By Jake Rossen
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Cemeteries are forever, or so we'd like to believe. They represent our history, our home, the place we will be remembered long after everything we knew has changed, been torn down, and built anew. They tell a story about who we are as a city, reflecting the way in which we care for the collective dead, for the past. They are repositories of history--time capsules both personal and communal.
Stretching across 27 acres at the southern tip of the Phillips neighborhood, no local graveyard carries this burden more obviously than the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery. A place out of time, it is surrounded by auto body shops and bustling liquor stores. The headstones, some dating back to the 1800s, are scattered a little haphazardly. Some have sunk below ground; others list to one side or the other, like buoys in a harbor. Still others have collapsed completely, lying in pieces in the overgrown grass. Perhaps you have driven by it a thousand times without seeing it, without realizing that what lies beyond the stone and wrought iron perimeter is a distinctive window into a short but extremely vital period in Minneapolis's history.
Back in the 1850s, Minneapolis stretched only about as far as Franklin Avenue. Beyond that, there was an expansive prairie bordered by a hardwood forest. In 1853, a man named Martin Layman, born in 1811 in Greene County, New York, came to Minneapolis and staked a claim on the land around what today is Lake Street and Cedar Avenue. As part of his homestead, used mainly for farming, he built a house on Cedar and 29th Street. It was this plot, originally earmarked for a school, that would become Layman's Cemetery, later to become Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery.
As is so often the case with folk history, a number of different stories have arisen regarding the first body to be buried here. Most likely it took place in September 1853, with the interment of Carlton Keith Cressy, son of the Rev. W. E. Cressy, founder of the first Baptist church in Minneapolis.
Another depiction of the first burial comes from Ethyln Wightman Whittier, who wrote about the cemetery in the January 1943 edition of the quarterly bulletin Hennepin County History. "On the death of one of the neighbors in this new-born community, the husband found himself in a real dilemma," Whittier writes. "He had no money to take his wife's body back home and no proper place to bury it. When Martin Layman heard about it he at once set aside 26 acres of his farm for a cemetery. Here the neighbor's wife was buried."
Some say the interment of the wife may have taken place in 1858, the year the graveyard officially opened to the public. In any case, Layman's property served as an informal burial ground and soon, more officially, became the city's first cemetery west of the Mississippi.
Back then, Pioneers and Soldiers was located a day's buggy ride from central Minneapolis, along a dirt road that connected downtown to outlying areas. Plots sold for anywhere between 50 cents and $5. "Business was brisk," reads a 1998 guide to the graveyard. "The cemetery was perfectly located for access in the early periods of Minneapolis development... Population was growing in both town and rural areas, and Layman's was the primary burying ground for these early settlers."
The location was no accident, explains David Sloane, a University of Southern California professor and author of the 1991 book, The Last Great Necessity. Many city cemeteries started out in churchyards or on family farms; later there was a push to move those burial grounds to more suburban areas, both to reduce health hazards and to allow more communing with nature. "Cemeteries were viewed as dangerous public health nuisances," he says. "They wanted to push them outside the city." So for economic, medical, and cultural reasons, American cemeteries ended up on the outskirts, where they were turned into park-like sanctuaries. Since they coincided with a new appreciation for nature but mostly pre-dated real municipal parks, graveyards became destinations for leisurely outings.
Today, the Phillips neighborhood is one of Minneapolis's poorest areas, inhabited by many of the city's most vulnerable residents. It is also largely transitional; Minneapolis's new immigrants often find their first footing in Phillips, as the myriad Hispanic clothing shops and Somali markets confirm.
The languages and countries of origin are different now, but the rest has been true of this neighborhood for more than a century--even, or perhaps especially, in the city's early decades. A stroll through the cemetery provides a portal into the historic populations of south Minneapolis, and how quickly and dramatically they have changed.
Some of Minneapolis's pioneers are buried here, like Philander Prescott, an early trader with the Native Americans, who married an Indian woman, Mary Kee-e-he-le. He was killed during the Dakota uprising of 1862. His wife died five years later and was buried alongside him. There is also Charles Christmas, Hennepin County's first surveyor and engineer of the roads running from Minneapolis, who died in 1884. And John Hoblitt, who, as a member of the First Minnesota Infantry, was the first Minnesota soldier to die in the Civil War. He died in November 1861 of typhoid fever; his body was sent back to Minnesota and his last words, "Do not bury me on slave soil," were written on his gravestone.
