From right, Mary Waldo and Roger Aldinger point out some damage to a century-old gravestone erected for a Civil War veteran at Witoka Cemetery. The cemetery is seeking donations to help with upkeep and repairs of the cemetery’s 700 graves.

Historic Witoka Cemetery seeks help


(5/28/2019)

by NATHANIEL NELSON

In Witoka, right off a dusty road in the countryside, a large metal gate stands imposingly. Strong, iron letters spell out “Witoka Cemetery,” guiding visitors to the resting place of more than 700 people. The small rural cemetery, while relatively unassuming, is home to more than 20 Civil War veterans –– a rarity in Southern Minnesota –– and is seeking help from the community to keep the cemetery well-kept.

According to Roger Aldinger, president of the Witoka Cemetery Association, the cemetery is home to dozens of veterans from the early 20th Century. In total, 28 Civil War veterans, one veteran of the War of 1812, a veteran of the Mexican-American War, seven WWI veterans, nine veterans of WWII, and several Korean and Vietnam veterans have been laid to rest in Witoka.

The Civil War veterans are particularly interesting, he said.

“These people had a hand in the Army, and a lot of times we don’t think of that. We weren’t in the height of the battlegrounds, but a lot of Minnesotans fought in the war,” Aldinger said.

It’s not only Minnesotans who are buried there, either.

“When the Civil War was going on and even after it ended, wounded soldiers who died on the way were buried here,” explained Mary Waldo, treasurer of the Witoka Cemetery Association.

The Witoka Cemetery Association was organized on August 1, 1863, and has been in constant operation since then. With Memorial Day on the horizon, Aldinger explained that remembering and visiting local cemeteries is important, but for many, the tradition has gone by the wayside. In the late 1800s, hundreds flocked to the grounds to honor their lost relatives over the holidays, with bands celebrating their lives and processions leading through town to the iron gate.

But today, sights like that are rare.

“When we get to Memorial Day, it’s less about paying respect for the people we’ve lost and more about having the day off,” Aldinger said. “That’s really sad.”

“It’s life. It’s death. It’s remembering the vets that are here and reflecting on those who gave their lives and those who served,” Waldo added.

The movement away from celebrations is a long-time transition, Aldinger said. In recent years, residents of the U.S. have gradually moved away from traditional burials toward cremations –– according to the National Funeral Directors Association, cremation overtook burials for the first time in 2017, and the gap between them has only continued to grow.

“There just aren’t as many burials anymore. When you sell a plot of ground to somebody, you’re guaranteeing perpetual care, and finances get to be very difficult, not just for rural cemeteries,” Aldinger said.

Many times, people who look at cemeteries see something stagnant. Once the person is buried, that’s the end of it. However, cemeteries have to be constantly upkept through many different processes, including mowing the lawn, repairing broken stones, straightening out stones and replacing footing, and keeping the location clean and kept.

 

“There’s a lot of cemeteries that don’t even get mowed at the proper time because there’s a lack of funding,” Aldinger said. “That’s where we’re getting to ourselves.”

 

Throughout the cemetery, various headstones stand at awkward angles, with their footings raised out of the ground. Others are covered in moss and orange weathering, while some have worn down to be nearly illegible.

Rural cemeteries are hit most by the shift in post-life plan, Aldinger explained. Without the stature of larger urban cemeteries, funding just stops coming through. According to Waldo, Witoka cemetery needs $4,000 a year for maintenance on the grounds, and that’s not including any of the larger projects or repairs. The cemetery has enough money for the year, but if things aren’t done, the historic grounds will begin to decay, Aldinger said, which is why cemetery association members have become more vocal about its problems.

“Part of this [initiative] is to just make people aware of small rural cemeteries, and not just for donations, but for people to come out and honor those who are buried here,” Aldinger said. “I just don’t see enough of it anymore.”

Betty Johnson, a resident of Witoka, wandered quietly through the cemetery on a cold Thursday afternoon. The week before, her sister was laid to rest there, next to her uncles, aunts, parents, grandparents, and the rest of her family.

“When my sister died, she was alone,” Johnson said. “Her wish was to be buried next to the family, and that’s what we did.”

Johnson herself will be joining her sister in the cemetery when the time comes –– she already has her headstone purchased to be laid near her family. The Witoka Cemetery is home to much of Johnson’s family, she said, and has also been a place for remembrance and respect for her loved ones.

“When you come to visit the cemetery, there’s this closeness. You feel close to the family,” Johnson said. “We like to see it well-kept and if we don’t have the funds, it will fall.”

Johnson is not alone. Many of the graves at the Witoka Cemetery come from nearby families, burying many of their loved ones together near their hometown.

“All of us have a lot of relatives here,” Aldinger said, as he passed a large stone with “Aldinger” emblazoned across the top. “We want to do something before the money all runs out,” he added.

Aldinger explained that the cemetery has some plans to drum up interest, including starting a Facebook account and creating a fundraising page.

Donations to the cemetery can be sent to WNB Financial with checks made out to the Witoka Cemetery Association. For more information, contact Mary Waldo at 507-429-1448.

education@winonapost.com

 

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