Column: If only those tombstones could talk

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 14, 2005

Wandering through an old cemetery is a little like visiting a museum that has no signs to interpret the displays. When I was little my parents were visiting a relative’s grave site when I meandered over to a stone that was shaped like a tree trunk. The words “Rest in Peace” were carved on the scroll, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the person that was buried there. Nearby was a stone in the shape of an anchor, and I wondered why it was there in the little cemetery amidst corn fields. In the corner of the cemetery was a large rock &045; just a rock. I don’t know if it was a field stone or if it marked the spot of someone’s burial.

I find old cemeteries to be interesting places. I am always a bit frustrated though, because I want to know more than the birth and death dates of the people.

“Why are there three tiny plots, all with the same last name, and dates only months apart? What happened in that family and how did the adults go on with all of that pain in their hearts?”

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“How did this man live so long when the life span at that time was only 47 years?”

“A very small, non-descript, old stone is located near the edge of the cemetery, and there are no others around it. I wonder why?”

If only those tombstones could talk.

My curiosity will be satisfied, just a little, when the Freeborn County Historical Society and the Graceland Cemetery Association co-sponsor the fifth annual Echoes From the Past: A Walk Into History on Thursday, Aug. 18, at 7 p.m.

Other years during this event, I stood at a gravesite in Graceland Cemetery and shared the stories of women from our history, but this year I can sit back and listen to voices from the past. Graceland Cemetery, with its towering oak trees and ornate stones dating back more than 100 years, is the perfect setting for the re-enactors who will be describing the fives of several people who lived in Freeborn County and who made a significant imprint on our communities.

We will get to meet Civil War Captain Asa W. White, Katherine Meighen, a developer of Shoreland Heights, Livery Service owner John Gustaveson, Wagonmaker George Drommerhausen, Mayor LeRoy Greene, and George Crane, the owner of Albert Lea’s leading dry goods store. How neat it will be to learn who they are, what their interests were, what brought them to Albert Lea (not one of them was born here), what motivated them to break the ties of their former homes and to move to this fledgling town in southern Minnesota, and what struggles they overcame to prosper. How fun it will be to learn their stories.

Several years ago, when the Albert Lea Art Center was still in the little church building on West Main Street, a gentleman displayed several fascinating grave rubbings. When he traveled, he always carried large sheets of paper and a chalk of some kind, and he loved to do rubbings of unusual tombstones. Although he too wondered about the life stories of the people, he was far more interested in the artwork on the stones. The exhibit was very interesting, although now I wonder if he kept those framed rubbings in piles in a storeroom or if they were displayed some

place permanently. The latter sounds rather strange.

Our museum library is always busy with people who are doing genealogical research. Sometimes there are so many researchers that we have to set up tables in the display areas of the museum.

Researchers take up a lot of space. They not only have their own notebooks and supplies, but then Linda Evenson, our librarian, brings out photographs, plat maps, newspaper clippings, high school year books, history books, and anything else that she can find that relates to the family members. Sometimes the researchers find only the birth and death dates of their ancestors.

Other times they find treasures. We have even had out of town visitors spend the night in a local motel so they can return the following day to complete their research.

They are looking for life stories. Who was this distant relative? Was he or she anything like me?

My American history teacher in Austin Community College made history fun. He talked about people and the decisions they made. Then he went on to describe the results of some of those decisions. We could look back and say, “Why did you do that? Couldn’t you see what was going to happenT’ or “Wow, that was a gutsy thing to do!” He made history live for us.

And that’s what it’s all about.

(Bev Jackson is the executive director and curator of the Freeborn County Historical Museum.)