Perhaps the cemetery's most well known resident is Harry Hayward, hanged in 1895 for masterminding the murder of his girlfriend, local seamstress Kitty Ging. Hayward was a popular icon of the day, even after being convicted of hiring a man to kill Ging in order to reap $10,000 in insurance money.
During and directly after the Civil War, Minneapolis grew exponentially, as African Americans and New Englanders flocked to the Midwest. (According to an August 2000 report by the Minneapolis Heritage Commission, the population of the city grew from 200 in 1855 to 46,887 in 1880.) One notable African American to arrive in Minneapolis during this time was William Goodridge. Born in Baltimore, Goodridge spent most of his life in York, Pennsylvania, working first as a barber and then a businessman. Prior to the Civil War, Goodridge was closely tied to the Underground Railroad, allowing a number of fugitive slaves to stay in his home. During the war, he and his family fled to Minnesota. When Goodridge died in 1873, he was laid to rest at Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery, which, since its inception, was one of few cemeteries to be racially integrated.
The latter decades of the 19th century brought several waves of immigrants to Minneapolis. The city was billed as a healthy place with a robust economy and plenty of jobs in the sawmills and lumber mills and along the railroad. First came the Scandinavians, who, as they died, were buried in Pioneers and Soldiers. Next came the Eastern Europeans. The cemetery's close proximity to Bohemian Flats, a mainly Slovakian tenement district under the Washington Avenue Bridge along the Mississippi River, meant that it was the chosen final destination for many Bohemians. The cemetery became dotted with iron crosses, a traditional grave marker common in Eastern Europe. Only a few of these markers survive today.
John Effert was typical of these immigrants, the laborers who performed the dirty work of building the city. Effert was a Russian who had come to the United States in 1906, at age 21. At some point after that, he traveled to Minnesota, lured by the prospect of finding work on the railroad. In 1911, he was crushed to death while laying pipe.
Many of those buried in Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery--by some estimates, up to 60 percent--are infants or children under the age of 10, evidence of the high infant mortality rates. Among the infants buried there were the Wonderland babies. From 1905 to 1914 an amusement park existed just south of the cemetery. Called Twin Cities Wonderland, this Coney Island-style park brought the marvels of modernity and electricity to Minneapolis. One of the attractions was an "Infant Incubator." For 50 cents, visitors could see the technological innovation that kept premature babies alive. In the end, however, many of them did not survive. (See "The Child Hatchery," p. 31.)
And then there are the women, who, at the turn of the century, were a very vulnerable population. Causes of death, as recorded in the cemetery's files, include self-abortion and domestic violence and instances where women were left alone and destitute in the days before the state offered a support network. Take Anna Clark. In 1905, her husband, Frederick, died of a heart attack. The couple had eight children, mostly grown by then, but Anna possessed no job or way of earning a living. She was forced to rely on her adult children, but they didn't help much. One evening in 1909, she took a streetcar to the cemetery, stood over Frederick's grave, and shot herself. "I am tired and the sorrow and agony in my heart is too great to bear," she wrote in a note. "Bury me beside Papa, if you think I am worthy of it."
Martin Layman himself died in 1886, and the cemetery business passed on to his heirs. By the early 1910s, the third generation was at the helm, and they were concerned about the graveyard's future. The Laymans had not conceptualized "perpetual care" by paid groundskeepers; families tended the graves of their loved ones. As a result, once all the plots were sold, there wasn't a way to generate additional revenue, yet the cost of maintaining the property was growing. Already some 27,000 bodies were buried in the cemetery, filling all available space, some even crammed into aisles. By 1914 or so, there was barely a pretense of upkeep at the cemetery. Pioneers and Soldiers became the place you buried your relatives only if you had nowhere else to go.
In 1919, the city of Minneapolis closed the cemetery to new burials, and the Layman heirs announced that it was condemned. "Layman being dead and the heirs looking for returns and not expenditures, the grounds were allowed to get into a lamentable condition," reads a 1936 pamphlet on the cemetery. "So bad that removal commenced and many bodies were taken elsewhere. Removal of bodies became a means of revenue to the operators, and every effort was made to effect this," the pamphlet continues. "And the grounds went from bad to worse."
