Farm Horizons, April 2016

Little Swan Lake once featured school, church – and cemetery

By Brad Salmen

Today, Little Swan Lake, four miles north of Dassel, is your normal mid-Minnesota lake, dotted by permanent and seasonal homes.

But back in the late 1800s, it was a hub of sorts for nearby residents, with a schoolhouse and a Methodist church, and, as so often accompanies a church, a cemetery.

Today, there are few physical traces of these community pillars. Both the church and schoolhouse are gone, and the only remnants of this bygone era are a few gravestones from the cemetery, called both the Little Swan Cemetery and the Cunningham Cemetery.

According to a Works Progress Administration (WPA) report from the Minnesota State Historical Society in 1936, the cemetery had already been in disuse by 1915. It was used by settlers who were members of the Methodist church.

Complete records cannot be found. However, there are bits and pieces that can be discerned from archived records provided by the Dassel Area Historical Society (DAHS).

The cemetery was deeded by the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company to the Swan Lake Cemetery Association (trustees Caleb Hull, Andrew Davidson, Wells Tuman, E.A. Russell, JP. David, and Nelson Tuman) in 1878.

The Minnesota State Methodist Church Archives has only one mention of the church, its dedication in 1886, suggesting the church operated for at least eight years before being officially recognized by the overarching Methodist organization.

The church did not appear on the Minnesota Methodist’s appointment list for preaching assignments. According to DAHS researcher Julie Lindquist, the archivist for the Minnesota Methodists thought the Little Swan church may have been served by the Dassel Methodist Church (first record, 1870), as pastors often had more than one “preaching point.”

The only reference to the church in DAHS newspaper archives is from May 25, 1889, from the Litchfield Saturday Review:

“The Colfax Post GAR will observe Memorial Day by visiting the Swan Lake Cemetery, Cassel Cemetery, and Bogar burying grounds. All old soldiers specially and the people generally are cordially invited to join and help the post on that occasion.”

According to the 1936 WPA report (by EC. Rucks), “some say there are more than 25 graves located” at the cemetery, though he noted just a handful of markers that still bore inscription:

• Martha A. Cunningham, b. March 13, d. Oct. 4, 1897

• Susan B. Tuman, b. 1837, d. 1901.

• James H. Tuman, son of W. & M. Tuman, d. July 7, 1877, age 19.

• IN. Russel, Company A, First Minnesota, M.T. Rangers

• Isaac N. Davis, son of JP. and R.(B?) Davis, d. April 1880, age nine years, 3 months, 10 days

In subsequent visits by the DAHS, there were several other gravestones identified that were missed by Rucks:

• Wells Tuman

• Mary Tuman

• Wealthy Russel

• Anthony W. Russel

In 2000, swimmers at Little Swan Lake found part of a stone that included the name Permilla Frost, b. January 7, 1809, though the date of death was missing from the broken stone.

Today, what’s left of the cemetery sits on two parcels of private property. One of the landowners was gracious enough to grant access to several of the gravestones for research and photography purposes, but asked that identifying characteristics of the cemetery’s location be left out of the public record to preserve privacy.

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