For Maxine Schuurmans Kinsley, a wealth of history lies beneath the prairie soil of Bon Homme County.
That's why the Tyndall native, who now lives in Yankton, has completed a book on Bon Homme County's cemeteries. The book, "Roots in Dakota Soil: Prairie Cemeteries of Bon Homme County, South Dakota," has rolled off the presses at Pine Hill Printery of Sioux Falls.
"We have to save information from being lost," Kinsley said. "I have worked on this (book) for two years. It has been a hobby project."
Those early stories include everything from the graves of Gen. George Custer's six cavalrymen buried near Snatch Creek to veterans funerals with full military caisson. The book also looks at pioneer funeral customs, funeral directors, tombstone styles, notable epitaphs and "unusual tales of murder and mayhem."
The book's cover features a Bon Homme County map and a reversed picture of the Sorrowing Figure at St. Wenceslaus Cemetery at Tabor.
The book tells of early settlers, their churches and heritage which influenced the location of cemeteries. The book also offers an insight into various hardships such as disease, harsh weather and even the difficulty of burying the dead.
Some interesting and unusual characters also appear in the book, Kinsley said.
"We have a picture of the late Edgar Bauder, a Ôgrave witcher' who used a rod to identify where people were buried," she said. "The rod indicated whether the person who was buried was male or female, or an adult or child. We couldn't tell how he did it."
The books also includes the story of August Robson, who died in 1946 and was nicknamed "Rattlesnake Pete," Kinsley said.
"He traveled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show to Panama and Europe," she said. "He was nicknamed ÔRattlesnake Pete' because he killed rattlesnakes. He was known as a prodigious drinker and as a barber who once shaved a man in 15 seconds."
Maps in the book will help prospective visitors locate every cemetery, Kinsley said. However, several cemeteries are not accessible to the public, she said.
Research on the cemeteries has been recorded by Kinsley and other members of the Bon Homme County Abandoned and Restoration Cemetery Association. She wrote the book and shares a copyright with the association.
Kinsley said she hopes the book provides both informative and enjoyable reading. But she and the other association members also hope the publication "encourages young and old to better appreciate the wealth of history" found in cemeteries.
The association received a $2,500 grant last November from the Mary Chilton DAR Foundation in Sioux Falls
"We appreciate getting the grant from the DAR," she said. "We wouldn't have been able to do this book without them."
The illustrated text provides names and dates of 17 known abandoned cemeteries as well as brief histories of all 31 currently used — or, if no longer used, at least maintained — cemeteries in Bon Homme County.
"We will discuss Monday what we will do for promoting and selling the book," Kinsley said. "We ordered 500 books and plan to sell them mainly in Bon Homme County. We have 88 pages, including histories on the individual cemeteries."
The interest in locating and restoring the abandoned Bon Homme County cemeteries began about two decades ago for a couple of reasons, Kinsley said.
"Avon took on the Hitt Cemetery, about six miles south of town, as their South Dakota Legacy Project during the state centennial in 1989," she said. "The Hitt Cemetery originally held mostly settlers of English and German descent who came from the eastern part of the United States. These settlers set up the cemetery with money and land."
Also during the late 1980s, the state encouraged the county registers of deeds to take care of abandoned cemeteries, Kinsley said.
"Elton Rokusek, the Bon Homme County register of deeds, was instrumental (in the local effort) after he came back from a statewide meeting," she said. "Ray Novak, who was president of the South Dakota Genealogical Society, also made an appearance at the (Bon Homme) county courthouse, which led to the formation of our group in 1990."
The local abandoned cemetery association, one of few in the state of South Dakota, incorporated as a non-profit group, Kinsley said. About a dozen members chartered the organization to identify and restore more than one dozen abandoned burial grounds scattered around the county.
Charter members included JoEllen and Elmer Wormsbecher, Kenneth and Trudy Crouse, Jerald Hayward, Clarence Tjeerdsma, Merle Ferwerda, Delores Dempster, Edgar Bauder, Elton Rokusek and Maxine Schuurmans Kinsley, followed soon after by Norma Lukkes and Clara Fillaus.
"We toured the area and looked at possible sites (for restoration)," Kinsley said. "In some cases, we had to get legal easements."
The men in the group volunteered to install fences, repair tombstones and remove brush, Kinsley said.
"Once the fences were built, it wasn't so hard to maintain," she said. "We had the brush removed and the tombstones pushed upright. We mowed, filled badger holes and kept away cattle."
Women researched early Bon Homme County death records as well as church and family records. They found birth and death deaths, which they organized and placed on file in the county commissioners' room in the courthouse.
"We had death records after 1905, but before 1905, there were no public records for us to use," Kinsley said. "Before that time, (records were) maintained by the churches and families."
The association chose to maintain 10 of the 17 cemeteries considered abandoned, Kinsley said. The first restoration in 1991 was the Bon Homme County Poor Farm Cemetery, established in 1893 three miles southwest of Tyndall, Kinsley said. The Poor Farm Cemetery remained functional until the late 1930s, she said.
The largest project was the 1883 Hitt Cemetery, also known as "Wagner" for the Wagner Methodist Episcopal Church that once stood alongside, Kinsley said. The Bon Homme restoration association took over the project and ownership of the cemetery from Avon, she said.
A grant awarded by the Mary Chilton DAR Foundation in 1992 allowed placement of permanent identification markers on the completed projects as well as restoration of aged GAR tombstones.
The Bon Homme County restoration association earned a certification of recognition from the South Dakota Historical Society in 1992. The local group was honored for updating 1941 WPA grave survey records in Bon Homme County and sending the changes to the state archives. Locally appointed surveyors had compiled the surveys, usually assisted by local persons familiar with the cemeteries.
Because of the age of its members, the Bon Homme restoration association no longer actively maintains its 10 cemetery projects, Kinsley said. Bon Homme County has taken over maintenance of the 10 abandoned cemeteries, she said.
As part of the maintenance effort, Bon Homme County has set up a historical sites budget, said Auditor Linda Pesek.
"We supply the mower and mowing equipment and take care of any repairs," she said. "We used Green Thumb workers until that program ended. Now, we hire somebody as the summer mower, and we also maintain the fences."
The maintenance worker sometimes finds locating the cemetery more challenging than the work itself, Pesek said.
"You have to drive in a pasture, in the middle of a section, to reach some cemeteries, especially if it's an old family cemetery on remote land," she said. "We have a list of the cemetery names. But whenever we have a new person hired as mower, we have to tell him where the cemetery is located."
As of today, 24 of 31 Bon Homme County cemeteries which are maintained continue in use, Kinsley said.
"The others are abandoned. No one has been buried there for awhile, and no one maintains them," she said. "In 2003, we published a map and had 48 total in the county."
For now, Kinsley believes all of the abandoned cemeteries have been located. But that doesn't mean all of the remains have been located, she said.
"There are some bodies that were buried along the roadside," she said, referring to an early practice.
The greatest challenge in the future may lie in finding someone to continue the work of the Bon Homme County Abandoned and Restoration Cemetery Association, Kinsley said.
"We foresee someone taking it over eventually, maybe a historical society," she said. "Hopefully, the book piques the interest of somebody."