Mel Bjur and a group of local people seemed to have figured that out
By Jennifer Kotila
COKATO, MN Mel Bjur of Cokato has been working to find Smith Lake Cemetery for about 10 years now.
This has been a difficult task because many of the people who are still alive and remember the cemetery, remember it a little differently,
Some history about Smith Lake
Smith Lake was a village that sat between Howard Lake and Cokato on what is now 49th Street Southwest. It was located next to the railroad tracks.
Today, 49th Street runs through what would have been the village of Smith Lake. Before Smith Lake disappeared, the road used to curve around the town. The road was straightened after the village disappeared.
Smith Lake was originally claimed by Eugene Smith, who located and surveyed a railroad right of way in 1958. Smith also gave his name to the village that was developed there, according to D.R. Farnham’s article “Wright County History, 1880.”
Smith never perfected his claim, and in 1865, W.P. Holbrook took the land by a pre-emptive claim.
Holbrook and L.W. Perkins surveyed and platted 65 acres and entered them as a town site.
The year of 1869 saw a lot of growth for Smith Lake. A railroad depot and water tank were built. Perkins built a store and a hotel that year, as well.
By 1880, Smith Lake was a bustling little village with numerous stores, a blacksmith shop, a hotel, a boardinghouse, a post office, a sawmill, an elevator, and grain houses, according to Farnham’s history.
The post office moved out of Smith Lake in 1914, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.
According to the map of Smith Lake from 1901, there were two churches in the village, the Church of God and a Methodist church.
The cemetery that Bjur has been trying to find is thought to have been established and taken care of by the Church of God.
According to an article in the May 12, 1910 edition of the Cokato Enterprise, the Church of God burned to the ground in that year. The church then moved to Howard Lake, according to Mike Worcester, director of the Cokato Museum.
After the church and the post office moved out of Smith Lake, the village slowly faded away. The cemetery slowly disappeared once it was abandoned.
Some of the last people buried in the cemetery were buried there in 1906 and 1910, according to Mark Peterson of Swanson-Peterson Funeral Home.
Remembering the cemetery
Nearly all of the people who live near, or at one time lived in or near Smith Lake Village, have different memories about the cemetery. All of them are still local residents of Cokato and Howard Lake.
Many of them remember seeing some of the grave markers before they all disappeared.
Peterson remembers his late father, George, telling him that before he went into the service in 1942, there were one or two stone markers and one or two wooden markers left still marking grave sites.
By the time he returned from the service in 1947, there were no markers left.
Helen Peterson can remember the cemetery from when she was a little girl. She remembers a big rock and lots of pretty flowers in the cemetery on Memorial Day.
She had moved to Dassel for a few years as a young woman, but thought she could recall the flowers still being placed out there for a few years after moving back in 1956.
Harvey Krohn can remember driving by the cemetery all the time on the school bus in 1954. He thought he could also recall another cemetery in the village.
He remembers that there were at least seven monuments in the cemetery still when he rode by on the bus. He never knew that the cemetery had disappeared until Bjur contacted him a while back when doing research on the cemetery.
Don Mitchell recalls being a kid growing up around Smith Lake. At that time, the village was still there, with a few stores.
Mitchell recalls the cemetery being just north of the village. There is a group of trees there now. At the time, there were about a half-dozen monuments, he recalls.
Mitchell went into the Navy during World War II and cannot remember if the cemetery was still there when he returned.
Gary Johnson used to go hunting by Smith Lake, and remembers driving by the cemetery. There was still a marker in the cemetery in the 1940s, as he recalls, but he does not remember there still being a town.
Ken Hardy’s father farmed the land where the cemetery was when Hardy was in high school in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They rented from Gordie Anderson.
There was a big rock that marked where the cemetery was, he recalled.
So, what happened to the cemetery?
As time went on, the farmland around the cemetery slowly swallowed it up. Basically, the cemetery was plowed under.
When people learn that, their reaction is often, “They can do that? Just plow under a cemetery?” said Worcester.
At the time, they could. There are many old cemeteries from the beginning of the 20th century that were abandoned. Without a church or an association to take care of them, the cemeteries were overgrown and abandoned, said Worcester.
He went on to say that many markers in those cemeteries were made of wood and eventually disintegrated, leaving no marking for the grave sites. The graves were then lost and plowed under.
