By PAUL PETERSEN
After I retired in 2020 I took over the task of mowing the West Denmark Cemetery. I had been on the cemetery board for almost forty years and have been sexton since 2014. Former pastor Mike Rozumalski had been mowing it and had been looking for someone else to take over for him. This is the second time I took on the job—the first being in the early 70s when I was in my early teens. There are quite a few differences between the two. The first time, I was young, used a push mower, and was getting paid, although not too much, fifty dollars for the whole summer for half the cemetery. Now I’m “fairly” old, use a nice zero-turn mower, and do it as a volunteer, plus the cemetery is bigger.
A big change for me is that when I mowed it fifty years ago, I knew almost no one who was buried there. Now as I go around the cemetery, it gives me a chance to think about so many of the people I knew and the things I remember about them. This article is a few of those remembrances along with some random thoughts, questions, and some history. For that history, any year in parenthesis after a name indicates the year of burial.
The West Denmark congregation was officially organized in June 1873. In October of that year, Jens C. Poulsen donated two acres of land on the south edge of his property along the “west road”—later County Road N. These two acres became the West Denmark Cemetery, and for many years the congregation considered this the site of the future church building. The church was eventually built in 1899 about a quarter mile to the southeast near the shore of Little Butternut Lake. The first burial on record is Christian Bille (1875), although it’s possible there were others without individual markers.
The cemetery is divided into five sections: northwest, southwest, southeast, northeast, and the new section on the hill to the east. I almost always start mowing the northwest section as this has an area where the grass seems to grow faster than anywhere else. This is also the section where my parents, Vagner and Martha Petersen, are buried, so maybe that has something to do with it.
Quite close to my parents is Ruben Strandskov (1994). Ruben was a cousin of my dad’s and we visited him often at his place on the east side of Little Butternut Lake. During WWII, Ruben was sent to a camp in Michigan for Conscientious Objectors, but after a short time left there to enter the Army to train as a medic. He was in France shortly after D-Day and a few weeks later was badly injured with disabling injuries to his right side. I know that there are many brave veterans buried here, and what Ruben did as a medic qualifies him in that regard. It took a different kind of bravery, however, to be a CO in the early days of WWII and refuse to carry a weapon. Ruben never married and is buried next to his parents.
George Schlagenhauf (2006) and Kamma Grumstrup (1989) are buried quite close to each other. The two are not connected in any way that I know of except that they were both over 100. (George’s first wife was also named Kamma.) Of all the people buried in this cemetery, there are only four over the age of 100, the other two being Eva Hansen (2018) and Kamma’s son, Erling Grumstrup (2021).
Frederikke Johansen, my great-aunt, wrote “Peaceful Grove,“ which told of growing up in West Denmark in the early 1900s. I think of her often because my wife Maggie and I have lived in her and her husband Ansgar’s house since 1988. Frederikke was also the mother-in-law of long-time Church and Life editor Thorvold Hansen. When I was growing up, they were our closest neighbor, and we would visit them often for coffee. She would sometimes have Oreo cookies, which were a treat for me.
I didn’t know Harlan Shull (2010), but while chatting with his brother on Memorial Day weekend at the cemetery, he told me that Harlan was a marine who had been on Iwo Jima when the flag was raised. He also left money in his will to build a fence around the part of the cemetery away from the road. Thank you, Harlan!
In the mid-60s when I was eight or nine years old, my mother invited Bodil Marie Hansen (1968), an older lady from church, to our house for our Christmas Eve celebration. I was complaining about having an outsider at our house for Christmas Eve, but my mother told me she would be alone otherwise. To make matters worse for me, she got the almond in the risengrød and got the nut prize. I suspect that my mother engineered the process so that our visitor got the correct bowl. I do know that Mom mentioned later what a big smile Bodil Marie had when she showed us that she had the almond.
Hans Christensen (1920) is one of the two Civil War veterans buried in the West Denmark cemetery. He had lived in Neenah, WI after immigrating and entered the army there in 1863. He served with the Second Wisconsin Infantry and took part in the battle for Chattanooga, Tennessee. After being mustered out in 1865, he married the widow of a fellow soldier killed in battle. He was one of the first Danish settlers in the West Denmark colony, coming here in 1869. I have seen a picture of him taken in 1918, and he looked exactly like you would expect an old Civil War veteran to look: white shirt and tie and long white beard.
Wilmer Peterson was West Denmark’s last WWI veteran, dying at age ninety-six in 1992. He farmed with his son Robert on their place north of Little Butternut Lake, which is another place I mowed lawn as a teenager. When this farm was purchased from his family last year, Wilmer’s tattered WWI uniform and overcoat were still hanging in a shed attached to the barn. Did he hang it there when he got back from France in 1919, and it stayed there for over 100 years?
