Volunteers preserve cemetery and its history

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As the wild asparagus emerges along the perimeter of the Bangor Cemetery, a cadre of friends and neighbors move among the graves, beautifying the eternal resting place of their loved ones.

The youngest volunteers have been Ethan, Elijah and Emmit, sons of Mobridge patrolman Allen Bohle and wife Brandice. They can trace their roots on their paternal side to Dr. William George, a pioneer and Walworth County physician. The senior member of the crew, at 90 years of age, is Francis Jansen of Java.

Charles “Chuck” Birkholt of Selby has spearheaded the annual campaign since the members of Frederick Schauer Post 100 were forced to abandon upkeep of the cemetery in 1992. He maintains ongoing research of unmarked graves printed in an evolving book.

Reportedly, the plot of those who were buried there was stored in the office of Dr. Herman Gunderman, an early Bangor pharmacist and physician. That information was lost in a fire in the early 1900s. Elsie Sieck drew the last known map of the cemetery in 1969. In addition, Chuck directs fund-raising efforts. Although labor is free, maintenance of the mowers and chainsaws and gasoline to keep them running is not.

Chuck’s grandparents Anthony and Nellie (Smith) Birkholt, are buried there as well as Chuck’s aunts, Olive, age 6, and Julia, age 4, who died of scarlet fever in 1893 within three days of each other. Anthony emigrated from the port of Bremen, Germany in 1872, and filed a claim southeast of Bangor in 1897. He was elected as Walworth County Sheriff for two terms and became a house mover. Perhaps he helped move some of the houses from the former county seat of Bangor to Selby.

Originally relocated from LeBeau to Bangor in 1884, to be nearer to the geographic center of the county, Bangor became a thriving little town with grocery stores, attorneys, physicians, lumberyards, and livery stables. The town of Selby became the county seat, quite by happenstance but not without dispute, when the railroad angled its line northwestward from Bowdle in 1900, missing Bangor. An exodus of businesses, houses and barns began immediately and within a few years, Bangor became a ghost town. There is no sign of the town except a historic marker along the highway, one mile west of the cemetery. In an account co-written by Chuck and Myrtle Baumann, Samuel Brown, a United Methodist minister, established the cemetery.

A walk through the cemetery is a history lesson in a pastoral setting. There are 119 marked graves. It’s apparent that many individuals succumbed to illnesses that are treatable today, Chuck said.

Some of those who rest beneath the prairie sod lived short lives.

“There is no way of knowing who are buried in some of the graves,” he said. “In some cases, money was tight and the family could not afford a headstone to mark their loved one’s grave. A fieldstone or maybe even a few bricks would have to suffice.”

However, some of the graves are marked with ornate memorials of granite and marble.

Many of the marked graves were those of children.

One of the earliest recorded burials was Charlie Kaufman, age 3, who died in 1905. A little alabaster lamb, a symbol of innocence, stands sentinel over the graves of some of the children including Mary Ottman, who died in 1897, at the age of 1. A local antique buff noted that one of the firms which made utilitarian ware such as crocks in the Red Wing, Minn., area, also made unusual headstones such as tree trunks, representing a life cut short. Another unique symbol incorporated in some headstones are arches, representing the passage to heaven. Birds can symbolize peace, an anchor, hope or eternal life, and books, a person’s good deeds.

Epitaphs often include Biblical scripture. In addition to a little lamb, a few of the children’s headstones include comforting phrases: “Sleep on sweet babe and rest; God calls away when he thinks best” or “In the arms of Jesus.”

Trying to decipher some of the epitaphs can be challenging; in addition to the growth of lichen, some of the words have been worn away by the unrelenting prairie winds. One of the more unusual: “Readers pass by and perceive, as you are living, so was I; as I am dead, so you must be…”

Samuel Franklin apparently was a circuit rider, a minister who rode on horseback from church to church, bringing the good word to many isolated communities. His grave is marked by a brass orb with a figure of a rider on horseback wearing a long duster.

Many graves are marked with the initials, “G.A.R.,” for Grand Army of the Republic. Organized in 1889, at Bangor, the members led by Captain N.H. Kingman, were veterans of the Civil War who settled in Dakota Territory.

However, the mystery remains of a little woven wire bassinet east of the center of the cemetery. There is no headstone or visible footstone.

Although families are responsible for decorating individual graves, the stalwart volunteers are scheduled to spruce up the cemetery on Wednesday, May 24, just in time for Memorial Day.

“Volunteers are always welcome,” Chuck said.

-Sandy Bond -

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