In all, an estimated 9,000 bodies were removed from Pioneers and Soldiers and transported to Crystal and Lakewood and Hillside--including that of the Civil War veteran John Hoblitt. A few years later, the state passed a bill saying that any cemetery where there had been no burial for five years, or where the city had outlawed burial for more than one year, could be closed for good. Many scenarios arose for use of the cemetery, as is documented by these headlines: "Milwaukee Plans Lake Street Station"; "Ford Plant to Oust Cemetery"; "Layman's Cemetery as Market Proposed"; "Moving Graves for Park Splits Board; Ball Field Urged."
A protective association spurred a letter-writing campaign to save the cemetery. A viable opposition force arose and newspaper editorials denounced the redevelopment plans. "Layman's cemetery should be preserved inviolate," reads an April 28, 1925 editorial in the Minneapolis Journal. "It should be beautified and cared for lovingly. The Park Board should reject absolutely the project for taking it over and making it a playground, where the joyous feet of the living may desecrate what was once the last earthly resting place of men and women who helped make Minneapolis a city."
In 1926, a North Dakota man named Budd Reeve wrote a book-length homage to the cemetery entitled, "Answering the Call from Layman's Cemetery." He made an impassioned plea, arguing that "when the influence of the dead is no longer felt and recognized by the living--when that time comes, order will be gone."
To bring the matter to a close, the city of Minneapolis in 1927 purchased the partially emptied cemetery for $35,000 and paid another $15,000 for capital improvements. The city has owned it ever since.
Aside from an ongoing problem with vandals who climb the fence and push over tombstones, the graveyard's modern history is less controversial. Pioneers and Soldiers was reopened to burials in 1934, though anyone wishing to be interred there had to show that they had a family member already buried there and secure permission from the City Council. New burials have been sporadic. The last one, in 1999, was of cremated remains. In June 2002, the cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the cemetery runs on a shoestring budget. It's open only from April through October each year, and then only on Wednesdays through Sundays. The city's public works department pays the caretaker, and the park board foots the bill for tree-trimming and other maintenance. Beyond that, a group has been formed, called Friends of the Cemetery, to raise awareness about Pioneers and Soldiers, to work to preserve it, and to help restore and replace some of the decaying and missing markers. Last May, the group sponsored an Arbor Day celebration, planting 150 trees throughout the grounds (one for each year since the first burial). Sue Hunter-Weir, one of the handful of cemetery lovers, acknowledges that it's a daunting mission, given the city's budget shortfalls. "When live people are suffering," she muses, "how do you get people to care about dead ones?"
It's a recent sunny Sunday morning, and David Webb is pleased to have discovered the grave of his great grandfather, Michael D. Boosalis. It lies in the back section of Pioneers and Soldiers, removed somewhat from the clamor of Lake Street and Cedar Avenue, tucked discreetly in the shadow of the neighboring sheet metal factory's looming smokestack. Boosalis's neighbors are veterans (their marble markers indicate service in the Spanish American War) and a pocket of headstones so weathered you can barely discern that their epitaphs are written in Norwegian.
For some time now, Webb has been piecing together his family's history, although he only recently relocated to the Twin Cities. He is eager to share his grandfather's story; it's almost as if repeating it makes the connection to the past more palpable.
"He was from Greece, but he married a Lebanese woman," Webb begins, excitedly tripping over the words. "The rest of the family didn't approve of that. And one day, at a birthday party for one of his kids, he took out a gun and shot himself."
Webb leans over the marker, a slab of reddish granite engraved with a cross and some flowers. He snaps a digital picture of the stone, remarking that it looks fairly new. Mike D. "Caperony" Boosalis. 1869-1914. Father. He notes to himself that he'll ask his cousin, who's also interested in the family genealology, what he knows about the headstone.
This is exactly the kind of interaction between past and present that advocates of old graveyards like Pioneers and Soldiers cherish. "If you walk into a cemetery, you get a different feeling than if you walk into a park or an office building or a new suburban neighborhood," says Ann Palkovich, Krasnow associate professor of antrhopology at George Mason University. "There's a structure to it, a reverence to it. It becomes a record of the past you can't replace with a photograph. Respect for the dead," the longtime cemtery scholar continues, "reverence for those who lived in the past. These are actual remains of individuals, whether famous individuals or a newborn baby who died 100 years ago. They are irreplaceable places, as much about us as they are about our past."
Adds Sloane, author of The Last Great Necessity, cemeteries "open a window into the people who were there. Not the rich and powerful. The people who didn't leave libraries or photo albums."