Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Exploring Minnesota cemeteries, including Valley Grove March 30, 2022

The cemetery at Valley Grove sidles near the two historic Norwegian churches. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

A TIME EXISTED when I avoided cemeteries. I didn’t like the thought of being among the dead. It creeped me out. The thought of bodies beneath the ground. Bones. Nightmarish thoughts fueled by imagination. Long ago I left those dark fears behind, accepting the reality of death. That came with maturity, a deepening of my faith and the deaths of many loved ones.

Art and heritage and faith and lives remembered. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Today I am drawn to cemeteries, especially rural cemeteries. That includes the hilltop Valley Grove Cemetery in rural Nerstrand.

Oaks edge the cemetery and a road along it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Graveyards are more than a final resting place, as we so nicely phrase it, for loved ones. Graveyards are also places to grieve and remember. They are also places of history, heritage and art, often sited in the most peaceful of settings. Valley Grove checks off all those items on that place list.

The cemetery surrounds three sides of the 1862 stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I’ve explored many other country cemeteries, wandering among the tombstones, wondering about the people buried there. Why did they die so young? What were they like? What were their occupations? What made them happy? Who misses them?

Erik Floren’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The in-ground marker of Ole Hemvig. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Honoring Thomas and Einar Halvorsen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo March 2022)

Tombstone engravings reveal bits and pieces of life stories. Sometimes of heritage. At Valley Grove, many names reference a Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. Junius. I doubt I’ve ever found so many “Oles” buried in a Minnesota cemetery. That’s not unexpected given the Norwegian immigrants who settled here and built the two churches which still stand. Older stone inscriptions are sometimes written in the Mother Tongue. German I can occasionally decipher. Norwegian, not.

On Clyde Heggedahl’s tombstone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Through the years, the art of grave markers has evolved to more elaborate artwork that tells a story. For example, at Valley Grove an image of Nerstrand Meats & Catering decorates the stone of Clyde Heggedahl of that long-standing business co-owned with his wife, Mary. He died in 2016. At the meat market.

A faith and love-filled message. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Bible verses and inspirational messages grace gravestones, too, offering insights and comfort. Sharing hope and faith. Love.

A special marker for a veteran’s grave. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I often pause at burial spots marked by military markers. As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, I hold honor in my heart for those who have served. I recognize the sacrifices, whether given through death on the battlefield or the life-long challenges faced by too many of our veterans. That included my father, who died in 2003. Dad received his purple heart 47 years after he was wounded in Korea. War forever wounded his spirit; he battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am thankful veterans’ graves are flagged with honor.

The old stone church and cemetery at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

There’s simply lots to observe and contemplate while meandering among tombstones. I always do so with respect, for these grounds feel almost sacred. At Valley Grove, a certain serenity envelopes me in this peaceful hilltop setting among oaks and prairie.

What’s the story behind the “Snuffy” nickname? (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Although those buried here were unknown to me in life, I’ve come to know them a bit in death. The countless “Oles.” The young and the old. They were all cherished. Loved. Part of the family of humanity. They mattered. And their stories matter.

Posted on the gated entry to Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

TELL ME: Do you explore cemeteries and, if you do, why?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rest in peace, Ole, Sophia, Amelie… May 4, 2015

THERE WAS A TIME when I stayed away from cemeteries. Walking among tombstones, atop burial sites, creeped me out.

But I’ve since matured, realized that a cemetery holds history and art, life stories and loss, and serves as a place to grieve, to honor and to remember loved ones.

A marker at the entry to North Grove Church and Cemetery in Cannon City Township, rural Rice County, Minnesota.

A marker at the entry to North Grove Church and Cemetery in Cannon City Township, rural Rice County, Minnesota.

My most recent cemetery tour took me to North Grove Church and Cemetery just north of Faribault along Minnesota Highway 3. I’ve passed this site hundreds of times in 30-plus years, never once stopping to investigate.

North Grove Church, closed in 1931.

North Grove Church closed in 1931.

Here I discovered a quaint church, long closed.

