in 1964.

Loren Gunn, Pioneer Cemetery Association president, has been on the board since it formed in 1964. He bought a farm next to the cemetery in 1936.

"It's come a long ways since then," Gunn said about the cemetery.

His wife, Pearl, was buried in the cemetery after she died this summer on July 4.

Pearl, who died at age 88, lived a long life, but there are some sad stories in the cemetery.

Teacy Patzer, an infant, died on Christmas Eve 1911. She was born Dec. 1. Ole Edvin Swedberg, a farmer of Swedish heritage, died Dec. 18, 1903, at age 19 after being accidentally shot. Doris Sophia Johnson, 1, was the first recorded burial in the cemetery. These three graves and 16 others were all unmarked except for tiny concrete pads until last Saturday. Wooden markers once dotted the cemetery but rotted away over the years.

Two graves are of unknown pioneers. None of the old timers remember who they were, Sailer said. A survey locates the graves. They did research in the Otter Tail County and Wadena County recorders' offices to verify exact dates, causes of death and parents for the other graves, he said.

The cemetery association has tried for the past few years to acquire markers for the graves, but has limited funds, Sailer said. They could only afford $13 per marker. The dilemma was solved when Karvonen & Son Funeral Home in New York Mills offered to take care of the rest of the cost for small rectangular granite markers. Little Falls Granite Works delivered the markers Oct. 16.

Greg Karvonen said he sees a lot of these small country cemeteries working in a rural area.

"Some of them are not taken care of that well," he said. "It's really nice to see the pride behind this."

Crab apple, red oak and sugar maple trees and lilacs were planted in the 1990s, according to Sailer's history. Don Gunn and Arnold Haman completed split rock field stone pillars in 2007. Larry Berg and Aaron Spicer installed a wrought iron gate Berg welded for the entrance to the cemetery in 2007. A flag waves in the wind from Memorial Day until Labor Day.

Sailer said his research into 19th century cemeteries shows they did whatever they could to beautify them.

"They wanted it to be heaven on earth when you went to the cemetery," he said. "While we're not going to get to that here in Bluffton Township, we wanted to make it a little nicer."