Gustafva Swedish Lutheran Church & Cemetery

A CHURCH AT THE PRAIRIE CEMETERY

If you left the Prairie Cemetery, take a trip back in your mind. Wander around the grounds looking for archeological clues—clues as to where the church building—Den Swenska Evangeliska Lutherska Gustafwa stood from 1885 to 1931.

Maybe the church stood here?
Maybe the church stood here?
Land over looking County Highway 77.
Land over looking County Highway 77.

Oh it was there alright at one time. Gustafva was one of two Swedish Lutheran churches the early Swedish pioneers built in Compton Township, Otter Tail County, Minnesota. There was a bit of a disagreement as to the whereabouts of the new church and that’s why the community ended up with two—Gustafva in section ten and Svenska Evangeliska Lutherska i Compton in section twenty.

Travel from section twenty, where a number of Swedish families were homesteading, up to section ten for church would have been by my calculations four to six miles. Now given that the roads were rough, the weather often bad, and South Bluff Creek had to be crossed the mere act of getting to church was most likely difficult most of time. Having a church nearby would be an eventual necessity for the section twenty families. Much easier to move one pastor between two churches than to move a whole group of people.

The Compton church dilemma reminds  me of the story my friend Marilyn at the Carver County Historical Society told me about the East Union Lutheran Church and the West Union Lutheran Church. The congregations are a little over five miles apart but five miles during pioneer times was nothing like the bike ride it is now. No paved roads. No bridges. No snow removal. The early pioneers in West Union had trouble crossing Beven’s Creek when it was high.  A group broke off from East Union to form a congregation closer and safer to home.

Back in Compton Township, early Scottish pioneer Mrs. James Strang writes about crossing Oak Creek from section ten to get into Wadena on Fourth of July some time in the 1870’s. She writes,

The country was flooded with so much rain. We had the oxen…when we got to the creek, it was up over the fields. We had to wade into the poles across the creek, the men carrying the children over first. The creek was rampant…the men tackled the oxen but they got caught by the horns of the second team and they had a hard time getting them out. The wagon was swept down the creek; lunches and all got wet through (page 180 Compton Township History).

Although Scottish, Mrs. Strang has a connection to Gustafva.  According to her recollections, she and her husband arrived in Compton Township in June of 1873 staying their first night with Nels Rolen.  Nels was a Swede and the man along with his wife Ingard who sold a bit of land –about two acres for $5 in 1880—for what would become the Gustafva church and cemetery.

Now also in 1880, a man of the Lutheran cloth, one J.P. Lundblad out of Parker’s Prairie, enters into the story. Hard to know what came first—the missionary or the land.  But at some point Lundblad began a confirmation class in the Robb School House at the lower end of section 11 near section 14. The schoolhouse was built in 1877 on what looks like James Robb’s land but it could have been Thomas Robb’s land. At any rate, the Robbs came from Scotland too and were neighbors to the Strangs.

The Johnson twins down in section twenty, Swan and Peter, had a younger sister Emma who was confirmed in this first class with J.P. Lundblad. The next year Swan’s future wife and my great grandmother, Beda Anderson, was confirmed. Swan and Pete didn’t seem to make it into either class.

E.E.J. Marker
Cemetery Stones

At any rate after Nels Rolen sold the land, the community needed it first for a cemetery times being what they were. So by the time Charles Veden of section four was keeping his church building dairy in 1885, the cemetery had sixteen graves in it. The cemetery alone appears on the 1884 Plat Map of Compton Township.

Veden writes, which in itself is interesting because most Swedes at this time did not, about the “very cold Northwest winds” he encountered during the early days of the church which makes the grove of trees in the cemetery sensible even if they look to be too young to have seen the early days of this place . At any rate, the church structure was 12 by 20 feet and made out of log and sat “along the current highway 29” (page 31 Compton Township History). I found a pole tarp on the internet measuring 12 by 20. It looked like something you might park your car or fishing boat under. Not a big structure by our standards by any means.

Cemetery Stones
Trees and Stones

Charles Veden reports the first meeting at the church occurred on August 21, 1885 with a Pastor Olson preaching. Who knows how many Swedes squeezed into the church on a possibly hot and humid Minnesota August day. Twenty-six years later in April of 1911, the congregation (församling in Swedish) filed with the State of Minnesota to transfer the Gustafva property to the Compton church and the two congregations merged. The log church structure was moved in 1931 and no more is known about its history. What remains is the cemetery with all its secrets and stories and a primitive monument to the early Swedish pioneers.

