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Taking care of 'family'

Bill Schmitzer, who died recently at age 76, was buried last week in the Grey Cloud Island Township Cemetery. Rain fell gently as a few township residents and former coworkers from Aggregate Industry's mining operation gathered under umbrellas.

He had no family, according to Rich Mullen, longtime township clerk.

It didn't matter that Schmitzer died without means -- township residents are buried in the cemetery with no burial cost, Mullen said.

Schmitzer was also a veteran who served in the Korean War.

Mullen thought he deserved a proper burial as a veteran and members of American Legion Post 98 in St. Paul Park and Cottage Grove VFW Post 8752 honored him.

After "Taps" was blown by Howard Tellin, Schmitzer's American flag would normally be given to his survivors. Mullen accepted it on behalf of the township. It will replace the one inside the town hall.

"It's a family cemetery because you know everybody," said Donna Reynolds, who's chaired the cemetery committee since 1999. "If you talk long enough to people in the township, we're all related."

Reynolds' husband, Don, was buried in the cemetery in 1983. She'll be buried beside him.

Don worked for Northwest Airlines and Donna thinks about him when she's in the cemetery. "It's so peaceful there," she said, noting that one of the flight lanes into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport flies over the township. "The cemetery is right in line," she said in an interview at her home on Sept. 23.

It's clear that the cemetery is important to the 355 township residents, who live in the smallest township in the state, because cemetery reports are on every monthly town board meeting agenda. Mullen announces if there has been a funeral.

A cemetery report of all the year's activities, including yearly Memorial Day tributes by Legion and VFW members, is read at the annual township meeting in March.

The first burials at the cemetery, located on the John Springer farmstead, occurred in 1873, but there might have been burials before that time. No one knows, according to Mullen.

Early French Canadian families, who also had Dakota heritage, included the Bourcier, Brunell, LaBathe, Leith, Mavis, McCoy and Turpin families, according to the plaque in the cemetery given to the township by the Washington County Historical Society.

The stand for the plaque is anchored in several bags of concrete. After the first sign was stolen, the township wanted to make sure it didn't happen again, Mullen said.

The cemetery has been the object of vandalism over the years with gravestones broken or stolen and signs taken.

There is currently a surveillance camera at the cemetery. Two new heavy-duty locked gates are up and installed in enough concrete to stop intruding cars. Still, last week, Mullen noted that a vehicle had dented the gate.

Mullen, until he was injured this summer in a fall from his motorcycle, had been mowing the cemetery off and on since he first came across it in the late '50s.

It was neglected and overgrown with weeds.

Mullen, and Carroll O'Boyle, who is buried in the cemetery, went to see a woman in Minneapolis who inherited the farm, where the cemetery is located.

"It was really odd," Mullen said, "because she lived in the same house that belonged to my grandmother."

The woman, who had no idea where Grey Cloud is, wanted money for the cemetery, he said.

The matter was settled in 1964 when the township attorney advised the town board that, under state law, the township could take ownership of the cemetery.

With assistance offered by Joe Shiely, then-owner of the mining operations and owner of the surrounding property, dirt was moved and boundaries defined.

Trees were cut down including a huge cottonwood Mullen cut down with a chain saw on his first day of retirement at 59.

"The wood kept my house warm for a month and a half," he said.

About 20 years ago, he and Glenn Lacina built a fence around the cemetery. "He was the kind of guy that no matter what you were doing, he has a better way to do it," Mullen said.

Part of the cemetery is kept vacant because the number of graves there is not known.

A douser volunteered to help locate old graves whose wooden markers have long since rotted away. He used his dousing stick, usually used to find underground water, and found many graves.

"I told him there can't be that many people buried there," Mullen said. "I think he was reading rocks."

The underlying rock can be problem when graves are dug. Also, Mullen pokes holes in the earth.

"We need to make sure there's not someone underneath," said Reynolds, who moved to the township in 1955 with Don.

There are 26 war veterans buried in the cemetery including five who served in the Civil War and two from World War I, said Reynolds who keeps the cemetery records.

Mullen, 87, said he's anxious to get back to his old mowing job.

"Every time I mow, I say 'hi' to my friends," he said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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