Buried local history

Cemetery sheds light on colorful characters of the past


“Don’t breathe until we pass the cemetery,” the children would tell one another before taking a gulp of air, “or the spirits of dead people will get you.”

Fearing death certainly is not uncommon. Because of its inevitability, though, we choose to ignore the fear as much as possible. Thus, some people subconsciously have a tendency to turn their heads away while passing a cemetery.

The fear is fueled by telling stories around a campfire about strange happenings that go on late at night in graveyards.

Movies featuring dead bodies rising from the depths don’t help alleviate our trepidation. While visiting a cemetery, we try not to walk on top of a grave – more out of the fear of the unknown than out of respect, in some cases.

Or we will mask our fear of cemeteries by making jokes (“You say you don’t like flowers? Well, they’ll eventually grow on you”).

Yet, cemeteries are rich in history, not disembodied voices and rattling chains. A stroll through a cemetery can be a surprisingly rewarding history lesson.

Researching Fairview Cemetery revealed numerous compelling stories of those laid to rest there. The cemetery was established in 1880, although there are a few graves older than that on the site. It’s also the largest cemetery in Kandiyohi County, with over 6,000 people buried there.

The oldest grave there is that of Berger Thorson, the first white settler in Willmar. He was also the first settler in Kandiyohi County to be killed during the Dakota Conflict in 1862.

As is the case in other cemeteries, there are those buried here who died at an early age, while others lived a long life. Some graves are unmarked, some have primitive markers, and others feature ornate obelisks. Some epitaphs are generic, while others can be found with a heartfelt message inscribed. It’s a final chance for all of us to be remembered for the time we spent here on earth.

Among those buried in this large cemetery are many of the wealthiest and most prominent men to have lived in this area. Included are mayors, doctors, lawyers, chief justices, senators, representatives, lieutenant governors, judges and prominent businessmen.

Included in that list is Earl B. Olson, one of the wealthiest and most recognizable names in Willmar, who was the founder of the Jennie-O Turkey store. He died in 2006.

The turkey company, named after his daughter, was originally started in 1949 and today is one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of turkey products, annually producing 1.2 billion pounds of turkey products. The aquatic center in Willmar is named after his wife, Dorothy B. Olson.

Every person buried here, not just those who gained prominent positions, has a story they left behind. We take a look at some interesting stories, uncovered with the help of county courthouse records, the Fairview Cemetery ledger, the Kandiyohi County Historical Society and Museum, and the West Central Tribune of Willmar.

Tragedy Strikes the Young Two young boys buried here have unusual gravestones, as each reveals how they died.

Eddie Wright’s burial marker is nestled between two larger ones; his mother, Mary Wright, and his sister, Margaret Wright Adams. Eddie’s grave marker reads: Eddie Wright, Shot Dead, Sept. 7, 1877, aged 11 years, son of W & M Wright. Kandiyohi County courthouse records show that Edwin Wright was born March 11, 1867 (he was actually 10 1/2 years old when he died) to William and Mary Wright, the youngest of their six children. It also was recorded that he was accidentally shot and killed by his only brother, William Jr., while they were playing outside their home.

William Wright Sr. built the first grist mill in New London in 1867.  In 1876, the Wrights moved to Willmar where they lived for several years on a farm, and they also ran the Willmar Hotel.

Another gravestone of a young man, Allyn Birch, also told the cause of death. His flat stone reads: Allyn N. Birch; only son of Mr. and Mrs. C.A. Birch; Drowned; Oct. 10, 1903; 15 yrs., 6 mos., 10 days.

Birch was one of three boys who drowned in Foot Lake during a hunting outing. Foot Lake is located within the Willmar city limits. Birch, Palmer Trelstad, 18, and Arthur Cremer, 14, went hunting on that lake in a shallow, flat-bottom boat that was designed for two people.

With the wind blowing hard that day, the lake became treacherous for a boat that size.

When the boys failed to make it home until well past noon, the time they were expected, their parents became worried and began looking for them. After failing to find his son around the lake, Mr. Birch organized a search party.

The boys’  boat was found capsized early the next morning in about 7 feet of water. One of the decoys the boys were using was found near the boat, while another was found 400 feet away, where they presumed the boat capsized and drifted in the high wind.

A committee was then organized to begin dragging the lake with improvised grappling hooks. Birch’s body was found about 4 feet from where the overturned boat was discovered.

It was assumed that Birch had clung to the boat as long as he could until he became exhausted. His coat had been removed, one shoe was off, and the other shoe was unlaced, indicating that he likely was trying to shed his clothing to make swimming and/or treading easier.

