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In the Driftless Area

James Silas Rogers

I cannot recall now who first suggested that I visit Old Frontenac Cemetery, but if I could, I would thank that person. I like for places to have a pedigree; to be told, when going on a trip, about some scenic back road that I will later come to claim as my own, or to plan picnics and go hiking where friends have recommended. As friends and colleagues have come to know that I have an interest in graveyards, I have often been steered toward one or another such site, in the same way that gardeners might hand on root bundles and cuttings to one another’s perennial bed.

I’ve traveled the stretch of Highway 61 that runs along the southeastern border of Minnesota on many trips in the past—visiting college friends in Winona or, before that, with my dad and brother on their outdoorsman trips. Then, three years ago, my son became a college student in southern Wisconsin. In the course of comings and goings to his school, I quickly learned what little taste I have for the busy hundred miles of Interstate Highway 94 that run east of the Twin Cities. A more pleasant alternate route is to drive down the western side of the Mississippi River as far south as LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and then pick up Interstate 90. I’ve taken this circuit a dozen times in the past three years. The lighter traffic and the scenery more than compensate for the extra hour the route requires.

This itinerary passes through what geologists call “the driftless area” of the upper Mississippi valley, a region left untouched by the last glaciers. When the rest of Minnesota lay under a relentless sheet of ice, this area was spared, and today when you drive along Highway 61 and catch glimpses of streams in riven valleys bubbling toward the Mississippi, or of cattle grazing on hillsides below rounded bluff‑tops, the agreeable topography that you are passing is that way in part because of a geological amnesty 12,000 to 18,000 years ago.

I had always assumed that Frontenac was a mere whistle‑stop between Red Wing and Lake City. I dabble at bird‑watching, and have often meant to visit the state park there, where trails along the bluffs are known to be a fine place to spot both warblers and migrating birds of prey every spring and fall. When I drove through in mid‑October, a screech owl was roosting in a front‑yard tree; by the time I realized what I had seen, I was a mile down the road. But I had never stopped in Frontenac until last year, when, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I made another excursion (my third since August) to deliver my son to the Greyhound station in LaCrosse where he could catch a bus the rest of the way back to school.

My son’s bus was to leave at 12:05. We got to the station with only a few minutes to spare and said our goodbyes as he lined up to board. I crossed the river back into Minnesota—the bridge on Highway 14 towers above the Mississippi, and its metal grid deck produces strange, unsettling tugs on your steering wheel—and as I drove through French Island and the river bottoms, I made up my mind that I would not hurry back home. Instead, I made a plan to stop for lunch, have a cup of coffee in Winona, buy a peck of Regent Apples at one of the orchards near Lake Pepin, and to take another break in Frontenac and finally visit the cemetery that had been recommended to me. I wondered if perhaps it held very old graves dating back to the eighteenth century when French-Canadian fur traders had made Frontenac a trapping outpost.

The date was November 25. A string of unprecedented temperatures in the 60s had lasted right up until the week of Thanksgiving, but the fantasy that such weather might continue had blown away in the night. As I filled my car at an Amoco station in LaCrescent, on the Minnesota side, I watched a Styrofoam cup rattle down the middle of the road, ahead of the wind, and it made me think of January blizzards. I told the clerk that it looked like winter was going to come after all, and she said, yes it did—but that it had been nice and warm yesterday.

There was no question that the weather was about to turn: looking up the river, it looked as if snow might already be falling in some of the coulees, and along the highway, in the steely backwaters that dotted the marshes, there were waves as dark and mutinous as those on Gabriel Conroy’s Shannon.

But no snow fell as I drove toward home. I stopped at a Subway sandwich shop, and in Winona, drank two cups of coffee at a café called The Blue Heron, near the state university. Only three other people were there, bookish young women deep in their studies. All the way north, the river on my right rolled majestic and empty, though below Wabasha I marveled at an enormous tow of sixteen barges, being steered willfully downstream. The late-season hillsides were leafless. On some, the tilted white trunks of birch trees stood out like the feathering of frost on a windowpane. Most of the landscape could have been drawn solely with the colors a child would choose last from a box of crayons—brown, gray, and burnt sienna—except for showers of yellow leaves that were weeping willows, and the still‑green lawns of farmyards. After driving past three roadside orchards, the place in Lake City where I had intended to stop for apples turned out to be closed for the season.

