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Silent history

If there were a place to look for ghosts, it might be in a cemetery.

Cottage Grove Cemetery, with 150 years of history, might be a place to find ghoulish figures, but Norma Manke, and her husband, Carl, have never seen a ghost there, even though they have arranged for burials, dug the graves, and looked after the cemetery in Old Cottage Grove for 45 years.

The couple was named Preservationists of the Year by the South Washington Heritage Society for their efforts to preserve local history.

Other people have talked about ghosts when visiting the cemetery, not the Halloween images of sheets with eyes flying through the air, but a "sense" of people who have died or "passed on."

In the spring of 2004, a woman came to the cemetery and walked straight to a woman's grave, Manke said.

The woman, who lives in southern Minnesota, made a tape recording at the site and played it for Manke.

"I heard the wind and the voice," she said. "It was kind of whispery."

Manke makes no judgments about whether a ghost is there, but accepts what the woman told her. "No one else has seen her ghost," she said. "Who knows?"

Another woman, who was visiting a grave, said she saw angels on a hillside. "I've never seen any angels," Manke said.

The history of the place, even if no one writes it down, lies in the graves of those who lived there.

Norma knows the stories about nearly every grave.

She pointed to the grave of Oliver Leonard, born in 1821 and died in 1870, marked as a Civil War veteran. "He didn't live long after he got home," Manke said.

Leonard is in the oldest part of the cemetery, which is four acres. The newer part of the cemetery is 28 acres.

It was founded in 1856 by William Middleton, a Woodbury pioneer who was a member of the first Cottage Grove Cemetery Association.

All the members were English and it included other area founders such as James Norris, also buried in the cemetery, who is noted in state history as having grown one of the first wheat crops and for turning down a plea to run for state governor, according to the cemetery's history kept by the Mankes.

Hartley Mars is buried there, but his brother, John, is buried in the Atkinson Cemetery on East Point Douglas Road. They founded the Mars candy company.

There is a flagpole on the grave of John McChesney. His brother, Robert, bought lots for his hired hands when they died.

The larch trees on the edge of the cemetery were grown from seed, either brought by John McChesney from Scotland or William Watson from Wales, according to the history.

Cottage Grove's first mayor, Harold Kernkamp, is buried in the cemetery, along with the city's first city administrator, Carl Meissner.

When she talks about the people who are buried in the cemetery, Manke sounds as if she is talking about friends or people from her hometown.

"There is no grave for McChesney's daughter," she said. "I don't know where she is. She is just a mystery."

Carl digs the graves by hand and now has two helpers.

In the winter, old tires were burned to melt the ground frost for burials, according to Bev Gross, who grew up in Old Cottage Grove. "When people saw the black smoke," she said, "they knew someone had died."

There are many stories about people in the cemetery, some of them amusing.

Manke said members of a family wanted to bring their father's body, which was buried in Missouri, to Cottage Grove to be buried alongside their mother who was already interred. The reason for the move was that the father was buried in an area that had no trees. They noted many trees around their mother's grave.

"After he was buried, the family was having a picnic when a tree fell down!" Manke said, adding that no one was hurt.

"They thought that was a highlight," Manke said. "I have no idea if they thought dad did it."

There is a lot to do in a cemetery including mowing, trimming around graves and planting geraniums. Manke planted 85 flowerbeds this spring as part of the perpetual care offered after a burial.

The cemetery is a peaceful and pleasant place, according to Manke. "I think back to how it was 150 years ago," she said.

She has two daughters and a son buried there. Manke, who has three other children, visits the graves but there are no tears. If they had to die, she is content that they are in the cemetery.

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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