Abandoned cemeteries: A hidden piece of Minnehaha County’s history

Eye on KELOLAND

MINNEHAHA COUNTY, S.D. (KELO) — County government covers a range of duties from collecting taxes and operating the sheriff’s department to maintaining county roads — and there’s one more task many people may not know about.

Minnehaha County also has its own Abandoned Cemeteries Board that looks after cemeteries dating back to the nineteenth century.

Minnehaha County is home to 16 abandoned cemeteries located in fields, old homesteads and church sites. According to state law, a cemetery is deemed abandoned if no burial of a human body has taken place for five years and the property is not maintained.

“There’s a scattering of these abandoned cemeteries throughout the county and we do our best to help our friends on the board to keep them maintained, and certainly it’s not maintained like a for-profit cemetery,” Minnehaha County commissioner Jeff Barth said.

Commissioner Jeff Barth says the county pays $1,500 a year to fund an Abandoned Cemeteries Board. It was founded in 1985, and Cathy Walker has been a member for most of that time.

“The state passed a law that the abandoned cemeteries had to be kept up by the counties, so our county is probably one of the few counties that formed the abandoned cemetery board,” she said.

They found that many of Minnehaha County’s cemeteries had not been kept up at all.

“Some of them had trees growing in them because they started out as weeds and they never got mowed like they should,” Walker said. “The trees had branches broken or fallen down. Tombstones broken. Nobody was taking care of it.”

The board meets in the spring, summer and fall.

“We try to, as a board, get out into the cemeteries that we know could be problems and look over anything that needs to be fixed. Trees that need to be trimmed. Tombstones that need to be fixed,” Walker said.

Most of the sites are easy to find, like the Bethel Cemetery just west of Sioux Falls or WCTU/Lyons Cemetery just south of Lyons; however, others are hidden.

“If you’ve got a map that shows where they’re at, you just follow the map and they’re right along the road. You can’t miss them because they’ll have tombstones in them and you can definitely see it’s an abandoned cemetery. We got one that’s only got one tombstone in it, but it’s abandoned. She was buried way early. I think maybe around 1900,” Walker said.

Peterson Cemetery near the Renner exit on Interstate 29 is hidden in a grassland near the Big Sioux River. KELOLAND’s Carter Schmidt caught up with someone who lives nearby and they had to take the residents side-by-side to get there. When they arrived, they found the marked graves of people who died in the 1870s and 1880s.

The Old Highland Cemetery north of Sherman is another hidden gem. Walker and Schmidt had to ride in a pickup down a grass road in the middle of a field to get to it. It’s the cemetery Walker is most proud of.

“I actually have a picture of what the Old Highland Cemetery used to look like before we cleaned it up,” Walker said. “There was a group of volunteers. I would say maybe as many as 10 during several weeks, weekends, we were out there sawing down trees. There were several broken tombstones. In fact, almost all of them that are in there now standing nice were broken.”

Returning the deserted cemetery almost back to its original condition.

While there are 16 abandoned cemeteries on the map, only about a dozen are maintained.

“Some of them we don’t do anything with. They’re maybe in a farmer’s field. There’s no tombstone. There’s just a spot that the farmer doesn’t plow because we know there are burials there, but they respect the area,” Walker said.

No matter where or what condition these cemeteries are in, it is important to these community members that they are kept up.

“We actually have some of these with Civil War veterans buried in them, and these clearly are our ancestors and we need to take care of their final resting spots, and it’s a very little known project that the county and our members of the board take care of,” Barth said.

“As long as I’m still alive, I want to see them kept up. I hate going into a cemetery that needs a lot of work,” Walker said.

Together, they’re protecting some of Minnehaha County’s hidden history.

The board encourages anybody in Minnehaha County who is interested to join. You can contact commissioner Jeff Barth.

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