By Ivan Raconteur
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN When he was unable to generate support for restoration of a pioneer graveyard down the street from his house, Lester Prairie resident Earl Strey decided to take on the project himself.
Strey approached the Lester Prairie Park Board and City Council in 2006 and asked them if the city would be willing to fence off the site near the intersection of Central Avenue and Elm Street North to help preserve it and make it more visible.
At that time, the graveyard had been neglected for years. Some of the stones were broken, and others had tipped over and were half-buried in the dirt.
The council discussed the situation, and Council Member Art Mallak inspected the site, but other than asking Strey to research some fencing options, the council took no action.
Strey said he also contacted “every organization in and around town” and asked for help, but was unable to find support for the project.
Strey took an interest in the graveyard because it is a part of the city’s past, and he believes it is important to preserve this for future generations.
He made reference to the city’s old bandstand, which was replaced by the new gazebo.
“If you keep taking parts (of the city’s history) away, it’s going to be nothing but a bedroom community,” Strey said.
He decided that if anything was going to be done to preserve the site, he would have to do it himself.
He asked his neighbor, Dave Berry, to help, and Berry agreed.
They began by raising the stones that had fallen over and were mostly covered with dirt.
Then, they built bases for the stones to sit on by digging down about a foot, building forms, and filling the forms with concrete.
Strey purchased a special heavy-duty glue to attach the stones to the bases.
Some stones were scattered further from the main group, including one that Strey found under a nearby cedar tree.
Using what he called “farm ingenuity,” Strey and Berry used plywood and a tow strap to drag the scattered stones into place using Berry’s ATV.
The next problem was what to do about the broken stones.
Strey consulted another Lester Prairie resident, Jerry Jerabek, who said he had a saw that he could use to trim the jagged edges.
He fit the broken stones back together, and built frames around them and set them in concrete.
After consulting others, Strey decided a 20-foot square fenced enclosure would be large enough to contain the graveyard.
They dug a trench around the perimeter, and then hauled in sand lots of sand to build a base, and then set in paving stones so that the area can be mowed right up to the fence.
The next problem Strey had to contend with was how to keep the graveyard free of weeds.
He consulted another Lester Prairie resident, Fred Holasek, owner of Fred Holasek & Son Greenhouses.
Holasek donated some landscaping fabric and volunteered to help install it.
Strey was then ready to pick up the fence. but by that time, it was late fall, and Menards had already sent all the fencing back to the warehouse, so he had to wait until spring.
Meanwhile, he went to Wal-Mart to purchase white decorative rock as a ground cover.
He purchased the last 22 bags in the store. He knew this wouldn’t be enough, but was told that the store would have more in the spring.
This spring, he was able to install the fencing, and found decorative rock that matched what he had purchased in the fall.
He added some signs that list all of the early settlers who were laid to rest in the cemetery, using information from the Lester Prairie centennial book, researched and written by Barbara and Milan Dammann, with help from Charlotte Ehrke.
The oldest pioneer in the graveyard is Henry Weaver, who died Dec. 6, 1886 at the age of 95, Strey said.
After investing many hours of labor and a significant amount of his own money for materials, Strey was finished.
He said the amount of money he spent on the graveyard “Was about the same as restoring the bandstand would have cost.”
Strey did not agree with members of the Central Park committee, who determined that the old bandstand had deteriorated beyond repair.
It has since been removed to make way for the new gazebo in the downtown park, but Strey said he believes it was a piece of the city’s history that has been lost.
He recalled the days when the bandstand was a focal point in the community.
“When I was young, I played in the parochial school band,” Strey said. “On Saturday evenings, we had band concerts in the park led by Harold Banke. Farmers would bring their kids into town to play in the concert, and they would do their shopping. People would discuss the news of the week, and there was a lot of camaraderie. The concerts would last about an hour, and then Earl Dibb would show 8 mm movies.”
Part of the reason that Strey took on the restoration of the settlers’ graveyard is that he does not want the city to lose any more of its history.
He said the project was like a jigsaw puzzle, and each piece seemed to fall into place.
“It was a challenge to me,” Strey commented.
He kept adding to it, and became more and more involved.
“I reached a point where I said I had got that far, and I was going to go all the way. I wasn’t going to leave it partially done,” Strey explained.
He added one sign of his own to the graveyard. It reads, “We may all live for the future, but all of us are products of our past.”
He said he appreciates the help and advice he got from some of his friends and neighbors.
Strey is a veteran, having served in the Army Signal Corps during the Korean War.
He has been a Lester Prairie resident since his family moved to the city from a farm in 1943.
Strey said what happens to the graveyard in the future is out of his hands.
“I am giving this to the city. What they do with it is up to them,” Strey said.