Posted 7 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022
UW-La Crosse archaeology class helps family reclaim its roots
CROOKED CREEK TOWNSHIP, Minn. — On a hill in a rolling valley in Houston County, Minnesota, a cluster of headstones has stood for more than a century.
This is the resting place of some of the earliest pioneers in Crooked Creek Township, a tiny community about 30 miles south of La Crosse.
It is also where, this summer, UW-La Crosse archaeology students are gaining invaluable experience in the field, while helping descendants of those settlers reclaim a piece of their family’s history.
Led by Associate Professor of Archaeology David Anderson, students are searching the little country cemetery for unmarked graves — a critical step toward the family’s goal of restoring the site and holding future burials there.
“It’s exciting because we get to work in a new location and use applied archaeology to solve a real-world problem,” says Arin Spierings, an undergraduate teaching assistant in UWL’s Archaeological Field School.
“Those settlers deserve to be recognized and remembered,” adds Cole Schoepp, a senior majoring in archaeology. “It’s cool being able to bring forward history that has been lost or forgotten.”
Preserving the past
Today, the Crooked Creek German Pioneer Cemetery consists of several headstones — some tall and ornate, some short and unassuming — on a small, fenced-in patch of wild grass.
Most of the stones belong to the family of George F. and Katharine (Weidman) Brenner, who left Germany in 1853 and settled in this picturesque corner of what was then the Minnesota Territory.
Over the next half-century, the Brenners became one of the more respected and recognizable families in Houston County — George even served as county commissioner. But after George’s death in 1902, the Brenners vanished from the valley, leaving behind only a few stray branches of the family tree.
The cemetery, like so many others from that time, might have wasted away if not for the efforts of one of those branches: the Fuchsel family.
James Fuchsel, a descendant living in La Crescent, remembers his mother talking about the old family cemetery. She even compiled a book about its history, which she gave to her son shortly before she died.
“You don’t see many people out there resurrecting old cemeteries. Most of them just sit there, forgotten about,” Fuchsel says. “After my mother passed away, I took it upon myself to get my brothers (Peter and Dan) involved and carry it on in remembrance to her. We didn’t want to let it die out.”
Fuchsel mowed the grass and mended the fence protecting the tombstones. While it was gratifying to maintain the cemetery, he dreamed of a day when it could be something more — a way to link the family’s past, present and future.
Then, as luck would have it, Dana Brenner came along.
Brenner, a descendant living in Colorado, learned of the cemetery while doing genealogy research. He reached out to the Houston County Historical Society, which connected him with Fuchsel and provided historical documents related to their ancestors.
Together, Brenner and Fuchsel conceived the idea of reviving the cemetery, of burying current and future descendants among those 100-year-old stones.
But there was one problem: While reviewing documents, they learned that as many as 15 other burials may have happened at the site — graves that had never been marked.
The discovery sparked all sorts of questions, chief among them: How could they confirm the presence of these unmarked graves in a noninvasive way?
That’s when they contacted UWL to get an archaeologist’s take on the matter.
“We’d love to turn this into a real, functioning cemetery again, but we need to know where the unmarked graves are, so we don’t accidentally dig them up,” Brenner explains. “The most important thing is that we preserve what’s there.”
A look underground
On a sun-splashed June morning, Anderson and his students rumbled up to the cemetery in vans filled with archaeological equipment.
Instead of digging, the class took turns pushing a ground-penetrating radar cart over the site, the same way beachgoers might run a metal detector over the sand.
The machine sends high-frequency radio waves into the earth, recording their movement on a small screen. Because the waves move through different materials at different rates of speed, the user can pinpoint the location of foreign objects or other disturbances in the ground, such as burial shafts.
While scanning the cemetery, students found several of these “anomalies,” which could be anything from unmarked graves to the remnants of old tree trunks.
Anderson’s job, back in the lab, is to study the anomalies and the signals that identified them to determine whether they’re likely to be graves.
“It’s difficult to say with certainty whether or not something is a grave without ground-truthing the anomaly,” explains Anderson, referring to the confirmatory practice of excavating a site.
But even without ground-truthing, knowing the likely location of graves allows the family to safely dig in the future.
In addition to ground scans, Anderson and his students photographed the existing tombstones from a variety of angles. The photos were used to create 3D digital models, allowing family members across the country to see and interact with them online.
Anderson also plans to work with the Historical Society to identify other local cemeteries where students can gain experience preparing a site and working in the field.
“Overall, this has been a great opportunity for our students,” Anderson adds. “They’ve been able to see a project progress from the very beginning. They’ve been able to familiarize themselves with the equipment. And they’ve been able to meet and work with the community.”
'It feels like we're home'
Brenner and Fuchsel never expected their interest in genealogy to evolve into such a complex project — one involving hundreds of hours, dozens of people and something as elaborate as ground-penetrating radar.
To express their gratitude to UWL, the Crooked Creek Germany Pioneer Cemetery Association — consisting of Brenner, the three Fuchsel brothers and Houston County cemetery expert Richard Cordes — made a gift to the UWL Foundation’s Archaeology Scholarship Fund.
“A few people were buried in the middle of nowhere more than 100 years ago,” Brenner says. “Somehow, it brought us all together.”
In 2020, the group took another important step: acquiring the one-acre property through a deed from the Crooked Creek Township Board. After more than a century, the cemetery is back in the family’s possession, positioned to thrive over the next 100 years.
Recently, Brenner and a few family members traveled to Crooked Creek Township to see it for themselves. There was still much to do: leveling the land, keeping the grass in check, identifying locations for future burials.
Yet, as he looked around the ancestral valley, Brenner couldn’t help but well up with pride.
“I turned to my sister and said, ‘This is really weird,’” he remembers.
She said, finishing his thought, “Yeah, it feels like we’re home.”