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Bringing a rural Cokato cemetery to life
May 30, 2016

By Mark Mitten

COKATO, MN – Watson Cemetery is located along a quiet dirt road on the outskirts of Cokato.

It is a small rural cemetery on 1.5 acres of land, with some grave markers so old they are illegible. Many others have been replaced or upgraded over the years. The Watson Cemetery Association, a group of neighbors who oversee the property, has recently developed a renewed vision for its upkeep.

“To the best of our knowledge, there are 79 individual burial sites,” said Randy Vredenburg, one of the trustees. “We’re pretty sure there’s more than that . . . a lot of the originals were wooden crosses that have rotted away. The records have been burnt in a fire [in 1975]. We have no idea who is buried where, other than the granite markers.”

Some of the headstones have dates that stretch back into the late 1800s, shortly after the cemetery was established. There are also military veterans interred, including people who served in both World War I and World War II. The Local Legions Honor Guard uses the cemetery as part of its Memorial Day services.

There is a lot of history at the cemetery, both remembered and lost to time.

In 1874, the NYE Evangelisk Church paid $25 for 3 acres of land. The church itself was fairly new, and at that time was still meeting as a “house church” – gathering for worship at a local residence. The congregation had two purposes in mind when they bought this land: a cemetery and a school house.

The cemetery was named in honor of a man named JC Watson, who owned 80 acres of adjacent land. The school house, which was eventually dismantled, was also named after him.

“He must have been a pretty prominent man in those days to name it that,” Honorary Board Member Mel Bjur said. “All the Cokato Museum and the Buffalo Museum can figure out, was that [the school] was started in a house. And we’re assuming it was the same house as the church.”

The school was eventually absorbed into the Cokato school system, and half of the land was sold to a local farmer, except for the cemetery.

Falling into neglect for a number of years, the Watson Cemetery Association was created in 1947 to provide leadership and maintain the property. Even today, if not for the neighbors sharing the upkeep, the graves would be overgrown and forgotten.

Bjur took over as chairman in 1965, and this year decided the time was right to step down. During the past 51 years, Bjur volunteered many hours to help maintain the cemetery. Beginning in 2000, he even took it on himself to secure new granite headstones to replace many old markers. Alternating with other neighbors and board members, including Mike Vetsch, Ed Miller, and others, Bjur continues to help out with mowing and other chores.

Renewed vision
Other changes in leadership have occurred recently, too. New members have joined the board, bringing the total to seven, including Chad Tschimperle taking over as the new chairman.

In the process, a new sense of vision has motivated the board to research what it would take to improve the property. Some improvements needed are cosmetic, such as a fence, but others are practical. For instance, Cokato Township recently asked the Watson Cemetery Association to improve erosion control to prevent silt from washing down the hillside onto the road.

However, improvements like that require funds.

“There is no money; it’s a closed cemetery,” Vredenburg explained. “We’re asking for donations.”

To be in a position to accept donations, the association had to set up a special account with a bank. But one major problem was that the cemetery did not have a formal address.

“To get the state ID number registered right, they wanted an address,” Vredenburg continued. “And the bank wanted an ID number before we could open a checking account!”

Now, the cemetery finally has an official address, a state ID number, and an account with Kensington Bank of Cokato.

Donations sought for improvements
The Watson Cemetery Association is seeking local donations to assist with property improvements, such as grave stone revitalization, erosion control, a wrought iron fence, and an informational sign. Members encourage potential donors to use email (WatsonCemetery@hotmail.com) as an easy way to contact them for more information.

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