Grave matter: Jackson woman researches history of settler cemetery
JACKSON — In a small plot of land on the south edge of Loon Lake, some of the region’s early residents were laid to rest. But the rest hasn’t always been peaceful. Their eternal slumber has been interrupted by parties, vandals and rumors of unnatural phenomenon taking place there.
A Jackson woman has made it her mission to record the history of Loon Lake Cemetery in order to dispel such myths, discourage vandalism and restore dignity to the men and women who braved harsh conditions and the threat of massacre to settle this region. Mary Chonko grew up in rural Jackson County. She spent many years living and working in the printing business in the Twin Cities, returning to her hometown after retirement and the death of her husband.
“I grew up on the north side of Loon Lake, and the cemetery is on the south side,” she explained. “I don’t have any direct relationship to the people who are in the cemetery, but I do have connections to them through marriage.”
After returning to Jackson, Chonko went to work for the Jackson County Historical Society, where a couple of the gravestones from Loon Lake were taken to prevent them from further vandalism. It angered her that the cemetery had been used as a place for teen parties and that vandals had removed the stones, smashing them on the highway or throwing them into the nearby swamp. And there were the myths that three witches were buried at the cemetery.
“There is so much destruction and disrespect,” said Chonko. “I want these people to be known as people like you and me instead of an unnatural phenomenon. It makes me very sad and angry the destruction that has come about because of the unnatural.”
For 3½ years, Chonko delved into researching the cemetery, determined to find the true facts about the people who are buried there. Earlier this year she self-published a book that contains all the facts she uncovered. The book does not contain information about the supernatural events that have supposedly happen at the cemetery, as she doesn’t want to give credence to the myths by publishing them. But when she does public presentations on her research, such as one earlier this week at the Jackson Library, she addresses the witch tales.
“I know that any time you speak in front of the public, those questions are going to be asked,” she said. “I’m going to address it before I address anything else.”
The lore about the witches begins with Mary Ellen Terwillegar, who died in March 1880 at the age of 17. Local lore says Terwillegar was beheaded by an axe by the citizens of the town of Petersburg, because she was a witch. But records attribute Terwillegar’s death, which occurred while she was visiting family in Cherokee, Iowa, to diphtheria. Chonko believes the witch rumor may have evolved from the epithet on her tombstone:
My friends beware as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you must be,
Prepare yourself to follow me.
“It was a common epithet in that time period,” explained Chonko. “They offered (the tombstones) through the mail. Sears & Roebuck sold them.”
Two other women buried in the cemetery — Clarinda Allen and Mary Jane Dickinson — are also rumored to be witches who had gruesome deaths, but Chonko’s research showed that they also died of natural causes. Allen’s headstone bore a similar epithet to Terwilligar’s; Dickinson’s was destroyed by vandals, with only a small piece remaining.
Chonko also found a possible source of the rumors in the journal of an ornithologist who visited the area in 1883, camping at Loon Lake to collect bird eggs. He encountered a local man, James Sandford Peters, who “said he was troubled by witches.”
“In the history of Dickinson County, it says that James Peters came to the area in 1857 to build a mill on the isthmus between Big Spirit and Okoboji lakes,” related Chonko. “If anything happened to the mill, which was not successful, he drew effigies of witches on a tree and shot them with silver bullets.”
The ornithologist believed, however, that Peters’ talk about witches was a ruse to keep vandals away from his property.
The witch story has been perpetuated not only by local whisperings, but by postings on the Internet and books of ghostly tales. Chonko is gratified that at least one researcher — Dennis Waskul, a professor of sociology at Minnesota State Mankato — has recently approached the cemetery lore from a different perspective.
“While the legend of the witches of Loon Lake warns of great harm to the living, the historical facts are exactly the opposite,” Waskul writes. “It’s the living that have brought great harm unto the dead of Loon Lake.”
Legends aside, Chonko prefers to focus on the fortitude of the people who settled the prairie of Jackson County. She talks of one couple who took the train from out east to Cedar Rapids, Iowa — it was as far as the train would go — and then walked all the way to Jackson County, carrying two small children for much of the distance.
Through her book and presentations, Chonko concentrates on the humanity of the settlers, who arrived in the area in the wake of the Civil War and the midst of the Native American uprisings.
“They had to have water,” she said about why they chose to locate close to Loon Lake. “They couldn’t pick up their cellphone and have somebody come out and drill a well. They raised crops just to feed themselves and their animals. In the winter, they became trappers because of the demand of furs in the East. That is what they used as legal tender.”
The winter of 1866-’67 was a particularly brutal time for the settlers, Chonko shared, due to extreme cold and heavy snow. It was called “the starvation period.”
“There were no actual cases of starvation,” she said, “but many were weak by the time spring arrived.”
Other hardships they faced were mosquitos, blackbirds, prairie fires, blizzards and grasshoppers.
“As soon as they planted their corn, the blackbirds would swoop down and take the seedlings, so the children would sit in the field and chase away the blackbirds,” Chonko said.
As Chonko relates their stories, it’s obvious that she got attached to her subjects during the research process.
“They are now my special friends,” she said. “I’m very passionate about the cemetery, and I want that to come through to people, that cemeteries are sacred places, not places for beer parties and destruction. I would like to see that go away, but as long as there’s all that stuff on the Internet, it’s not going to happen.”
Her book is now printed, but Chonko continues to dig up information on the Loon Lake settlers and their cemetery and plans to add to it when pertinent facts are uncovered.
“She cleared up a few things,” said Mary C. Allen, who married into the family of one of the most prominent of the Loon Lake pioneers and was on hand for the library presentation. “I learned stuff that I had never known.”
Chonko is now researching the people of the 1856-’57 settlement of Springfield, which eventually became the city of Jackson. Her exploration includes forays to Webster City, Iowa, from where a lot of the settlers originated.
Whatever her subject, Chonko’s mission is getting to the truth and bringing proper dignity to the people who framed the region’s history.
“I would like to see the day when you can talk about Loon Lake Cemetery and not think witches,” said Chonko, “but think Loon Lake Cemetery and think about people.”
Chonko will give another presentation on the Loon Lake Cemetery at 1 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Lakefield Public Library. Copies of her book are available for purchase during the presentations or by contacting her directly: phone (507) 847-2163; or email email@example.com.
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers
can be reached at 376-7327.