The three old rural cemeteries in the town of Sumpter were there before the Army erected the world’s largest ammunition plant around them, and they’ll be there long after the Army leaves.
On a foggy Monday morning before Halloween, Verlyn Mueller, president and archivist of the Badger History Group, walked through the Pioneer Cemetery at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant. “This may be the oldest cemetery in Sauk County,” Mueller said.
Mueller pointed out the grave of Albert Jameson, one of the area’s original pioneers who staked a claim on the prairie in the 1830s. He died on Nov. 17, 1875.
No one has been buried in the cemetery since 1942 when the Army displaced scores of famers from the land. “There were 118 landowners, three churches, schools and cemeteries,” Mueller said.
In January 1942, the farmers received a notice from the Army that they had two months to be off their land, Mueller said, adding, “That wasn’t uncommon.” When the Army came in, it razed almost everything on the original 10,565 acres it acquired but left the three cemeteries. One of the buildings that did not survive was the church after which Thoelke Cemetery was named.
“The cemeteries have been well-cared-for by the Army for the entire 70 years,” Mueller said.
With the demolition at the former munitions-propellant plant winding down and most of the land transferred, the problem of who will take ownership of the old cemeteries remains unresolved. For the last five years the three cemeteries—Pioneer, Thoelke and Miller Family—have been left in limbo with no clear owner.
In 2008, the federal General Services Administration attempted to transfer them to the town of Sumpter, but the town was reluctant to accept them due to the cost of maintenance. Now the cemeteries are within the land managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and reserved for the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area.
“Our position from the beginning was we felt like we wouldn’t be the best owner and manager of these cemeteries,” said Mark Aquino, south central regional director for the DNR. “There was a lot of discussion about who would be. The last I knew there was still some discussion between the GSA and respective towns. “
Tim Colby, president of the Sumpter Town Board, said the cemeteries are on the agenda for the town meetings every week, but there haven’t been any new developments in years.
“The way it stands now is we’ve agreed to accept Thoelke and Pioneer plus Miller, the small one,” he said. “Right now we’re waiting for access agreements because we’re going to have to cross (DNR’s) property to get to them.”
Colby said the DNR has verbally agreed to grant them access—and once the DNR’s master planning process is finished the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area will be open to the public — but Colby said the town is waiting for something firmer.
In the meantime, he said, money is accruing in a town fund for future maintenance of the cemeteries.
“The cemeteries seem to have been put on the backburner,” Colby said.
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For now, the Army continues to care for the cemeteries, and anyone who wants to visit them needs to arrange an escort ahead of time. Driving around the mostly barren Badger, aside from a few foundations from old farmsteads, the cemeteries are the only sign of the communities that existed there before the Army came to the prairie.
According to a list compiled on the website interment.net by local historians, the oldest grave in the Pioneer cemetery is Daniel Harrington who died Dec. 28, 1843 at the age of 9 and the newest grave belongs to Henrietta Elsing who died April 2, 1941.
“What strikes me as I go through genealogy and the cemeteries like this are how many children who only lived to be a year or so,” Mueller said.
The Miller Family Cemetery at Badger is a solitary grave surrounded by the same black fence that surrounds the other two. The grave bears the name of three sisters, all of whom died in winters before they reached 4 years old, lasting reminders of how hard life must have been for the earliest settlers to the region.
The oldest Miller girl died in Dec. 20, 1852, at the age of 3. Her first name is illegible and not recorded at the interment website. Mary Miller died Feb. 27, 1861, at the age of 2 and her sister Lillian Miller died the following year Nov. 28 at the age of 2.
Mueller said the Army didn’t come across the gravestone until after it had purchased the property and was laying some railroad track. Archaeologists, he said, couldn’t find any evidence of the girls’ remains, which Mueller suspects had long since decomposed.
“The kids were probably buried in just a blanket,” Mueller said.
Efforts to reach descendants of the Millers were unsuccessful, he said.
“We don’t have a lot of information on them,” he said. “They’d moved on long before Badger got here.”
At Thoelke cemetery, Mueller said the foundation of the original church associated with the graveyard remains, though it’s covered with vegetation. Mueller said his father, a self-employed carpenter, was the one who demolished it.
“My dad bought the lumber and tore it down,” Mueller said.
Mueller worked at the plant for 26 years and during that time he said he never visited the cemeteries, which were located next to active facilities. “I didn’t have a reason to,” Mueller said. “When you’re working here you go where your job is, and you don’t do a lot of sight-seeing.”
On Memorial Day, Mueller said, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars come out and place flags on the appropriate graves.
“Other than that,” he said, “I’m not aware of people coming to the cemeteries. That might change once the demolition is done, the Army leaves and the land is transferred to new owners.”