Part One: Maples Cemetery is Second Homestead Cemetery for Wealthwood’s Black Settlers
A MsStorian Adventure
My Favorite MsStorian Adventure
The Maples Cemetery is the Second Cemetery in this adventure. I shouldn’t get ahead of myself though. A little history is needed. My all-time favorite and most meaningful MsStorian Adventure surrounds a group of Black Civil War veterans and their families who settled near Wealthwood in 1898. The families came by train from Fergus Falls to their new home in the Northwoods. Just a few months earlier, this group of courageous men, women, and children journeyed by train from Kentucky as part of the “First 85” to leave the Deep South for greater Minnesota. Travel by train was difficult in the 1800s, but these people were motivated by the hope of better lives for their families and future generations.
Do you know anything?
From 2015 until 2020 I wrote dozens of articles for the Lake Country Journal. The majority were based on Crow Wing County history or Northwoods history. I loved the thrill of solving a history mystery or locating a lost piece of history. The Black/Strader Cemetery was the result of a tip from fellow writer and then editor of the LCJ, Jodie Tweed. Tweed sent me a brief email in early spring of 2016, asking if I knew anything about an unkept cemetery with Civil War Veterans from the Union Colored Infantry. My reply was, “No, I don’t. But give me a few hours and I’ll see what I can find.”
Locating the Black/Strader Cemetery
With the help of Find-a-Grave, my curiosity reached epic proportions. The Black/Strader Cemetery was listed, and the grave of Joseph Henry was recorded. Trips to Aitkin and Ottertail County Historical Societies added to my knowledge and left me with more questions. Too many holes to fill, too many years to cover.
The next step was visiting the cemetery, a proverbial needle in the haystack because it was located on heavily wooded land. I had a sketch of the crossroads, and MsStorian Yvonne Doust with me. “We got this!” I told Yvonne. We circled the same spot ten times! Just before giving up, I mustered my courage and knocked on a trailer house door. And YAHTZEE. We struck gold, the cemetery was behind the land owner’s pole barn.
The wind stopped blowing and all was uncomfortably quiet
The owner of the property, Bill, pointed to an area of deep brush and small to mid-sized trees. “I’ve left it natural” he said before giving us permission to take a look around. The wind was blowing and there was a chill to the air, Bill headed back inside. It was a typical day on the north side of Mille Lacs Lake, however this visit would be anything but typical.
Yvonne and I waded through the weeds until we came to a green, wire fence. Birds sang their spring song, and bees buzzed on flowerheads, we hardly noticed though. With little hesitation, we stepped over the wire and inside the cemetery. And then, something unexpected happened. The wind stopped blowing, the birds quit singing, and it became uncomfortably quiet. It was the kind of quiet before a big revelation.
Before us was Joseph Henry’s military issued headstone, full of BB bullet holes. My heart sank. Who would desecrate the headstone of a veteran? An oval of boulders outlined his sunken grave. Looking around, we discovered 10 or more sunken graves protruding below the weeds, tree limbs, and wild flowers. Some graves had many rocks and boulders around them, others had none. One thing was for certain, the cemetery was being reclaimed by nature. It was hard to accept that no one was caring for this historic site.
Caring and sharing
As a MsStorian and researcher, I took notes and felt a tug at my heart. Bill joined us in the cemetery and gave us bits of information on the community. He gave me verbal permission to return when I desired to for research purposes Yvonne and I left the property and headed back to Brainerd, pondering our many questions aloud. A few days before we headed out on this adventure, I received an email address of a possible descendant (Peg) who tried to find the cemetery in the past, but was unable to locate it. After seeing the cemetery first hand, I knew the descendant(s) should be reunited with their ancestors.
Once home, I sent Peg an email telling her of our discovery and inviting her to join us when she was in these parts. Peg, and three other family members took me up on my offer and traveled from the Twin Cities to Wealthwood in mid-summer of 2016. The wind was again blowing as we left our cars. The front door of the trailer slammed open as if to say “Welcome, family.” Bill was not there to meet us, I noted this as unusual, but left my business card and continued through the weeds. (on a later trip, I discovered that Bill passed away. His son took over the property.)
Once inside the wire fence, the outside world became quiet and a heavy reverence passed through the air. Without thinking I said “Hello, Joseph.” And then caught myself. I had been to the cemetery several times alone since Yvonne and my first visit. I felt like Joseph and I were old friends. I talked a lot, he listened. The women with me didn’t understand my fascination with the cemetery, I’m not sure I did either back then.
The descendants brushed away tall weeds to view the writing on Joseph’s headstone. Although he was not their blood relative, they brushed off moss from the headstone and picked sticks from his indentation. One of their great-great grandmother’s was reportedly buried in this cemetery, but we had no idea who was in which grave, with the exception of Joseph Henry. The enormity of finding the cemetery, but not being able to identify the occupants weighed heavily upon me. Still, the descendants said it was like finding lost family. There was shared joy and sadness while we were together.
The poor condition of the cemetery dampened our moods, even so we stayed within the green fence for an hour. With resolution in our voices we spoke of cleaning it up, and vowed to keep in touch before going our own ways. We visited the cemetery together just once more in the fall, investigating possible National Historic Registry status. We are still seeking this designation.
Stay tuned for Part Two of Maples Cemetery is Second Homestead Cemetery for Wealthwood Black Settlers. Why is Maples not on Find-a-Grave or listed as an Aitkin County Cemetery? Find out when this blog continues!