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A Pioneer Cemetery

On a flat patch of land off a dirt road in southeastern South Dakota, not far from the predominantly Czech community of Tabor, a small Danish pioneer cemetery can be found.

Elm Grove Cemetery, Yankton County, South Dakota photograph, 2019; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2019.

Elm Grove Cemetery is said to date to the summer of 1875. The first child of Danish immigrants Christian and Mathilde Elise (Bramsen) Olsen, Marie Evengiline, was born that June, but lived only two weeks.1 Devastated at her loss, her father fashioned a small wooden casket and stained it pink with the juice of wild raspberries, while her mother lined it with fabric cut from her best dress.2

Baby Marie Evengiline was buried on a corner of the Olsen homestead and a small cedar tree was dug from a ravine and planted at her grave. As the story goes, it was soon trampled by the cattle who roamed freely as they grazed. Mathilde implored Christian to fence their daughter’s grave, and he obliged, thus designating an acre on a corner of their property as a cemetery.3 It was incorporated as Maple Grove Cemetery in 1907—not as Cedar Grove, as one might have thought—and today is known as Elm Grove Cemetery.4

No stone marks the grave of Marie Evengiline, nor the graves of up to a shocking seven of her infant siblings.5 The graves of her maternal grandparents, Erik and Inger Marie (Hansen) Bramsen, who died within a decade thereafter, are also unmarked. However, numerous headstones exist at the graves of pioneer kin who were buried there in the years to come, among them her parents Christian and Mathilde.

Christian Olsen (1845-1909) was said to have immigrated from Denmark to Dakota Territory in 1866 at the age of twenty-one, while Mathilde Elise Bramsen (1842-1935) immigrated alongside her parents in 1872 at the age of thirty.6 They married circa 1874 and together farmed the one hundred and sixty acres in Yankton County that Christian had acquired under the Morrill Act—a farm conveniently located within walking distance of the homestead of Mathilde’s sister and brother-in-law, and boasting a house made of homemade clay and straw bricks that Christian had built himself.7 The names of six of their supposed ten children are known: Marie Evengiline, Edward, Mary, Anna, Henry, and Cecilia.8 Only two of their children, Edward and Anna, survived to adulthood, and they, too, are buried at Elm Grove Cemetery.

Today, the Elm Grove Cemetery is shady and well-tended, with a chain link fence duly keeping any rogue livestock at bay. Although it is bordered on two sides by homes, on the others it faces windswept plains almost as far as the eye can see—a view perhaps not entirely unlike that of nearly one hundred and fifty years ago.

Copyright © 2019 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved. Continue reading

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