Questions linger about history of Brookdale Cemetery
John Olson was 10 years old when he stood on the grounds of Brookdale Cemetery and watched his father dig a grave for an infant.
After the grave was dug and the baby’s remains secured in its box and placed in the hole, John’s father refilled the grave. Another man, Bill Johnson, held a bible in his hands and said a short prayer for the baby as John and his father stood nearby. It was just the three of them.
Now, almost 70 years later, Olson recalls that fateful day and it makes him wonder. He wonders because Brookdale Cemetery used to be the cemetery for babies who were stillborn or died shortly after birth at the Sauk Centre Home School for Girls. But as of this spring it was nothing but a fenced-off piece of farmland with waist-high grass, broken down trees and tall weeds and nary a grave marker in sight.
“I grew up on that farm from the time I was two until I was a sophomore,” said Olson, now 78. “My dad worked for the state and dug the graves for several of those babies. I guess I didn’t realize the cemetery had been neglected and abandoned by the state.”
Olson has been the driving force behind an effort to clean up the cemetery and find out more about its history, including how many children and adults are buried there, who they are, and why the state decided to remove all the grave markers and abandon the cemetery. He has enlisted the help of his fellow members of the local Knights of Columbus chapter. The Knights of Columbus has spearheaded similar efforts on a national level to clean up dilapidated cemeteries.
“It really touched me that this cemetery is there and the grave markers have been removed,” said Olson, who said he vaguely recalls there being white crosses to mark where other babies had been buried.
The cemetery is about a quarter-acre in size and located on the edge of a farm on 385th Street just off Highway 17 east of Sauk Centre. The farm was once owned by John and Margaret Klassen and is now owned by Greg Klassen and rented by a different farmer. The cemetery itself is fenced off from the rest of the land on the edge of an alfalfa field and is secluded behind a row of tall trees.
Ken Ritter, who is also helping spearhead the project, said the seclusion of the cemetery might be because the babies were the product of wayward girls who became pregnant out of wedlock.
“I believe that at that time it was somewhat of an embarrassment,” he said.
The time is believed to be in the first half of the 20th century. The reformatory school for girls opened in 1911. Pregnant girls were often brought in by train so they could give birth at the reformatory with the agreement that the baby would become property of the state and then put up for adoption.
If babies were stillborn or died shortly after birth, they were brought to Brookdale Cemetery, where Olson’s father, also named John, and Bill Johnson would dig the grave and give them a proper burial.
But the question that lingers is exactly how many babies are buried there. And whether or not there are adults buried there, too.
“We have heard the possibility of one to three adults buried there and possibly up to 20 babies,” said Olson. “But we just don’t know.”
They are in the process of finding out. Ritter has spent some time researching the history of the cemetery, as has Olson’s wife, Roberta. Roberta Olson discovered the records of one baby who was buried there. On May 19, 1934, Linda Marie Karver, who lived 13 days, was buried at the cemetery. To date, that is the only record Olson or Ritter have of anyone buried there.
“We talked to Denny Rykken (longtime home school employee) and he said the Minnesota Historical Society has records of the former home school, but that the record keeping was fairly poor,” said Olson.
Olson and Ritter are in the midst of seeing what else they can discover about the small plot of land that could hold the graves of many innocent children. They are enlisting the public’s help. If anyone knows of anything about the cemetery, they are asked to call Olson at 352-6119 or Ritter at 352-6606 or 612-810-8053.
In the meantime, the Knights of Columbus will continue to maintain the property as best they can. With the help of many volunteers, they were able to clear the space and cut the grass so it looks good. Those volunteering their efforts include: Ken Reuter, Don Toenies, Henry Berling, John Lahr, Nick Lahr, Larry Lahr, Kevin Lahr, Joshua Lahr, Ritter and Olson.
“The next step is to continue to mow it,” said Ritter. “Watering it will be tough because access is tough.”
Anyone wishing to help with maintaining the site of the cemetery or donating money to help the cause can also contact Olson or Ritter. They hope to identify the names of those buried there, and find out why the state abandoned the property and removed the markers.
“It’s an embarrassment for state government,” said Ritter. “They wanted to cut funding and by walking away from it, they have washed their hands of it.”
They would also like to install some sort of memorial marker honoring those buried there and also install a sign that identifies the piece of land as “Brookdale Cemetery.”
For Olson, who almost 70 years ago watched as his father worked tirelessly to dig the grave of a young infant, it will bring closure not only for him, but hopefully for the family and relatives of those buried there.
“It irritates me that the cemetery has been abandoned,” he said. “It’s disrespectful. As far as I am concerned, those are God’s children.”
While questions about Brookdale Cemetery’s past linger on, the Knights of Columbus hope to give the cemetery a future, and those buried there the honor they deserve.