I opened this door into the church entry, but found the interior sanctuary door locked.

I opened this door into the church entry, but found the interior sanctuary door locked.

Peering through curtained windows, I glimpsed pews and wished I could get inside the locked building.

The Norwegian name, Ole, is common on North Grove tombstones.

The Norwegian name, Ole, is common on North Grove tombstones.

On a quick perusal of grave markers, where the name “Ole” is chiseled in stone many times, I determined that Norwegian immigrants built this house of worship and established this cemetery.

As was common in early Minnesota churches, the cemetery is right next to the church building.

As was common in early Minnesota churches, the cemetery is right next to the church building.

John Dalby of Faribault, who runs the Dalby Database along with wife, Jan, confirmed the ethnicity of North Grove Church. The Norwegian church was started in 1869 and likely closed in 1931, when First English Lutheran Church in Faribault formed, Dalby says.

Too many babies died.

Too many babies died.

Wander this burial grounds and you begin to understand the losses and grief endured by early Minnesota settlers. Babies dead. Wives and husbands gone too young. Immigrants who left Norway for a new, but not always better, life in America.

Ole Christiansen, who lived to age 91, came from Norway. His first wife, Sophia Swenson, died. He then married Caroline.

Ole Christiansen, who lived to age 91, came from Norway. His first wife, Sophia Swenson, died. He then married Caroline.

Then scroll through obituaries on the Dalby Database, which includes 2.5 million records from cemeteries, birth and death certificates and more, and names morph into people. Ole Christiansen is no longer simply a Norwegian name inscribed on a tombstone, but a man who was born in Alerude Odemark, Norway. Husband of Sophia. Then Caroline.

June's first husband was Rice County Sheriff Chuck Carver, who died in a 1971 plane crash. The wreck was discovered several years later. She was remarried to a former Goodhue County sheriff.

June’s first husband was Rice County Sheriff Chuck Carver, who died in a 1971 plane crash. The wreck was discovered several years later. She was remarried to a former Goodhue County sheriff.

June Carver-Zillgitt lived in a jailhouse with her husband-sheriff and cooked for inmates.

The name, Audrey, drew me to this in-ground marker as did the Scripture inscribed thereon.

The name, Audrey, drew me to this in-ground marker as did the Scripture inscribed thereon.

Audrey Saufferrer had five grandchildren.

Grocer O.A. Brekke was termed a man of “sterling character.”

Mathilda Lund was a pioneer resident of the North Grove community.

Trees are budding in the old cemetery.

Trees are budding in the old cemetery.

Those buried at North Grove are 326 individuals who lived and loved and labored, although some were dead at birth, or lived too few days or months or years.

The fenced cemetery holds many stories. The cemetery is sandwiched between a highway and fields.

The fenced cemetery holds many stories. The cemetery is sandwiched between a highway and fields with a woods just a bit beyond as shown here.

I knew none of them. But, after walking among their gravestones, I am reminded that a cemetery holds life stories, if only we pause to read them.

Imagine the hands that worked this pump, those who drank the earth's water. The pump is located behind the church.

Imagine the hands that worked this pump, those who drank the earth’s water. The pump is behind the church.

FYI: Click here to access the Dalby Database, a great resource for anyone doing family history research in Minnesota.

This is one of two old tea kettles sitting near the water pump. I assume they are there  for watering flowers and plants.

This is one of two old tea kettles sitting near the water pump. I assume they are there for watering flowers and plants.

FYI: Janice Uggen Johnson recently published a book, Faith of our Fathers: History of Markers Norwegian Lutheran Church and North Grove Church and Cemetery, Faribault, Rice County, Minnesota (2014). She is an associate member of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. I have not seen or read the book.

The Norwegian-American Historical Association, based at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, is “a private membership organization dedicated to locating, collecting, preserving and interpreting the Norwegian-American experience with accuracy, integrity and liveliness.” It was founded in 1925.

Check back for a close-up look at a memorial in the North Grove Cemetery honoring a young Faribault woman.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling