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‘I was just heart-broken’

Family makes restoration of pioneer cemetery their mission after big storm

By Faith Anderson

Val Jerzak poses with slices of the trunk of the massive cottonwood tree that fell near her father’s grave. Contributed photo

On May 12, 2022, a spring storm blasted across central Minnesota leaving a swath of destruction along its way. Strong winds took down a massive cottonwood and a large boxelder tree in Hegburt Township near Appleton. The cottonwood was estimated to be nearly 150 years old and stood near the center of the Waldum Cemetery, the final resting place to over 70 Minnesotans.

The Swift County Historical Society lists 72 graves there, but it’s also possible that some were never marked or registered anywhere. Oddly enough, that list of burials includes the name Edvard Christianson, a four-year-old, who died in 1875, 13 years before Waldum Cemetery was founded.

The land upon which the cemetery exists was originally owned by Ole Bolstad (1814 - 1897) and his wife, Karen. The Bolstads had two daughters, Berthe and Sophie. Sophie married Peter Waldum (1834 - 1917) and the couple eventually became the owners of the Bolstad farm. They donated approximately an acre of that land to establish the Waldum Cemetery in 1880. It’s possible that a seven-year-old cottonwood tree stood there at the time the land was plotted.

Like many other rural cemeteries, Waldum has no church affiliation. At one point in the early 1880s, a group of settlers planned to establish a church in the same neighborhood. But they ended up splitting into two factions and each built their own structures. Neither congregation claimed the cemetery, but both established their own plots instead. And so, Waldum Cemetery became known as an independent burial ground - a pioneer graveyard.

Many of the oldest grave markers at Waldum Cemetery are in need of repair. Photo by Faith Anderson

Most pioneer cemeteries were maintained by neighbors and families whose loved ones were buried there. Over time, the number of families with connections to Waldum has fallen. Now a small number of dedicated individuals mow, trim and keep the cemetery from becoming overgrown with invasive weeds, shrubs and trees.

One of those self-appointed caretakers at this cemetery is Val Jerzak whose father, Elmer Paulson, is buried there, along with her grandparents and other relatives. Val and her husband, Bob, live in Miltona, nearly 80 miles away, which makes it difficult to work at the cemetery. “I’m so pleased that my cousin, Tim Bakken, lives near the cemetery and mows large areas with his tractor,” stated Val. Other relatives have also been involved in trimming and other tasks.

Several years ago, Val and her brother, Gary, placed a boulder at the cemetery that was engraved by a stone mason with the words “Waldum Cemetery, Est. 1880.” That rock has a bit of history in the neighborhood and for the Paulson family. In the late 50s, it was dug out of a nearby field by their dad, Elmer Paulson, and an uncle, Art ‘Sonny’ Kohlman. “I remember walking home from country school and seeing them working on it for two days before they finally pulled it into our yard and placed it near the rock pile,” said Val. “What an exciting time it was - a new place to play and climb!”

Val knew that a storm had blown through central Minnesota last spring but had no idea what a mess it made at her beloved cemetery. She and Bob normally visit Waldum in the spring to clean and freshen up the family gravesites for Memorial Day.

The grave of Elmer Paulson is cared for by his daughter, Val Jerzak of Miltona. She and her husband, Bob, are two of the self-appointed caretakers at Waldum Cemetery in Swift County. Photo by Faith Anderson

“When we got to the cemetery, I was devastated to see the damage,” said Val. “I was just heart-broken and wondered what we should do and where would we even start.” The storm not only took down the two trees, but caused several graves to be unearthed when the roots of the mighty cottonwood were forced out of the ground.

Val realized that she couldn’t fix the mess caused by the storm by herself, so she sought help from the county. Unfortunately, there was no funding available, so she set up a GoFundMe online account to raise money to remove the trees and repair the affected graves. When fundraising failed, Val and Bob took matters into their own hands and personally hired someone to cut up the trees and remove them at a cost of $7,200. “I wasn’t very successful in my attempts to raise funds online,” Val remembered, “but family and friends donated a total of about $3,000. I was so grateful for that.”

Currently, the trees are gone, and the disturbed graves are restored, but the massive stumps remain. A large area where the trees stood has become overgrown and impossible to mow. “The estimate I got for grinding out the stumps was about $1,200,” said Val. But the removal of the stumps isn’t the only project that sorely needs attention at Waldum. Many of the vintage stones are worn and broken. Some are leaning and unstable and others are so old and weathered that the names and dates have nearly disappeared.

Behind the large boulder and old wooden sign that mark Waldum Cemetery, one can see an area where remnants of the large fallen trees remain. Caretakers and those whose loved ones are buried in this pioneer cemetery hope that the cemetery can be restored. Photo by Faith Anderson

Within the past year, Val attended a seminar in Alexandria on the topic of restoration and repair of gravestones. “It was an interesting class,” Val said. “I enjoyed learning how to clean and repair and lift the stones.”

To accomplish these tasks, certain tools are needed, including a tripod with which heavy stones can be lifted, leveled and put back into place. A special adhesive is also required to repair broken stones. “I just don’t think I can do the heavy work but could do some cleaning and repair,” stated Val optimistically.

Waldum Cemetery stands as a testament to the pioneers who settled the area. They endured many hardships as they worked the land, raised their families and cleared the way for future generations of Americans. But their final resting place is in disarray and Val believes they deserve better. Her only wish is to see the cemetery in proper order once again. “It would be a dream come true,” she said.

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