Job 7 a.m. Sunday, august seven, 2022
UW-La Crosse Archeology Course Helps Family Trace Their Roots
TOWNSHIP OF CROOKED CREEK, Minnesota — On a hill in a rolling valley in Houston County, Minnesota, a group of headstones have stood for more than a century.
It is the resting place of some of the early pioneers of Crooked Creek Township, a small community about 30 miles south of La Crosse.
It’s also where, this summer, UW-La Crosse archeology students are gaining invaluable field experience, while helping the descendants of these settlers recover a piece of their family’s history.
Led by associate professor of archeology David Anderson, the students search the small country cemetery for unmarked graves – a crucial step towards the family’s goal of restoring the site and organizing future burials there.
“It’s exciting because we’re working in a new place and using applied archeology to solve a real-world problem,” says Arin Spierings, undergraduate teaching assistant at UWL’s Archaeological Field School. .
“These settlers deserve to be recognized and remembered,” adds Cole Schoepp, an archeology student. “It’s cool to be able to bring back to life history that has been lost or forgotten.”
Preserving the past
Today, Crooked Creek German Pioneer Cemetery consists of several headstones – some tall and ornate, some short and unassuming – on a small fenced patch of wild grass.
Most of the stones belong to the family of George F. and Katharine (Weidman) Brenner, who left Germany in 1853 and settled in this picturesque corner of what was then Minnesota Territory.
Over the next half-century, the Brenners became one of Houston County’s most respected and recognizable families—George even served as county commissioner. But after George died in 1902, the Brenners disappeared from the valley, leaving behind only a few stray branches of the family tree.
The cemetery, like so many others from that time, could have withered away had it not been for the efforts of one of these branches: the Fuchsel family.
James Fuchsel, a descendant living in La Crescent, remembers his mother talking about the old family cemetery. She even compiled a book about her story, which she gave to her son shortly before her death.
“You don’t see a lot of people there resurrecting old cemeteries. Most of them just sit there, forgotten,” says Fuchsel. “After my mum passed away, I took it upon myself to involve my brothers (Peter and Dan) and carry on in her memory. We didn’t want to let it fade away.
Fuchsel mowed the grass and repaired the fence protecting the tombstones. Although it was rewarding to maintain the cemetery, he dreamed of a day when it could be something more—a way to connect the family’s past, present, and future.
Then, by chance, Dana Brenner arrived.
Brenner, a descendant living in Colorado, learned about the cemetery while doing genealogical research. He contacted the Houston County Historical Society, which put him in touch with Fuchsel and provided historical records related to their ancestry.
Together, Brenner and Fuchsel conceived the idea of reviving the cemetery, of burying current and future descendants among these centuries-old stones.
But there was a problem: By examining the documents, they learned that up to 15 other burials may have taken place at the site – graves that had never been marked.
The discovery raised all sorts of questions, the main one being: how were they able to confirm the presence of these unmarked graves in a non-invasive way?
That’s when they contacted the UWL to get an archaeologist’s opinion on the matter.
“We’d love to turn it into a real working cemetery again, but we need to know where the unmarked graves are, so we don’t dig them up accidentally,” says Brenner. “The most important thing is that we preserve what is there.”
A look underground
On a sunny June morning, Anderson and his students drove to the cemetery in pickup trucks filled with archaeological material.
Instead of digging, the class took turns pushing a ground-penetrating radar cart over the site, the same way beachgoers might run a metal detector over sand.
The machine sends high-frequency radio waves into the earth, recording their movement on a small screen. Since the waves travel through different materials at different speeds, the user can pinpoint the location of foreign objects or other disturbances in the ground, such as burial pits.
Scanning the cemetery, the students found several of these “anomalities,” which could be anything from unmarked graves to the remains of old tree trunks.
Anderson’s job, back in the lab, is to study the anomalies and the signals that identified them to determine if they are likely graves.
“It’s hard to say for sure whether or not something is a grave without verifying the anomaly in the field,” says Anderson, referring to the confirmation practice of excavating a site.
But even without ground checking, knowing the probable location of the graves allows the family to dig safely in the future.
In addition to ground scans, Anderson and his students photographed the existing headstones from various angles. The photos were used to create 3D digital models, allowing family members across the country to see and interact with them online.
Anderson also plans to work with the Historical Society to identify other local cemeteries where students can gain experience preparing a site and working in the field.
“Overall, this has been a great opportunity for our students,” adds Anderson. “They were able to see a project progress from the start. They were able to familiarize themselves with the material. And they were able to meet and work with the community.
“It feels like home”
Brenner and Fuchsel never expected their interest in genealogy to evolve into such a complex project — involving hundreds of hours, dozens of people, and something as elaborate as ground-penetrating radar.
To express its gratitude to the UWL, the Crooked Creek Germany Pioneer Cemetery Association – made up of Brenner, the three Fuchsel brothers and Houston County cemetery expert Richard Cordes – made a donation to the Scholarship Fund. studies in archeology from the UWL Foundation.
“A few people were buried in the middle of nowhere over 100 years ago,” Brenner says. “Somehow it brought us all together.”
In 2020, the group achieved another significant milestone: acquiring the one-acre property through a deed from the Council of the Township of Crooked Creek. After more than a century, the cemetery is back in the family’s possession, positioned to thrive for the next 100 years.
Recently, Brenner and some family members traveled to Crooked Creek Township to see it for themselves. There was still a lot to do: leveling the ground, keeping the grass under control, identifying locations for future burials.
Yet as he looked around the ancestral valley, Brenner couldn’t help but swell with pride.
“I turned to my sister and said, ‘This is really weird,'” he recalled.
She said, finishing her thought, “Yeah, it feels like home.”