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Cemetery's bequest: Rest for dead, respite for the living

A seven-person board and big group of volunteers take care of the old Kinnickinnic Cemetery located in the southern edge of St. Croix County in the town of Kinnickinnic. Among the group are, from left, Kent Larrabee, Candace Bettendorf and Barbara Larrabee. Photo by Debbie Griffin

Members of the Kinnickinnic Cemetery Association agree that the old graveyard, once known as the Hillside Cemetery, not only provides a final resting place for the dead but also many interesting stories and a special kind of getaway for the living.

The volunteers love coming there, working there and keeping it nice. They enjoy the peace of it.

Each gravestone tells a tale - it may be of a man who married a woman 40 years younger and died a few years later. It may one of many stories about children whose lives ended early.

It tells of Civil War veterans: Two infantrymen, a cavalry soldier and a U.S. Army hospital steward. Other veterans rest there from the Spanish-American War and World War II.

People love the cemetery's towering pines that whisper in the wind, a gently rolling hillside and a recently added chainsaw-carved angel standing sentry in the front. Birds of prey often stop in the tall trees for a good hunting view of surrounding fields.

The association board is comprised of seven local members: Barb and Kent Larrabee, John and Candy Bettendorf, Denny Caliva, Don Waltzoni and Mark Altenburg.

The Larabees live nearby the cemetery and do work on a weekly basis - mostly clearing fallen trees, hauling brush, managing burials, marking grave and stone sites plus other duties.

"We're in charge of the upkeep," said Bettendorf. "It was never part of a church."

When Kinnickinnic was still the town of Malone in 1863, a family named Williams bought the land from the town for $30, dedicating it "expressly for burial purposes." The Williamses ran a stop along the Hudson-to-Menomonie stagecoach line, serving dinner and tending horses.

The Kinnickinnic Cemetery Association formed and bought the land for $1 in 1878-1879. It used to be the cemetery for a nearby "poor farm" until those remains were moved.

To the best of the board members' memories, sheep used to mow the cemetery. A local farmer used to let a flock graze there until people decided sheep shouldn't walk on people's graves.

The graveyard became abandoned until about 30 years ago when, according to Bettendorf and Barb, a local woman named Esther Weigel, a member of an Oak Valley homemakers organization, encouraged clearing and restoring it.

Efforts have increased every year since then, and volunteers continue to peel off more brush and find and right more headstones. The oldest marker discovered so far is dated 1852.

Weigel once made a presentation in which she said about 80 graves (20 of them unmarked) have been found; she also estimated that the entire site would hold about 1,600 graves. The cemetery has additional acreage in the back that has never been surveyed.

Bettendorf said the first time John pointed it out to her, she couldn't tell it was a graveyard. She has since become active in caring for it and says her mother is buried there.

Barb says the volunteers do get calls about burials there. Plots are available there for $350 each.

Bettendorf says the volunteers do "massive amounts of work" to clear more land and keep open what's already clear. They save money by most tasks themselves but have grown to contracting the mowing and occasionally renting a wood chipper.

The association runs on donations and free labor. People often leave coin donations on the angel sculpture in front. Barb said the money from gravesite sales is helping care for the cemetery.

Volunteers over the years graded and paved a pathway through the manicured part of the site. Excavators apparently found some unmarked graves, the remains of which were reburied.

Barb, husband Kent and Bettendorf agree that volunteers remove a lot of brush; branches; stones; trash; Creeping Charlie; and downed or dead trees, especially after a storm.

Barb adds, "And lots and lots of berry bushes."

Kent explains one of the headstones and how volunteers righted it with steel brackets then used a sander to remove caked-on layers of gunk so the inscription could be read.

Pointing to three others he says, "Those are the only ones that have headstones and footstones."

He and Barb keep an unofficial watch on the cemetery. They broke up a small party and once investigated what they thought was campers but turned out to be a solar-powered lamppost.

If a cemetery can come back to life, these volunteers are the resuscitators; they suspect others might also enjoy the serene scenery of the hillside graveyard.

Bettendorf said, "We'd love to have more volunteers help clean up the cemetery."

Call Barb for more information about gravesites or about volunteering.

See you at the cemetery?

The Kinnickinnic Cemetery Association holds a volunteer cleanup day starting at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, May 9, and welcomes all the helpers it can get. Expect to clean the hillside by removing brush, pulling roots, cutting limbs, leveling gopher mounds and moving dirt.

The association welcomes volunteers to bring pruning equipment.

Children may come if accompanied by a parent, and limited refreshments will be provided.

To reach the cemetery from Hudson, go east and exit south on Hwy. 65, turn left (east) on County J for about a mile; turn left (north) onto Cemetery Road.