Traffic was heavier than usual. The other drivers all seemed pressured to get somewhere fast; I cruised a few miles above the speed limit but even along the twisting, two‑lane sections, cars passed me. I reached Frontenac at three o’clock, where I stopped at another Amoco station, under an enormous red and blue sign. I parked in front of a locked case of propane tanks, left my car running, and asked for directions to the cemetery from a young man of about fifteen who needed a shave, or more likely, who needed to have someone tell him he needed a shave.

He gave his directions entirely in landmarks: “The graveyard in Old Frontenac? Go down this road, around the oil tanks. Turn right at the highway, and go about a mile until you see a pond. Turn right again, and when you get to the ball field, go left.”

I found the cemetery easily, surprised that it was in the midst of the village of Old Frontenac, a string of small but comfortable older homes. In one, an inverted duck boat lay in the middle of the front yard; in another yard, a homeowner was stringing Christmas lights. Two brick pillars stood at the entrance to the cemetery. A nearby sign read “Old Frontenac Cemetery. Gate Closes at 8:30 p.m.” I saw no gate.

Except for an acre or so of newer plots to the right of the posts, Old Frontenac Cemetery sits entirely on a narrow strip of land atop a ridge. A rutted, one‑lane road runs along the crown of the ridge, and the burial sites lie on either side of the road, most of them at a slight slope. I wondered if some were buried with their feet higher than their heads—surely an irrelevant consideration, but I wondered nonetheless.

The cemetery is shaped a little like a bobby pin; the dirt road at its center turns subtly at several places, and loops around at the far end. This makes it an intimate place; wherever you stand, the cemeteryappears smaller than its actual extent. The dense growth of the surrounding trees had lost every hint of foliage, but the space felt enclosed. The grounds showed obvious care in landscaping and maintenance, and, judging by the number of flags denoting where a veteran lay and by a number of bouquets left on gravesites, were still visited. On a grave marked by a stone that read “Winnie,” a basket of cloth tulips sat on the cold earth. Winnie had died in 1896. I stopped next to a large grove of junipers, away from the unexpectedly sharp wind, and watched juncoes flash their white tail feathers as they flitted in and out of the brush.

Enclosed plots surrounded by iron fences lined the road every hundred yards or so. The care given the grounds impressed me deeply: it was litter‑free and fully raked. Encroaching brush had been cut back and lay in piles off to the side. I kept walking, in spite of the cold. By the time I reached the most imposing monuments at the end of the road—the tombs of the Garrard family, who, I would later learn, were the first family of this community during its years as a nineteenth‑century resort community spoken of as the “Newport of the Northwest”—I was shivering. My nose was running, but, recalling stories about how deer hunters were shot when their handkerchief was mistaken for the flash of a deer’s tail, I wiped it on my jacket sleeve.

At the far end of the graveyard, I spotted the only piece of trash I had seen since arriving—a plastic Mountain Dew bottle in the woods. It offended me; I carried it back to my car to throw away later, and discarded it at the first trash barrel I saw. I left Old Frontenac Cemetery to the coming snow, certain that I would return.

Winter came. For Minnesota, it was a gentle season, which rarely dipped below zero, but all the same it was winter—a span of dark, claustrophobic months that lies at the heart of life in a Northern climate.