Mel Robinson also gave some insight into how Smith Lake Cemetery could have disappeared. During World War II, cemeteries were used to grow extra food for the war effort.
To make it easier to grow food on the cemetery, the grave markers were often moved aside. Anybody who did this was supposed to plot the cemetery and return the markers after the war.
If this happened at Smith Lake cemetery, the markers may not have been replaced. Robinson said there are a lot of old stones piled to the northwest of where the cemetery was.
How was the cemetery found?
Before looking for Smith Lake Cemetery, Bjur had been working to find unmarked graves at other cemeteries in the area.
He started in 1988 at Watson Cemetery, located north of Cokato off of 45th Street. He had relatives buried there.
One of the techniques that Bjur, and those working with him, used to find the graves was dowsing, or the art of finding hidden things. Dowsing is also known as “divining,” “water witching,” and “doodle bugging.”
Bjur and his helpers used this technique at the Watson Cemetery, and Mark Peterson worked with him to prove that a grave had been found, according to both Peterson and Bjur.
They tested the technique at two sites in Watson cemetery. One of the sites was a grave, the other was not. “So it was a 50/50 deal,” said Peterson.
Bjur really started working hard to find the Smith Lake Cemetery about 10 years ago.
First, he did a lot of research on the village of Smith Lake.
Bjur started his search for the cemetery by talking to all the local people mentioned above.
He also did research at the Cokato Museum, the Cokato Historical Society, the Howard Lake Historical Society, the Wright County Historical Society, and the Minnesota Historical Society.
The exact location of the cemetery was more difficult to find than expected, especially since the roads around Smith Lake had been moved after the town disappeared.
Another problem he ran into was some of the records had been burned when the Church of God burned down. There were no records of who would have been buried in the cemetery.
Since the cemetery was so difficult to pinpoint, Bjur looked to his friends for help.
Ed Reinmuth helped with a compass that he had used when working for Middleville Township. He explained it as a device that can be used to find drain tiles, old roads, or other areas that had been disturbed.
Using the compass, said Reinmuth, they were able to find the location of the cemetery.
After finding the location of the cemetery, Kenny Gausman used a dowsing stick to plot out the grave site. He learned dowsing 25 to 30 years ago, but had never put it to much use, he said.
Once they knew the location of the cemetery, plotting out the graves with a dowsing stick was fairly easy to do, Gausman said.
Lenny Kaisalahti helped find the graves with a dowsing stick and called it, “interesting work.” Bill Fiedler also helped find and plot out the graves.
Wes Robertson also learned to dowse while helping plot out the cemetery. “Sometimes it brings up more questions than answers, but there is something to it,” he said.
Robertson also said that each of the four men doing the dowsing would cross-check each other’s work, so he said it was fairly accurate.
Mel Robinson also helped in plotting out the grave sites. After the men doing the dowsing found a grave, he would probe it to make sure it was an actual grave.
For probing, Robinson used a long stick. The stick would go down into the ground a long way, and then drop about 6 inches really easily. When it did that, they knew they had found a grave.
By using the dowsing and probing, Bjur and his friends were able to plot out more than 90 graves at Smith Lake Cemetery, according to Bjur.
Many of the people working on the project think the road may now go over some of the old cemetery.
What happens now that the cemetery has been found?
Now that the cemetery has been found, some may wonder if they can restore it. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
The land the cemetery has been found on is now private property. Bjur and his helpers had to get permission from the property owner before doing their research.
Restoring an abandoned cemetery on private property would have to be approved by the landowner. Most property owners would not agree to do that unless they also had relatives buried in the cemetery, Worcester said.
Instead, Bjur and his helpers have decided to erect a monument. They received permission from Middleville Township to place a monument near the cemetery.
Bjur is working to secure funding to complete the monument and the landscaping that will be done around it.
So far, he has received donations from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage fund, Cokato Historical Society, Cokato Township, Middleville Township, and the Wright County Historical Society. He is waiting for responses from several other organizations regarding donations for the monument.
If all goes as planned, Bjur and his helpers hope to place the monument sometime next spring.
“At least there will be a marker to show where the cemetery was when descendants of the people buried there are doing research on their ancestry, and would like to see where their relatives graves were,” said Worcester.