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Future is uncertain for historic cemetery

Pine Bend Cemetery has graves from soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

Late Monday morning, a group of Rosemount veterans and other residents gathered under the trees at Pine Bend Cemetery. As cars whooshed past on nearby Highway 52 they said a prayer for the departed soldiers buried at the cemetery, including several who fought in the Civil War. They fired a rifle salute, the last of several held as part of an extended Memorial Day ceremony, played Taps, then went on their way.

The gathering, under stately trees and among monuments that in some cases have been worn nearly illegible by age and weather, is a longtime tradition at the cemetery. But it's one with something of a questionable future. As the volunteers who staff the Pine Bend Cemetery Association age, it becomes less and less clear who will continue to maintain the cemetery in the years ahead.

Two members of the cemetery association died in the past year, leaving just five remaining. The youngest among that group is 77. The oldest is 92. Volunteer chairman Bernice Wenzel said that is too old to be worrying about someone else's graves.

The association has been trying for years to find someone to take over control of the cemetery, but so far there have been no takers. The city of Rosemount turned them down, and a deal with local veterans' associations fell through at the last minute.

Dakota County would be required to take over if the cemetery is abandoned, Wenzel said, but that is not an option that appeals to many of the people involved with the association.

"None of us wants to abandon it," Wenzel said. "We've got relatives there."

It is not clear, Wenzel said, just how long the cemetery would have to go untended before it qualified as abandoned.

There is a lot of Rosemount history at the Pine Bend Cemetery. It was officially organized in 1867 at a meeting attended by 16 local men. William Baker was elected chair of the cemetery association at that meeting. A second association formed in 1946, after a Decoration Day visit when a local group decided the cemetery should be tended to year round.

Wenzel's family has its own history at Pine Bend.  

"My dad was on it when it first started, way way back," Wenzel said. "When he started getting older, he said, it's time for you to step in there and take over and I did that. Of course, when I tried it with my own kids, it didn't work."

That is the problem at Pine Bend and at many small cemeteries around the country. Cemetery association members are getting older, and nobody seems interested in taking their place.

Maureen Geraghty-Bouchard said that seems to be the way things work now. Nobody thinks much about cemeteries unless they have to attend a funeral.

The city of Apple Valley currently tends to Lebanon Cemetery, located at the corner of County Road 42 and Pilot Knob Road. St. Joseph Church looks after Highland Cemetery, located a short distance south of Lebanon at the site of the original church building, as well as its current cemetery on Highway 3.

Despite its location -- just across a frontage road from busy Highway 52 and within sight of the Flint Hills refinery, Pine Bend Cemetery is a peaceful place. A 2005 City Pages feature highlighting sites on a day trip from the Twin Cities to Rochester identified the spot as both the "most obscure, oppressed and forsaken cemetery in America" and "remarkably well cared for. It's really quite a pretty little place, if you can manage to avert your eyes from its monstrous neighbor to the west."

Wenzel worries about who will continue to maintain the cemetery in the years ahead. The association can't afford to lose many more members, and even now there is nobody on the association qualified to serve as a sexton.

She finds that disappointing for several reasons. There is her personal history to think about, but also the history of the community.

"It is a historical place," she said. "It's Civil War people. I believe there's one man there from the War of 1812."

It's not clear just how much longer the current organization can continue, but Wenzel figures it won't be much more than five years. And then? Well, that's a good question.

"I guess the time has to come before I know what I'm going to do," she said. "I don't want my relatives' graves all grown up in weeds."