I passed through Frontenac again while bringing my son home for the Christmas holidays. On the trip I swung by the cemetery but did not stop; I jotted down the phone numbers of the cemetery association posted near its entrance, whom I hoped to call sometime in the spring. During the winter I consulted Minnesota history books and learned the broad outlines of the region’s history. I had been fanciful in thinking it went back to French fur‑trading days, though the first Christian chapel in Minnesota had been built here by the French, in 1727. Old Frontenac had been settled in the late 1830s by a Dutch immigrant named Westervelt—that was a name I recalled seeing in the graveyard—and had been developed into a fashionable resort in the years following the Civil War, visited by President U. S. Grant and the Beecher family of clergymen. The entire village is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The late end of winter can be ugly and ragged in this part of the world. Snowbanks survive in jagged heaps, and the first thaws uncover dirty leaves and matted grass tamped flat by the snows, old paper, and dog droppings charred by winter. But a certain kind of buoyancy arrives with these melting days all the same. On March 29, Good Friday, it was clear that the tilt toward spring was irreversible. Weather forecasts predicted that it might approach 60 degrees. At my neighborhood coffee shop that morning, it struck me that it would be a good day to revisit Old Frontenac Cemetery. An acquaintance there, Ken Johnson, said he’d like to ride along, and by 9:15 I had called one of the numbers I’d taken down the previous December and arranged to meet Peter Webster, the treasurer of the cemetery association, at the cemetery entrance at 11:00a.m.

It’s easy to grow impatient for spring in Minnesota; some of the time as Ken and I drove through Pine Bend, Hastings, and Red Wing en route to Frontenac, we rode with the windows down. In Hastings we noticed a teenaged boy walking with his shirt off. It was only about 55 degrees; his skin was pale as a fish’s belly. As we passed the entrance to the state park, I noticed the park’s mailbox had been clipped by a snowplow, crimped like a folded‑over boot. Sparrow hawks had begun their migration. They perched on telephone wires, peering over the warming fields for the first stirrings of gophers and mice, and it seemed as if the very hillsides and bluffs along the Mississippi welcomed the light, absorbed it like arthritic retirees who’ve just arrived in Scottsdale.

We arrived precisely at 11:00. I don’t know what I had expected my cemetery guide to be like—maybe some ardent local historian, or a rustic type with a noble obsession for honoring the dead—but, in fact, Peter Webster was a handsome, tall man of about seventy, a retired businessman who in his work life had been a banker in Lake City. He is the sort of man who gives the impression of having always been comfortable being in charge, and that he enjoys looking after details and solving problems. Fifteen years ago he took up the position of treasurer for the cemetery association. He had brought along a plat map of the cemetery, hand‑drawn in 1937 and big as a tablecloth; we unrolled it and held it flat between us. I admired the Spencerian script of the text.

“The cemetery first started with a gift from General Israel Garrard,” he explained. “You’ll see his house when you go into town. He was a very prominent Civil War general, from Cincinnati originally. The family gave a lot of property to the park and the town, and it has to be used for the purposes for which they gave it. If it’s not, it will revert back to the family. There are still descendants, in Minneapolis and in Sedona, Arizona.

“It’s still a working cemetery and as you can see there are still lots of burial plots that haven’t been sold. We sell them for $350, and what you get is a perpetual care agreement; you don’t get a cemetery deed. We’d like to clear out some of the brush and trees and open even more space.”

Ken remarked that $350 was less than half of what he pays for rent each month in St. Paul.

I told Mr. Webster that I admired the order and tidiness of the site, particularly as in country graveyards I had gotten used to seeing places that have been neglected. The compliment pleased him. “We pay a lawn service that comes out from Red Wing to look after it twice a month and they do a good job,” he said, “and when I joined the association, I made sure to go to the sheriff’s office in Lake City so that offenders can be sentenced to service by helping here. They rake it every fall. I used to have the inmates from the boys’ reform school in Red Wing work at it, but they didn’t do a good job.”

We turned to walk into the older burial grounds. I asked which was the oldest grave here.

“To be honest, I don’t know. I’m not really that much of a cemetery historian, and if you want local history I’ll have to direct you to my brother, Bill Webster, or to somebody else. A lot of the older headstones are in German,” he said. “We’ve had two vandalism incidents in the past ten years, and some of them have broken into six pieces. We don’t have as many records as you might think about the early years, but we do have mortuary records for every burial, going back to the 1930s.”

