When Bob Riepe first decided to embark on a book series based on real people from Otter Tail County's early days, he thought it would be about a five-book project.
That was in 2011, and since then, the Perham author says, he's discovered so many colorful characters from local history that the series is likely to continue on indefinitely. He's just published his second book in the series, known as the "Raw Deals" series, and is already working on his next. After that, fans will be happy to know, there will be many more to come, probably well beyond the five he was originally planning on.
The series was born after Riepe discovered something unexpected while conducting research for his historical fiction novel, "Rough on Rats: The Trials and Tribulations of Buck Steichen." Riepe learned that the titular character of this book, Buck, wasn't buried with the rest of his family at St. Joseph Cemetery in rural Perham. Instead, he was laid to rest in a place with a foggier past, the Otter Tail County Poor Farm Cemetery.
Riepe was curious about this mysterious pioneer-era cemetery, and went to see it. What he found was an open field north of Fergus Falls, with nothing more than a single, flat cemetery marker. Over the years, the site had become overgrown with weeds and tall grasses, and the marker was covered up. The old cemetery was all but forgotten, and just how many people were buried there was anybody's guess.
Intrigued, Riepe was determined to learn more.
The longtime history buff immediately dug into local historical records to find out everything he could about the Poor Farm Cemetery and the mostly-forgotten people buried there. Using an age-old, unofficial method known as "dowsing," or "divining," he used metal rods to locate graves, eventually finding 176 of them.
He also started making regular visits to the county recorder's office and county historical society to identify the deceased, and to learn everything he could about their lives. He researched names in old newspapers and gathered additional information from ancestry.com.
His research process started five years ago, he says, "and I'm still not done. I probably never will finish. It's very painstaking, but also rewarding."
When possible, Riepe contacts living relatives of the people buried at Poor Farm Cemetery, "but most of the time, there's nobody left," he says. "Most of the people out at that cemetery were loners, very poor people, people with no family."
People like Buck Steichen, the subject of "Rough on Rats," which would become the first book in Riepe's "Raw Deals" series.
Buck died in jail in 1906. Records showed that he had "Rough on Rats" rat poison in his stomach (hence the title of the book), and this led to his death being ruled a suicide. He and four other men suspected of committing suicide were buried at the Poor Farm Cemetery, in graves distanced from the others. One of Riepe's goals in writing "Rough on Rats" was to prove that Buck didn't actually commit suicide, but rather was murdered.
Riepe found Buck's story unusually interesting, and as he pieced together the life stories of others buried at the Poor Farm Cemetery, he found those to be similarly remarkable. He believes that many of them, like Buck, deserve to have their stories told, or perhaps retold, in a kinder, more truthful way. He wants to restore dignity to their names.
He also wants to restore the Poor Farm Cemetery. Over the past five years, Riepe has cleaned up the cemetery, groomed the grounds, created an arboured entry, and installed markers at all 176 graves, transforming what was an overgrown field into a recognizable cemetery. Next summer, he hopes to add names and dates to the markers. He still has about 12 people left to identify at the cemetery.
Proceeds from his books go toward these restoration efforts.
Riepe's second book in the "Raw Deals" series is called "Wrong Turns: The Trials and Tribulations of Harvey R. Stull." It tells the tale of a Civil War veteran from Iowa, Harvey Stull, who relocates to Minnesota after the war. Seeking his fortune in farming, he tries desperately to keep his wife, Josie, happy in her new surroundings, but continued challenges test their marriage-and Harvey's character. Ultimately, he decides to return to Iowa, not knowing that fate had something completely different, and much more tragic, in store for him.
"Wrong Turns" is a bit different from "Rough on Rats," Riepe says, though there are some definite similarities. Like "Rough on Rats," "Wrong Turns" is a historical fiction, murder-mystery novel. It's based on real people and real events, but some characters and situations have been made up for storytelling purposes.
In "Wrong Turns," Harvey is murdered, and, as Riepe did with Buck's murder in "Rough on Rats," he lets the reader determine who did it, and why, by examining clues and little hints that he has peppered throughout the text. In real life, no one was ever convicted of Harvey's murder, but Riepe says "there were several people who could have done it."
Most of the story takes place in Bluffton and New York Mills. Harvey and Josie are among a group of about 100 other settlers who traveled to the area from Iowa on horse-drawn buckboards and covered wagons. As the wagon train arrives in New York Mills, the characters find a few dilapidated boarding houses, a rickety hotel and a general store built around three sawmills.
"It was an ideal situation for nobody, at that time," Riepe says. "Harvey wanted to be a farmer. He wanted to be out in the country. His wife Josie didn't care for it and stayed in the new town of New York Mills. She was not satisfied or happy with the lifestyle that Harvey wanted them to have, so they separated. I tell their story. Toward the end, they want to get back together, but it's too late."
Like "Rough on Rats," "Wrong Turns" includes other real-life characters that Riepe learned about from his research into the Poor Farm Cemetery. Interestingly, and controversially, the main character isn't one of those buried there - at least Riepe doesn't think so.
In researching Harvey, Riepe found historical records indicating that there was a cemetery in Bluffton at the time of Harvey's death, and he believes that is where his main character was laid to rest. He has used dowsing in the area where he believes the cemetery was located, and says he has found unmarked graves there. That area is now a city park, and Riepe said that Bluffton city officials, after bringing in an archaeologist who could not confirm his findings, deny that a cemetery ever existed there.