My cousin Mickey Petersen died in 1983 at the age of thirty-three during an asthma attack. His stone is usually worth a look as items are still left there occasionally: coins, seashells, empty shotgun or rifle shells, feathers, etc. I don’t know if these items are left by the same person or several people, but he had a lot of friends.
I know how Mickey died, but I often wonder about many of the others buried here who died at a young age. There are two daughters of Mikkel Kirk, Anna (1904) and Maren (1908), both of whom died at age twenty-three. What sad and awful coincidence caused them to die at the same age?
I know that the town of Luck had two Marius Pedersens. One of them ran the old West Hotel in Luck and the other was a mason. So one was “Hotel Marius” and the other was “Cement Marius.” I’m not sure which one was buried here in 1974, but I seem to remember Hotel Marius still alive at a later date. There are also two Jens Petersens buried in this section in the 1920s. Whoever the sexton was at the time was able to keep them straight in the cemetery ledger because one of them was noted as ( Nebraska) Jens.
My grandfather Niels Petersen (1961) was born in Denmark in 1866 and emigrated to the US as a young man. Among the many things he did in his long life was to help build the Stenhuset at Danebod in Tyler, MN. He was ninety-one when I was born, so I don’t have a lot of memories of him as I was only four and a half when he died, but I do remember him. I find it kind of amazing that I have a memory of someone born 156 years ago!
This section has some of the oldest burials and quite a few of historical significance. Not only is M. C. Pedersen, the founder of West Denmark, here but also William Foster, the founder of the town of Luck. M. C. died in 1917, but I have one distant connection to him. M.C. and his wife Pauline had ten children, one of the youngest was Paul A. O. (1964). I have a photo of him sitting next to me when I was about four years old that was taken at an event at the West Denmark hall. Someone thought there should be a picture of old Paul Pedersen with young Paul Petersen, which is what is written on the back of the photo.
William Foster (1905) and his father had a trading post where the town of Luck is now located. At the start of the Civil War in 1861, he left to enlist in the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry and returned to Luck five years later where he lived for the rest of his life. He was never a member of the West Denmark church, so why is he buried at West Denmark rather than the Luck cemetery? His first wife was a Native American woman who died in childbirth. His second wife was Danish. She came from Denmark in an arrangement facilitated by Soren Pedersen, West Denmark’s blacksmith. She spoke no English; he spoke no Danish, but in a short time they were married and got along well enough to have seven children. She outlived him and probably had the final say in where he was buried. If she had died first, would they both have been buried in Luck?
Buried next to William is his father Daniel Foster (1874) who was born in 1787, making him the oldest person buried at West Denmark. I suspect he may have been moved here after originally being buried somewhere else, possibly at the trading post. He is listed as a veteran in the cemetery journal, but Polk County Veterans Affairs has no record of him, so they have put in a records request to a national database for information. This, however, could take up to one year. Since he was born in 1787, it's possible he could have been a veteran of the War of 1812!
Two former West Denmark pastors, C. S. Norgaard and J. P. Andreasen, are buried next to each other. C.S. Norgaard (1887) was one of the first pastors to serve the congregation at West Denmark. Pastor Andreasen (1956) died before I was born, but he baptized some of my older siblings in the 1940s. His wife Rasmine (1978) was a good friend of my mother, and I remember visiting her for coffee a few times. She had a wonderful flower garden and we always got a tour when flowers were in bloom. My mother was impressed, but as a six- or seven-year-old boy, I was not.
Probably most older cemeteries are similar to West Denmark with regard to the number of small children and babies buried. It is easy to forget how difficult conditions were for the early pioneers and even later how difficult childbirth could be for both mother and child. Even being a doctor was not a guarantee for Dr. C. P. Horn had a child buried here in 1898. This area has two families that lost four children each. Mikkel Kirk, who also lost two adult daughters, has four small children buried without individual markers. N. B. Hansen lost three children in one year, 1898: Emma-6, Henry-5, and Robert-10 and then a baby in 1902. It's almost impossible to imagine how terrible that must have been. There is a note in Edwin Pedersen’s history of West Denmark that Mikkel Kirk moved to the Bone Lake area east of Luck to start over after a difficult time at West Denmark.
I think that Edith Larson (1997) has the most interesting stone in the cemetery. At the bottom of the stone is carved, “My name is not Fred.” She was apparently married to Fred Larson, but he is not buried in West Denmark cemetery. I’m guessing that she did not ever want to be known as Mrs. Fred Larson. In the cemetery ledger there are many women listed without their first name, only as Mrs. So-and-so, which both of my daughters think is ridiculous. As far as I know, all of the women got their first names on their monuments.
Jes Smidt (1942) was a wood carver and painter whose work was in many Danish American churches, including the West Denmark church building that burned in 1985. As a child, I was fascinated by his painting of Leif Ericson discovering America, which still hangs in the West Denmark hall. For some reason though, I thought that the men on the ship had sighted a whale rather than land. Jes was grandfather of Edwin and Erik Pedersen, who carved the altar rail, pulpit, and lectern in the current church.