It was true that more stones lay in piles than I recalled from my previous visit. An 1871 stone rested against the trunk of a tall Scotch pine. It took some time to discern the name Nicolaus Poppe, and the dates of his birth and death. The stone had broken off from the words below. Yet, even when stones were fractured, it also was clear that the caretakers tried to keep the fragments together. I have seen too many cemeteries where old headstones have been left to scatter like dropped flowerpots; it struck me as a laudable act to try to keep these pieces together, to try to honor the fact that these stones had once borne meaning, and that being broken hadn’t caused the meaning to vanish. And many of the older headstones were remarkably well preserved. We stopped to look at one for a J. Heinrich Schmid, who died in 1869. A recent wooden cross had been placed in front of it, and on the wood, letters or numbers had been written with a felt‑tip marker. Those markings had faded beyond legibility, while the stone could be read as clearly as a newspaper.

“There’s so many trees that we don’t get much sun in here,” Mr. Webster observed. “It’s hard to get grass to grow.” Much of the ground cover was moss, which even now, after lying under snow all winter, retained its color—a green that at places broke into an unexpected vividness. He pointed out a trail of deer tracks sunk deep into the moss.

I stopped to admire a tall monument that said HAKENSON, a large tapered column on a block of stone crowned by a cross. Looking up, beyond the cross, I saw a seagull circling above, its white breast glinting in the sun and blue sky; a crow flew past below it in a straight line.

“This base here,” Mr. Webster said, “is Frontenac Sandstone. If you go into the state park you can see the old quarry where they used to cut rock. It was sent all over the country, New York and Washington and everywhere else. But this stone here only traveled about a mile.” Burrings and saw‑marks were still clear on the cream‑colored stone. For all I knew, the quarry man who cut it might be buried here himself. I noticed that the nearby headstones had variant spellings, Hakanson and Hainkenson; the phrase “carved in stone” may define permanence, but record of the stones shows just how fluid names and language have always been.

We had reached the end of the cemetery road and the Garrard family plot. These are heavy, above‑ground crypts, made from the regional sandstone. General Israel Garrard had died in 1901, in the same week that Teddy Roosevelt became president; his formidable grave was completely of a piece with that era, self‑confident to the point of being imperial. A bronze star for the GAR, the Grand Army of the Republic, stood at the foot of his grave. Even in death he commanded deference. The road loops around the tombs, which are cordoned off with heavy chains draped between concrete stanchions. “That’s the general, there, and this is his brother,” Mr. Webster said as he pointed at the slabs. “And his children. This little stone over here that says M.D. is for Marie Dressler, who was a famous actress in her day. It used to be over there,” he waved at the brush beyond the road, “but we had it moved.”

“So she’s not buried here?” Ken asked.

“No,” he said, “but she was great friends with the general and often visited him.”

I said that the term for a funereal marker removed from the actual remains is a cenotaph. “Is that so?” said Mr. Webster. He scratched at some lichen growing on the flat tops of the tombs.

“We’ve talked about having these slabs sandblasted, and somebody in the association said you can get high‑pressure water nozzles now that are just as good as sandblasting. But we don’t have any water on the grounds.” I suggested that some preservationists made a case for not interfering with the process of decay, and instead of trying to restore older sites, try to see them “stabilized as a ruin.”

Mr. Webster dismissed the idea. He pointed to the Webster plot across the lane. “My brother and I had our grandparents’ stone sandblasted a few years ago and it turned out nice and clean,” he said. He added as a matter of interest, “That gray stone in the back—that’s me and my wife.”

We began walking toward our cars. Ken and I opened a gate and entered a small square family plot, marked off by a rusted iron fence. There are a half dozen or so such plots along the road. Some of these fences lean from subsidence, but most stand as firm as when they were first set. Ken tolled off the letters of a name as he rubbed his hand over the letters at the base of a headstone, “S‑c‑h‑e‑n‑n‑o‑c‑h.”

