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One man's mission to revitalize the 'Poor Farm Cemetery' in Fergus Falls

Using his own money and time, Bob Riepe found out who is buried at the cemetery using homemade grave markers.

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A 'Poor Farm Cemetery' in Fergus Falls, Minnesota that had the graves marked and restored by volunteers.
Ryan Longnecker / WDAY
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FERGUS FALLS — When times were tough on the farms and in small towns of Minnesota decades ago, "Poor Farms" were the safety net to save families or individuals who were struggling.

Those Poor Farms also buried those who died, but most Poor Farm cemeteries didn't mark or identify those who died. In Fergus Falls, dedicated volunteers worked to change that.

Tucked between pastures and head-high cornfields outside Fergus Falls is a forgotten chunk of land, now saved.

For the past few years, Bob Riepe has been researching, finding and clearing the field known as the Poor Farm Cemetery— active in the 1800's and early 1900's. For decades nobody knew it was here.

"In 1938, the county sold it to a farmer, and the farmer pulled up all the metal markers that were out here and he started farming it, and it was farmed into the 1970s," Riepe said.

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Using his own money and time, he found out who is buried there and had grave markers made and laid. Ninety-one, so far.

"(It's) mostly people from around Otter Tail County who didn't belong to a church and no place to get buried, so the county took care of them," Riepe said.

The Poor Farm sat a mile from the cemetery in Fergus Falls, and it wasn't just people down on their luck. Sometimes, entire families stayed at the Poor Farm; it was the Great Depression. When they died, they brought them to the cemetery and laid them to rest in unmarked graves.

Buck Steichen, of Perham, was buried at the cemetery. He lost his family to diphtheria, then he lost his way.

"He had a rough life," Riepe said.

He died in the Otter Tail County jail. "Nothing seemed to work for him," Riepe said.

Volunteer Vern Barker joined Riepe in maintaining the Poor Farm Cemetery.

There have been incredible moments like the day someone came to find her great-great-grandfather. He was buried in an unmarked grave until now.

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"She knelt down and cried. It was like a hair standing on your arms moment," Barker said.

"When I was here last week to mow, I wondered 'why am i here?' And I really didn't know the answer to that, but it is peaceful and serene," he said. "It is a place where there are people with stories and history, and that is what gets me here."

It is believed 176 people were buried in unmarked graves at Poor Farm Cemetery. While half have markers now, several do not. The goal is to raise money for more headstones so this once forgotten piece of sod can become a perfect place of peace.

The Poor Farm shut down in Fergus Falls in 1938, although the highway to Jewett Lake is still known as the Poor Farm Road.

Riepe has written books about some of those buried at the cemetery. More information on his books and how to volunteer at the cemetery can be found at www.facebook.com/groups/755204407875285 .

Kevin Wallevand has been a Reporter at WDAY-TV since 1983. He is a native of Vining, Minnesota in Otter Tail County. His series and documentary work have brought him to Africa, Vietnam, Haiti, Kosovo, South America, Mongolia, Juarez,Mexico and the Middle East. He is an multiple Emmy and national Edward R. Murrow award recipient.

Contact Email: kwallevand@wday.com
Phone Number: (701) 241-5317
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