By Edward Pederson of rural Benson
In the lonely backlot corner of the well-manicured Lake Hazel Cemetery, a “rock” has been shadowed by a tall stately oak tree for the past 117 years. The rock, about the size of a misshaped egg basket, has no distinguishing characteristics from the millions of other rocks cleared for agricultural purposes in the area settled by immigrants beginning in 1867. However, for a handful of former Lake Hazel Church members the non-descript rock has served a purpose. It is indeed a grave marker for an early pioneer who passed away in 1904. His name was Peter E. Smith and he died 10 weeks shy of his 95th birthday.
In 1999, three brothers who were born on nearby Oak Lawn Farm (north of Benson), determined to research the lore and oral history shared and passed down by neighbors regarding Mr. Smith. Leland, Donald and Ove Pederson were all born 15 years or more after the death of Smith, so had no firsthand recollection or personal experiences of him. All three brothers have also passed Leland, the youngest and last, in 2012. With access to archived church records, Swift County Historical Society, census data, newspapers, and other sources, the following is some of what they learned and recorded.
Peter Erick Smith was born in Sweden on June 30, 1809. His immigration to Benson Township, Swift County, occurred in the 1870’s and he filed for homestead. He must have been a determined fellow as he was already in his 60s when he arrived. Most homesteaders were younger and had the youthful advantage necessary to face the vigor and extreme hardship required and experienced by the early pioneers.
Peter was married, widowed and had six (unclear if that is correct) children. Despite the Pederson Bros. research, it remains a mystery as to why no children, spouse or kin are buried with him at Lake Hazel. Given his age, he may have been widowed for some time and the children had moved and were well on with their own lives and families. It is documented that he passed away in April of 1904 under the care and at the home of his daughter Mrs. Medelberg of Meeker County, in Dassel. It must have been the wish of the nearly 95-year-old Peter, that his body be transferred back 85 miles to the west and be buried at Lake Hazel, where he had spent the last 30 years of his life. The fact remains that he is buried alone, in the back of a cemetery, with only a rock resting above his remains.
His residence may have been a clue as to why he was remembered by the neighborhood as an older single man, some may say a hermit. He lived on the north shore of Lake Moore only a ¼ mile east of his final resting place. The stone foundation walls are excavated into a south exposed hill adjacent to the lake. It is small, one room, with stone walls still evident today under all the brush and trees. Some suggest it was a dugout, but certainly was a very modest structure even by the standard of the late 1800s.
According to census data, like most pioneer homesteaders, his occupation was listed as “farmer.” His subsistence, however likely and highly reputed, was enhanced by his fishing, trapping and hunting skills. It is well noted in the well-preserved archives of Lake Hazel Church records that he had additional talents. He was hired (age 78) to build interior furniture for the new church building. Lake Hazel Church was organized in 1871, but it was not until 1887 before the current structure was built. Church records (some in Norwegian Language) note Peter was paid to build the church pews (kirke seit), the pulpit (predickestol) as well as other furnishings. The interior of the church was extensively remodeled 62 years later (1949) and only one of the Peter-built pews still survive today. The pew is in very much original and intact condition including the gum pressed on the bottom of the seat left from forgetful yet conscientious parishioners.
The Pederson research includes a photo from 1999 (as shown) showing the rock marker as well as a blank marble slab leaning against the old oak tree. Apparently for more than 20 some years, some individual felt Mr. Smith deserved some better recognition. In 2021, the marble slab was removed from against the tree, having been there so long the tree bark was restructured! With approval of the cemetery and church boards, it was decided Peter’s life and early contributions to the church, should be better memorialized. The slab was engraved by Valentine Rausch of Big Stone City, South Dakota, who confirmed the marble slab to be early vintage and appropriate. The marker was installed by Edward Pederson and Brad Hanson, current owner of Mr. Smith’s land. The original rock was moved a few feet away to the east on the edge of the cemetery. Although Lake Hazel Church was officially closed in 1967, the church and cemetery are well maintained by descendants and has an annual service, weddings and baptisms. See website, www.lakehazellutheranchurch.org