Remembering the forgotten

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For many, many years, Idella Bright served as the county nursing home’s head of housekeeping.
In 2006, she was the last person laid to rest in the St. Croix County Cemetery located on the county health center grounds. She joined her husband, Sumner, also a longtime health center administrator.
Together they had requested to be buried there next to the facility they thought of as home and with the residents they had served and come to know as friends.
There is a legacy bound to forgotten plots of land set aside for the burial of those without family or unable to afford private plots elsewhere. The St. Croix County Cemetery was once known as the St. Croix County Poor Farm and Asylum Cemetery.
A version of a Potter’s field has existed in every culture for as long as we have been memorializing souls laid to rest in the earth. Municipalities large and small have for hundreds of years designated plots outside of town where people, mostly unknown, are buried with little fanfare or tribute.
Such a place seems an unlikely recipient for the attention of a welding class teacher and his students.
“My wife and I would drive by the county cemetery on my way to my mom’s all the time. We noticed many of the crosses were rusty and in disrepair. We thought it would be a good idea to give these forgotten people a little attention they deserve. So I thought, ‘why not make the crosses into a class project?’ It would fit right into the curriculum, plus we’d be doing something for the community as well.” WITC welding class instructor Dan Wilkinson said.
According to St. Croix County Health Center Administrator Sandy Hackenmueller, the county cemetery consists of two plots — the older plot contains 89 graves dating back to about 1900 and the new section has 46 graves, the last of which belongs to Idella Bright.
The graves in the old cemetery are marked with stones while the graves in the new cemetery are marked with the crosses Dan noticed. The white metal crosses have no names. The only way to identify who is buried in a specific location is a handwritten ledger into which the names and locations of where folks were buried have been entered over the years.
“I’m the keeper of the book,” Hackenmueller said. “Some people were buried there at the request of relatives, some were at the request of the district attorney, and some at their own request. Some didn’t have any family, so they were buried in our cemetery. The way the original cemetery was set up, anybody in the county could be buried there and now toward the end, it has actually only been people who were in our facility.”
It took a little research and a few calls, but eventually Wilkinson connected with Hackenmueller and proposed his idea.
“Dan contacted me and told me he’d driven by the cemetery several times and felt that the crosses needed to be replaced. At first I thought, ‘Who would think of such a thing?’ And my next reaction was, ‘Such a kind person to look at a cemetery and think, I can help here and do something to honor these residents of St. Croix county.’ I was quite impressed actually,” Hackenmueller recounted.
“I explained what we wanted to do and she said, ‘Go for it,’ Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson has a history of employing the education of his students on behalf of community-based projects. In the past, his students have welded kennels for the county K-9 unit, horse ties for the county horse park, even stainless steel coat hangers for Lakeside Foods.
Wilkinson encourages community members with ideas to send him an email (dan.wilkinson@witc.edu) to see what might be done.
Since late January, 19 students in Wilkinson’s welding fabrication class have been working on the project with the intention of replacing a couple of dozen crosses at the cemetery during a ceremony scheduled to take place Wednesday, April 6, at 11 a.m.
“Any time that we can do something that’s going to get used versus inspected, graded, recycled and just thrown in the scrap bin, I think it’s more fun. Plus with a project like this, where they are starting from scratch and not just chopping off two-inch pieces to weld together, it’s a better learning experience,” Wilkinson said.
After showing his students photos of the existing crosses, Wilkinson asked his class to submit their own designs for replacement crosses, keeping in mind the materials they had available to use.
He received 18 different ideas ranging from detailed drawings created using computed aided design software (CAD) to ideas hand-drawn on stained paper towels. Wilkinson settled on a process and an idea that would maximize the instructional experience for all of his students.
“We looked at all the ideas and boiled it down based not only on the materials we had to work with but also on the design that would allow us to use more processes and tools to optimize the experience. Everybody had to build a cross from scratch. Instead of using 2-inch by ¼-inch flat bar and just cutting it off to length, we decided to start out with plate where they actually have to sheer it from a big sheet,” Wilkinson said.
Students had to provide part drawings, assembly drawings complete with dimensions, welding symbols and tolerances, and a bill of materials with part numbers. They also had to create a set of instructions describing the process.
With the exception of a final sand blasting to clean up welds and remove dust, grease and fingerprints, all that remains to be done is the addition of a blessing.
Julie Buckman is an ordained minister and medium. She holds Ph.D.s in educational and developmental psychology and teaches classes at WITC.
“I asked Julie if she would officiate, give us a little ceremony when we go out there and actually pull out the old crosses and replace them with the new ones,” Wilkinson said.
“Dan’s a colleague of mine at WITC. I used to teach a human relations class to his students. That’s why he approached me to do the blessing for the crosses. It’s phenomenal what he’s doing with his students. I was honored that he asked me to do this,” Buckman said.
Not a lot of classes, let alone industrial classes, have the real life application Wilkinson has employed. That it was inspired by a sincere desire to recognize and respect a landscape of souls often forgotten and overlooked adds a unique and compassionate dimension to the education of his students.
Hackenmueller is looking forward to seeing the finished crosses and plans to encourage her residents to participate in the ceremony April 6.
This is one of those rare opportunities that comes up unexpectedly, a chance for a community to overpower anonymity with compassion and respect just by simply showing up. In the process you will be showing your appreciation for all the work done those many years ago by Idella and Sumner and supporting teachers like Dan Wilkinson and his students and encouraging innovative education in our own backyard.
“It would be really nice to see community members step up and show their respect during the ceremony just because you never know what the history is of these lost souls. It would be really nice to see folks come out,” Buckman said.
“Maybe not right now, but in the future, when these students are out driving around, if they go by there, they’ll have a little sense of pride. As time goes by, I think everybody will feel pretty good about it,” surmised Wilkinson.