“Schennoch,” Mr. Webster said. “That’s an old name around here. I think I just saw a Schennoch in the Lake City paper, on the volunteer fire department.”

I asked Mr. Webster if he knew of any burials outside the boundaries of the cemetery or any unmarked graves. “No,” he said, “not exactly. But we just passed one unusual thing. Some girls spread the ashes of a young fellow who died of AIDS back in the woods, and put a plaque on a tree. I can show you, if you like.”

Ken and I said we would like to see it, and so we backtracked to the end of the road, about a hundred feet from the Garrard plot. A metal sign—a small, brass‑plated marker of the sort sold in hardware stores—was nailed to an elm, down a muddy slope at the edge of the surrounding woods. We picked our way down. In engraved script it read, “In Memory of Christopher Paul Bruch 1959–1994. The Lake City Girls.” The ashes, of course, had long vanished.

It was hard to know how to respond to this impromptu memorial. The gesture struck me as slight and somehow unearned—as if, whoever these people were, they had only borrowed a sense of place at the fringe of this carefully groomed burial ground. I asked Mr. Webster if he knew anything more about Christopher Bruch or the women who took it on themselves to memorialize him. He did not.

As we walked toward the road, Ken told a story of how, the previous summer, he had helped to scatter the ashes of a friend who’d died of cancer. The friend had asked that they be sprinkled from a campsite at Gooseberry Falls into the waters of Lake Superior.

“He left very clear directions about how he wanted it done,” Ken said. “Most of us at the scattering had camped there with him. It was a special place for him.”

But—and I didn’t know how to say it, at the time, and made no comment—I realized that what Ken had just said had something to do with what troubled me about the scattering of the young man’s ashes. I had no doubt that Christopher Bruch and the Lake City Girls—whoever they were, and they were no more unknown to me than any of the names I passed—loved this locality. They may well have walked together down this cemetery lane, just as Ken and I were doing at this moment, and their shared time together made it a special place for them. But to Peter Webster and the cemetery association, it was a special place already. Spaces such as this cemetery do not, in the end, derive their meaning from the perceptions and emotional attachments of the deceased or those who are left behind; to suggest that they do is introduce a note of self‑importance that undermines the numinous, even sacramental quality of place itself. Remembrance needs to lead us away from ourselves and into connectedness and awe before all that greater than ourselves—not to celebrate the snowflake, but the snowflake falling in the river.

Two squirrels chasing one another startled me. They nearly ran over my feet, then raced up the trunk of an oak tree in mad helixes.

“I know a lot of people think cremation is a good idea,” Mr. Webster said simply, “but it’s not for me.” We talked no more about the tiny memorial plate on the tree.

Mr. Webster needed to get to Good Friday church services early that afternoon, and so we moved along quickly to our cars, finding things in common as we chatted. I mentioned that my father had been in banking as well, and we compared notes on how that profession kept its members continually involved in community groups and projects. He asked me about people with my name, Rogers, whom he’d known in St. Paul, and I explained how that family is not related to me. He mentioned various places he had lived in the Twin Cities, and Ken, who is well versed in Minnesota and local history and geography, made connections with several of the addresses. Mr. Webster’s grandfather King had been chief of police in St. Paul; Ken believed he had just come across a biographical sketch of him, and promised to look for it and send it on.

We reached the cars. “If you want local history,” he said again, “you’d be better off talking to my brother. He lives in a house in town called Graystone; it’s a concrete house, built in 1905. You’ll see it when you drive through. My father used to come down on a boat and spend his summers here. That was almost a hundred years ago.” I wrote down his brother’s phone number.

Mr. Webster thanked us for our interest, and I thanked him for coming out on short notice; and I hope that he knew, too, that I was thanking him for having been a good steward of this place. He drove away.

The sun was high now, and warm on our faces. Ken and I stood there gratefully. From the top branches of a spruce, a cardinal thrust its whistle into the spring breeze. The intermittent stopping and starting of a chainsaw whined from a distance.

 

© James Silas Rogers