There are 176 previously unmarked graves in a field behind the Fergus Falls Veterans Home that would be forgotten and used only for grazing cattle today if it weren’t for the work of Bob Riepe. For now there’s about 150 gravestones set up and in a few weeks, 30 of them will have the names of the buried engraved on them.
About seven years ago, Riepe was doing research on his family at a cemetery near Perham when he found something that piqued his curiosity. “I noticed ... one tombstone had the mother and the son on it, (both) on the same one, and I couldn’t find a stone for the father. I started researching it and found out that he was buried at the Poor Farm Cemetery in Fergus Falls,” Riepe said. “Up to that point, I had never heard of that before, so I started doing research on where it was at, I was going to go see it. Took me almost a year to find it. It was unmarked, it was all grass.”
Following his discovery, Riepe set to attempt to revitalize the cemetery by mowing the grass, planting flowers and setting up signage. By chance, another man, Vern Barker from Barnesville, stumbled across the cemetery while visiting the Fergus Falls State Hospital Cemetery about a quarter of a mile away. His own personal interest in cemeteries (he’s retired now and walks cemeteries to take pictures of gravestones for family members who live out of state or out of country) led him to reach out to Riepe, offering to help mow the lawn and do research.
Seven years ago, all Riepe knew was that the Poor Farm Cemetery was near the State Hospital Cemetery. “I walked along the fenceline there, back and forth, and there was nothing but farm fields,” he says. Finally, looking through a field that looked like it hadn’t been farmed in a while, he found a granite stone identifying the site of the Poor Farm Cemetery. That’s all there was. “When I first saw it, there was nothing out there but tall grass and weeds,” he says. “I’ve spent quite a bit on making it look like a cemetery.”
“It’s owned by a private farmer and, being there were no markers or anything there, it was totally invisible to anybody who didn’t know anything about it,” Barker says. “Since they were poor, they didn’t get a marker.”
Now, Riepe and Barker have set up a rose trellis, planted shrubs to mark out the cemetery’s perimeter, put up a crucifix, put in a planter and made signage for it, all paid for out of their pockets and through donations from a GoFundMe they set up for the cemetery. They even gave it a new name: “I just had the sign put up over the rose trellis, it’s called Dignity At Last,” Barker says. “These people were poor, they had no family, no money, no friends, and it seems special to give them this dignity at last by giving them a marker, finally, in their resting place.”
Aside from aesthetic changes to the cemetery, the two men are dedicated to finding out as much as they can about the people buried there. Originally, they had placed blank gravestones over the 176 graves, which Riepe determined by dowsing, also called witching or divining, using dowsing rods people sometimes use to find water. Most of these stones were rejected markers from the State Hospital Cemetery. After more research, they now feel comfortable enough to start adding names to 150 of those stones and, over the winter, were able to afford to get 30 of them engraved by Fergus Falls Monument Company.
The Poor Farm was built in 1881 by the county. Before Social Security was instituted in August 1935, individual counties were responsible for taking care of the poor and destitute. Otter Tail County purchased 160 acres in Fergus Falls township along Jewett Lake Road and constructed a two-story house with outbuildings for chickens, cows, horses and grain. The first resident, Otto Schofield, arrived on the farm in November of 1881. “When someone would die in the Poor Farm, if they had no family members, they had designated this spot on the corner of the Poor Farm property as a cemetery,” says Barker. Bodies were simply laid side by side in a row until they reached the property line, and then a new row would be started. Presuming chronological burials, this is how Riepe and Barker have determined who lies where. The farm closed in 1936.
The process has been difficult due to poor documentation. “I’ve spent days researching at the Historical Society, which has been real helpful; I’ve been to the county records office and looked through all the death records, and then actually down to the Historical Society in St. Paul to get death records and things to verify spellings of names, because a lot of these people were early immigrants and they had unusual spellings of names and a lot of the information that we have is handwritten, so it’s not always easy to decipher,” says Barker, who has taken the job of ensuring all the names are spelled correctly. “We’ve pretty much accurately determined right around 150 of them as far as we can tell.”
Riepe’s interest lies beyond simply their names and government records, but in their stories. “There was no real story behind all of this, it was as if it was forgotten in history. So I was determined that I was going to find out who those 176 bodies were and I was going to try and write stories about some of them, some of the characters,” he says. “One thing led to another and I’ve written two books on them.” His first book is called “Rough on Rats: The Trials and Tribulations of Buck Steichen” and his second is “Wrong Turns: The Trials and Tribulations of Harvey R. Stull.”
Despite the arduousness and time-consuming nature of the research and revitalization, the men feel it’s important and worthwhile work. “I think it’s valuable to the history of the county,” says Barker. “It’s a lot of stories involved and the people who lived at the Poor House Farm, there’s actually also some criminals that are buried there that either died or killed themselves while they were in jail, so it’s a lot of unique stories.”
Riepe has been lucky enough to have been contacted by some people who have family members buried at the cemetery. “We’ve had some people, one from Oregon and a couple of ladies from the cities, who found out about what we were doing and they have their great-grandparents buried out there, and for all these years they did not know where they were buried until now,” he says.
For the last two years, the cemetery has been a part of the Otter Tail County Historical Society State Hospital walking cemetery tour. Last year, when the stone markers were first placed, there was only a list of names on a sign board to say who was buried there. This year, there will be 30 marked gravestones remembering the people who for decades were lost and forgotten.