Cemetery walks can bring local history to life
Bonnie Leraas talks about a local historical figure at a cemetery walk a few years ago. Leraas and her assisstant dressed in clothes from days gone by. Photo contributed by Steve and Linda Ray.
Bonnie Leraas is putting the finishing touches on the scripts, but the performance of her latest work won’t be on stage, it will be in a cemetery – the Bethesda Cemetery, to be exact, just north of Barrett.
This is the fourth cemetery walk Leraas has organized. She gathers information from church history books, church anniversary books, obituaries, microfilm and the resources of the Grant County Historical Museum on a featured church’s charter members. Once she writes the scripts, she calls on church and community members and descendants of those featured on the walk to read the scripts as visitors walk from one speaker to the next.
Leraas’ efforts have focused on Barrett-area churches. The walks have become a popular annual event held during the town’s Old Settlers Reunion.
She learned about cemetery walks from Pastor Kathryn Rothman who served Lincoln Lutheran Church, located east of Barrett, when that congregation was preparing for its centennial in 2013. Rothman had served an Underwood church that used cemetery walks, Leraas said.
Using that church’s script as an example, Leraas began her research and writing. It’s become the basis of her ongoing work.
“What I have been doing right now is focusing on the charter members of the churches because they are the old settlers of the area,” Leraas said. “What’s interesting in digging up this history is that you learn things you didn’t know before.”
As she worked on Lincoln’s cemetery walk scripts, Leraas learned that several founding members were Civil War veterans. Even Bjerke and Anton Hubred were friends who immigrated to the United States and after serving in the Civil War, attended the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln in Illinois. When they moved to their Grant County homes, they named the new church after the president they loved and respected. The two also took part in naming the town Barrett after Col. Barrett who helped survey the area.
Civil War nurse Ingebor Gudmundson handled both internal and external wounds as she tended soldiers in Memphis, Tenn. She and her husband, Ole, eventually settled in Section 22 of Elk Lake Township where the couple raised their family and farmed.
The stories not only focus on the charter members. She also mentions historical information of the area. Through her script on Agnes Helland and Peder Polson Gran, Leraas described how a group of men, led by Major Wood, surveyed a road leading to Fort Abercrombie. During their journey the band of men crossed a branch of the Chippewa River and discovered a chain of lakes. They saw an elk near the larger lake and named it Elk Lake.
Leraas highlighted the lives of 14 Lincoln Church charter members. The cemetery walk was a hit and prompted Leraas to continue her work.
The next year she featured Immanuel Lutheran. It was a special project for Leraas whose great-grandfather was among the church’s founding members.
Another Immanuel charter member was Ole Lien. When he arrived in America, he settled in Goodhue County and enlisted in the Union forces in the Civil War. He served three years as a soldier in Company D, Tenth Minnesota Volunteers. During his enlistment, Lien’s company was assigned to the Sibley expedition. They dispersed the Indians to areas west of the Missouri River. As they returned from the expedition, they camped in Grant County. It was eventually where Lien settled.
He homesteaded a farm on the southeast end of Cormorant Lake where he built a log house. He wrote to his childhood sweetheart in Norway, Margit Hustad, and asked her to immigrate and be his bride. When she arrived, there were no ministers in Grant County so the pair traveled to Fergus Falls where they were married on June 25, 1871.
It was some time before there were any ministers in the area, Leraas said. After Lien Township was fairly well settled, the Rev. Lauritz Carlson, from Evansville, drove to Lien Township and held services in some of the homes.
Lien gave four acres of land for the church building lot and cemetery.
Last year, she highlighted Fridhem Lutheran where, in a script for Gertrude Johnson, Leraas described how she and her husband, Erik, purchased land in what is now the community of Barrett. Once the railroad came through the area in 1886, they decided a town could be located on that spot. They plotted out much of their land as a townsite a year later, and the village of Barrett was officially incorporated two years later.
This year Bethesda Lutheran’s cemetery will be the cemetery walk site (June 25-26).
Among Bethesda’s charter members was Ole Hjelle who established the ice works in the community. Each winter, with a crew of local men, Hjelle would cut large blocks of ice from the frozen Barrett Lake. The ice was shipped for use in homes to keep food cold.
Immanuel, Fridhem and Bethesda have closed their doors. In some cases, the churches have been razed. But the cemeteries remain ,and the history of their founders is brought to life through the walks.
It’s a labor of love stemming from her love of the personal stories from local history. She heard them often as her grandmother, Clara, would describe moving from Minnesota to homestead in northwest in North Dakota only to return during the Depression. Leraas’ father, Gordon, also told the tales of living on the prairie, attending country school and working with his horse who performed numerous tricks.
She enjoys gathering the information. Some of the obituaries are quite flowery, Leraas said. Others offer little information about the individual. Several old books at the museum, a collection of biographies collected by early county historians, have been invaluable. But it doesn’t include all of the charter church founders, prompting Leraas to use her investigative skills to gain more information.
“I have always liked history,” Leraas said. “I liked going through the old pictures grandma kept in her old hatbox and hearing her talk about each one. In the old confirmation pictures she would point to each individual, and she would tell a story about who they were and what happened to them.
“If I would’ve been a high school teacher, I would’ve taught history, but I would have made it more fun. I would’ve made it more exciting.”
Undoubtedly, she would’ve focused on the stories.