There is another grave here that quite often has items left on the monument. It is a woman I didn’t know who was buried in 2018, but I suspect she liked a good party. In the past year two empty beer bottles, a partial pack of cigarettes, and on two occasions, unopened wine coolers were left graveside. After a couple of weeks I removed the beer bottles, but the cigarettes and wine coolers disappeared on their own.
The Hedegaard family plots are here and include the graves of Alvin (1928), Arthur (1942), and Christ (1973) who were WWI veterans. All three brothers were in heavy fighting on three different fronts in France in 1918. I imagine there were many anxious moments for their parents waiting for news from them after the armistice.
Off in one corner of this section there is a burial listed in the cemetery ledger for Lewis Larson (1925). I am unable to find any marker in that area of the cemetery for him. Was there a marker of some sort that got covered? Was he buried in an unmarked grave? The burial date of February 27 is somewhat unusual as the ground is usually too frozen to dig at that time of year. More research is needed, I guess.
This part of the cemetery was open for use in the mid 1970s after major landscaping was done. This is the last section I mow, partly because the grass grows more slowly here, probably due to the soil disturbance done in landscaping work.
Edwin Pedersen (2012) is buried near the top of the hill at the east end of the cemetery and has one of my favorite monuments. It is a large rather plain field stone that has a plaque with name and dates and just one word “Tak.” Ed was a WWII Navy veteran and a West Denmark historian; he would have been very helpful writing this article. I should say he was indeed helpful as I used his printed histories of West Denmark and the Luck area for some of my information.
At least twenty-two of West Denmark’s WWII veterans are buried in this section, including former pastor Harold Petersen (1996) and Miriam Schowalter (2017) who is the cemetery’s only female veteran. I know there are many stories and a lot of history associated with each of these veterans, but I will mention just a few.
Dorayne Paulson (2010) was our mailman for many years, but in December 1944 he was right in the center of the German breakthrough at the start of the Battle of the Bulge. He was captured and spent the rest of the war as a POW. I don’t think I ever heard him say a word about it, but he did have a POW license plate.
Eugene “Gene” Jensen (1995) landed in Normandy on D-Day and later was badly wounded during the Battle of the Bulge.
Kristian “Kris” Henriksen (2014) was also in the Battle of the Bulge with an engineering company. He told me that sometimes he built things, and sometimes he blew things up. As a teenager I spent a lot of time at the Henriksen home, and occasionally Kris would talk about his time in the army. His children at home, Carol, Scott and Julie, would say, “Dad, he doesn’t want to hear those old stories”, but I really did.
Wally Johansen (2014) was a Navy Seabee [in the Navy Construction Battalion] and Erling Grumstrup (2021) was a marine, but they were both on Iwo Jima and managed to meet up on the island. They were able to share rye bread and raspberry jam that one of them had received from home. Erling was later wounded and evacuated, but Wally was there til the end of the fighting. Wally operated a bulldozer on the airfield and told me that he would sometimes hear bullets hit the dozer, but the Japanese were a long way off and he didn’t worry about it too much! Wally has a very nice granite bench at his gravesite and I often take my coffee break there when I’m mowing. When I told his daughter, Wanda, about this she said that I should have a beer there when I’m done, and he would like that too.
I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one young man from West Denmark who is not buried here. Viggo Hansen, “a fine and promising young man” (in Edwin’s words) was killed in action in Germany in the closing months of the war and is buried over there. His mother was Bodil Marie Hansen, whom I mentioned earlier. Perhaps she would not have been alone on that Christmas Eve if her son had not been killed. How selfish of me as a child to worry about her messing up my Christmas.
My beloved cousin, Sonja Petersen Richards, was buried here after dying in 2020 at the too-young age of sixty-two. She was a few months older than me and a good friend our entire lives. Even though she spent most of the last twenty years in Florida, she was an avid Minnesota Twins fan and has the distinction of having the only monument in the cemetery with a Twins logo on it.
I also have a large group of my Ravnholt cousins here on the hill, eight of the ten siblings are buried here. There are many stories about them that could be told, but Reimert (2021) has written many of them for Church and Life already. I will say that Albert’s adventures from about 1939-49 (seafaring cook, war correspondent in Asia where he knew Generals Chenault and Stilwell, met Chou-En-Lai and Mao Tse Tung, was a friend of Julia Child, etc., etc., etc.) would be enough for a full-length book.
One of the nice things about mowing a cemetery is that it gives you a lot of time to think, and it is only natural to think about some of the amazing things that people buried here may have seen and experienced. I know there are many interesting stories and people that I have left out, but I hope you have enjoyed reading about the friends and others I visit when I am at the cemetery.
Bridget Lois Jensen