SOURCES

Compton Township History Ottertail County Minnesota: 1875-2001.

U.S. Federal Census of 1880/Minnesota/OtterTail County/Compton Township. Accessed through Heritage Quest on April 15, 2015.

Kyrko Bok fon Svenska Evangeliska Lutherska Compton Forsamlingen. Swedish American Church Archives, 3-240.

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records. www.glorecords.blm.gov. Assessed on April 1, 2015.

Swedish Pioneer Monument
Swedish Pioneer Monument
Row of Children's Graves
Children’s Graves
Advertisements
Gustafva Swedish Lutheran Church & Cemetery

The Prairie Cemetery: Discovery

Rain through the wind shield
Rain falls on the windshield.

Drive West out of Wadena, Minnesota on State Highway 29 into Compton Township. Turn left onto County Road 77 at the edge of section 10. Take another left about a quarter mile in onto a two rut lane of sand and gravel across from an Amish farm. Drive through the horse dung, set the car in park, and look left.

The older folks in my family call it the Prairie Cemetery. It’s prairie all right. Grass is plentiful and so are fields of corn one year, soybeans probably the next. A large grove of fir trees to the North and a bit to the East break the winds. A small wood sign marks the place.

Signage
The sign marking this place as Compton Gustfva Lutheran Cemetery.

It was raining the day we stopped by four years ago on a bit of whim. The clouds hung low in the sky which is typical weather for this northern inland place. August is preparation for winter after all.

The Sky
The Sky

Rain spat on the car windows before finding a steady rhythm as I drove south on U.S. Highway 71. We had just come off the lake near Bemidji and had a long day of driving before us. My husband had the worst case of “lake itch” I had ever seen. One of the boys had it too and the other one was just knee deep into his fourteenth year which meant he ate all the time and when he wasn’t eating he was complaining or suffering from glossy-eyed screen syndrome.

But we were so close to this place which had haunted me for seventeen years that I tensed and ached and just had to plow through the push back to stop by for a visit, my second visit. Thankfully my mother was game for the adventure.

My first visit out to the Prairie Cemetery had been late September of 1994. I was up for Great Aunt Mabel’s last picnic and had not been in these parts for years, maybe even a decade. Dad was in a rambling mood that weekend and we rambled all over the county eventually ending up at this ghost of a cemetery.

The place immediately confused and intrigued me. The Prairie Cemetery was not “the” cemetery—the one a few miles away down in section twenty near the farm where Dad grew up and in which it seemed I was somehow related to every tombstone at least once if not twice. Now I was learning the Prairie Cemetery (called that because really who now can pronounce ““Gustfva” with any air of authority even if descended from Swedes) was somehow connected to us as well at least according to Dad. The connection for me though was as buried as the graves.

A solitary grave underneath a tree.
A solitary grave underneath a tree.

The cemetery reeked of age. The stones were primitive and the writing worn. Thin small stones dotted the green tipping slightly to one side or the other, not like the heavy markers we now plant in such places. The ground was swallowing some of the oldest stones bit by bit as if they were no longer necessary or made better use of as organic material for a graveyard compost.

E.E.J. Marker
Thin stone with fading script.

Maybe there had been an order to the place back in its day but now the stones seemed scattered and mostly forgotten. I wondered if some graves were now unmarked given the large spaces between groups of stones or the occasional solitary one. Obviously the place was old, the dates on the stones confirming this.

Now dodging raindrops and snapping pictures—something I had not thought to do on my first visit—I was struck by how my memory twisted many of my first impressions. These impressions had been visceral like an ancient connection to previously unknown kin warping my sense of reality. I now saw the monument was not a grave. The white pillar was not a monument. The names where not just strangers.

On this second visit I had a purpose. I sought tangibles: facts, truth if possible, and maybe even some wisdom.  I clicked photos of each piece of interest and scribbled notes feeling like anthropologist discovering an ancient people.

  • Proverbs 3: 1-18 
  • Compton Gusteva Lutheran Cemetery 
  • Ottertail County 77 and Minn 29 
  • Wadena Historical Society 
  • Text on monument?
  • 5 children
  • 4 October 1881= disease
  • 1 September 1882=TB
  • 1875
  • Gravel/sand road
  • How long had the family been in the area?
  • Had they come down from Carver?
  • Ages of children?
  • Ages of parents

Four years later I have put facts to some of these notes, family legends to others. Some notes I continue to puzzle out as questions create more questions along with frustrations. I am certain of one thing though–this place waits to tell its stories.