Virtually unknown ... and untouched
RUSHMORE -- A sign, since rotted and in disrepair, once stood atop the hill overlooking the smallest county park in Nobles County -- an in-the-middle-of-nowhere, lesser-known locale that is home to some of the last remaining acres of untouched, virgin prairie in all of Nobles County.
Four acres of the Sunrise Prairie County Park were saved from the plow and agricultural development in 1973, when Nobles County commissioners agreed to purchase a 22-acre parcel from John D.S. Odens, his son, Lawrence D. Odens, and daughter-in-law Irene C. Odens, for $8,000.
Former Daily Globe reporter Lew Hudson was serving on the county's park board at the time and helped convince commissioners to purchase the land in the northwest corner of Section 32, Little Rock Township, and establish it as a county park.
"Many of us were concerned with the loss of untouched prairie," said Hudson, now of Baxter.
He learned of the parcel during a visit with a university professor who was working in the early 1970s to identify the remaining undisturbed prairie land in Nobles County.
"I went with him on some of his travels around, and one of the places he knew about was Sunrise Prairie," explained Hudson. "It's (home to) probably one of the oldest cemeteries in Nobles County."
In his introduction to Sunrise Prairie, Hudson said he found "magnificent variety and beauty" in the original prairie.
"I wrote that story, and one thing led to another," he shared. "I encouraged the board to do something about this. It could be bought -- we could save that prairie."
Little can be found in the history books regarding Sunrise Prairie Park, located in a slight curve in the road along 330th Street southwest of Rushmore. The sign, taken down in recent years, contains the story of the small historic pioneer cemetery established at the site in 1881.
"At least 10 people were buried in this cemetery, the last before 1900," the sign reads. "Settler Charles Morrison, in absence of a clergyman, presided at most internments."
Buried in the cemetery were several children -- many identified by name and lifespan. They include: Charles Premo, 1867-1876; Mrs. F.E. Densmore, 1854-1878; Nancy Jenkins, 1875-1881; Nettie Jenkins, 1877-1881; Mabel Richards, 1886-1886; Ownie Jenkins, infant; Al Jackson; Mrs. Lease; Grandma Brooks; and an unknown son of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Morrison. In later years, the remains of Grandma Brooks, Mrs. Lease and the son of Charles Morrison were moved to a cemetery at Little Rock, Iowa.
Nancy and Nettie Jenkins were daughters of Wes and Sarah Jenkins, whose biographical information is found in "An Illustrated History of Nobles County," by Arthur Rose.
"In only a few of the townships of Nobles County are there any great number of the pioneer settlers left," writes Rose, counting W.W. (Wes) Jenkins among them. Jenkins and his wife had reportedly lived in Section 32, Little Rock Township, since the spring of 1872. The family moved to Kansas in 1894, and then on to Arkansas.
"His first home in the new country (Little Rock Township) was a sod house, in which he lived seven years. He then bought the old school house of District 14 -- one of the first erected on the prairie -- and made his home in that until 1898, when he erected his present home," wrote Rose in the history book.
During their years on the prairie, the family endured the heartbreak of losing two daughters -- Nancy on March 2, 1881, at age 5; and Nettie on Jan. 18, 1882, at age 4 -- to an outbreak of smallpox. While they were buried in Sunrise Cemetery, there are no stones marking their graves. In fact, just one headstone remains intact -- that for Mrs. F.E. Densmore -- and so little remains of another headstone that it isn't known whose grave it marks.
There have been no burials in the cemetery since 1900, and it was never identified with any church in the area.
Glen Tiesler grew up just a mile from the Sunrise Prairie County Park and recalls stories his uncle told him about the early settlers to Little Rock Township.
"The Perry and Morrison families started the Little Rock Mutual Insurance Company, which is now Southwest Mutual," Tiesler said. "They had settled in the prairie in the 1880s."
Tiesler would often visit the prairie grounds while growing up and did a lot of trapping in the Little Rock Creek that flows through the parcel.
"Sixty years ago I trapped that whole creek," he shared. "When I was a junior in high school, the ag teacher was giving me heck because me and the neighbor had an eight-mile trap line. We'd go out and check them in the morning and then catch the bus."
Tiesler said that in 1953, the pair sold $1,500 worth of furs, primarily muskrat and raccoon.
"For $100 more I could have gone and bought a new car," he said with a laugh.
These days, the creek is still trapped, although not as heavily as it was back in the 1950s. The hillside surrounding the cemetery is also a draw in the winter months for sledding, Tiesler said.
"If you go over there in the spring, it's one of the prettiest places," he shared. "You can see south and east for miles, and the flowers bloom in the first part of April and continue until it freezes."
The native prairie flowers found in Sunrise Prairie County Park include some rarities, such as Rattlesnake-master, which is listed as a species of concern in Minnesota because there is so little prairie remaining in the state.
David and Sally Anne Benson of rural Bigelow have taken the park under their wing, so to speak, and organized a prairie grass fire on the parcel two years ago.
"It had been 15 years or more since it was burned," said David Benson. "That's one of the practices that's really important (to help native plants thrive).
"(Sunrise Prairie) has the highest concentration of prairie plants and (different species) than any other area of the county," he added. "That four acres is really the highest quality."
Jerry Braun, Nobles County Parks Department supervisor, said the county continues to mow the pioneer cemetery and also does periodic burns on the parcel.
"It's only four acres of virgin prairie, but there's only 37 acres of virgin prairie left in Nobles County," Braun said.