Cremer’s body was found two days later 200 feet from shore in eight feet of water. And Trelstad’s body was found 15 minutes after that approximately 50 feet from Cremer’s body. Both were wearing heavy wool sweaters that likely absorbed a great deal of water and made swimming much harder.

Cremer and Trelstad are each buried in another cemetery.

Gravel Train Wreck On June 24, 1882, a gravel train with 45 men aboard was making runs from Willmar to the Grove City gravel pits. The run was quelled when pouring rain fell and half of the crew left, figuring there would not be any more work that day. But the clouds broke and the sun soon came out just after noon. Conductor Joe Goran sent word that the train would soon be running again.

Engineer George Floody was one of the workers who had left and had been drinking heavily, according to several witnesses. Floody refused to return to work, and Goran gave him an ultimatum; either get back on the train or he would be fired.

Floody, who was known for his hot temper, angrily boarded the train at 3 p.m. and took off at full speed. Two miles west of Atwater, Floody was still in a rage and refused to slow the train for a curve. The train, which included an engine, tender, 13 flatcars, and a caboose, jumped the tracks. All but six of the cars rolled down an embankment and into a slough 600 feet from where they left the tracks. The flatcars, where most of the men were seated, ended up in a mass of wreckage on top of the engine. There were 13 men killed and another 19 injured.

Five of the dead bodies went unclaimed by relatives. Those five were placed on top of hay on a flat car and brought to Willmar. Once there, the bodies were taken to Fairview Cemetery and buried in unmarked graves with a brief ceremony. Floody was found with no cuts or bruises on his body, but he was pinned in the cab and drowned. He was married and had four children. He is buried in another cemetery.

This reporter purchased a marker, and with the approval of the Fairview Cemetery board members in 1997, had it placed at the spot of the five unmarked graves. The marker includes the names of all 13 of the men killed in the Great Gravel Train Wreck of 1882.

Golfing with The Babe

Tallman founded more than 100 towns in various parts of North Dakota on land which he purchased. In the larger of these cities, he established banks and made himself the directing head. He acted in this capacity in as many as 41 banks at one time.

Tallman platted the town of Tolna, N.D., a coined form of Tallman. Several streets in Tolna are named after his daughters – Helen, Esther, Gertrude and Marjorie.

Tallman was also a delegate to the convention that nominated William McKinley for the presidency.

While widely known as a successful businessman, Tallman also became an outstanding golfer, winning countless amateur tournaments, including Willmar’s Lakeland Open when he was 71 years old. Tallman didn’t start playing golf until he was 50 years old, but quickly caught on. In 1927 at age 55, he played in the U.S. Amateur Championship at Minikahda Country Club in Minneapolis that was won by the legendary Bobby Jones.

Perhaps Tallman’s biggest thrill on the links was when he was able to play with Babe Ruth. The two met on the golf course in St. Petersburg, Fla., and became friends. After that, they got together twice a year to golf in Hot Springs, Ariz.

Upon his death, Tallman’s mansion in Willmar later became the Willmar Nursing Home, and his elaborate home on the south shore of Green Lake is now the Green Lake Bible Camp.

Bank Holdup One of the most talked about historical happenings in Willmar was a bank robbery that occurred on July 15, 1930.

And in the middle of the holdup was bank teller Albert Nordstrom, who died in 1941 and is buried in Fairview Cemetery. Five members of “Machine Gun” Kelly’s gang arrived in Willmar in a four-door Buick Sedan around 10:30 a.m. Their target was the Bank of Willmar located downtown.

Three of the men went into the bank brandishing handguns, while the driver remained in the car, and the fifth man stood outside the bank corner with a machine gun.

Employees and customers of the bank were ordered to lie on the floor, and one of the men threatened to “kill anyone who moved.”

The other two men ordered Nordstrom and George Robbins, the vice president of the bank, to give them all the money they had in the teller’s cages and then to take out all the money in the vault.

In all, the robbers took $55,000 in currency, $5,000 in gold, and around $50,000 in negotiable bonds.

The bank alarm was then set off while the robbers were still inside. Three men, who had businesses nearby, ran to the bank carrying guns and began firing at the man outside on the corner. Upon being wounded by a bullet, the man opened fire with his machine gun, peppering the area with bullets and leaving pock marks on nearly every building in the vicinity.

The three men inside, hearing the gunfire, raced out of the bank and jumped into the car and raced out of town. It was believed that two of the men were at least wounded and another might have been killed, although it was never confirmed because none of them were apprehended.

Nordstrom retired as the president of the bank of Willmar in 1962. He died in 1987 at age 94.

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