Saturday, August 1, 2015

Outbreak Cemeteries in Garden Valley

Today I took a drive along Route 121 in rural Jackson County near to Black River Falls.

I've always been fascinated by cemeteries as you can learn so much from them --- socioeconomic status, genealogy, ethnicity, medical history, rituals, to name a few. Learning about the medical history of a place is especially fascinating, yet heart-wrenching. I've written before about the ravages of diphtheria in nineteenth century Wisconsin -- the neglected Kongsberg Cemetery (original post and update) has the graves of several children who died of the disease shortly before the church was abandoned. Diphtheria sprung up in heavy outbreaks throughout Wisconsin in the late nineteenth century and many children died from the infection which caused swollen lymph nodes that impaired breathing. The children suffocated in what must have been a horrible, helpless scene for their parents. Given the history of diphtheria in nineteenth century Wisconsin, I wasn't too surprised to find a Diphtheria Cemetery in rural Garden Valley, Jackson County.

Off of a country road and up a small staircase to a flat hill are the scattered stones that record outbreaks of diphtheria among the local children in the 1870s and 1880s. The Jackson County Historical Society reprinted a story reporting the outbreak in the November 22, 1878 issue of the Badger State Banner of Jackson County:

Last Sunday Henry Green, of Garden Valley, this county, an old comrade of ours in the army, had four children lying dead in his house, three of them dying that day and one the day before. This makes five children he has lost with that dread disease -- diphtheria -- within three weeks. Our old friend is very unfortunate, and is entitled to the sympathy of all in his great affliction. The dreaded disease is all around us and may reach this place in a short time.

Henry's children's stones are no longer there, perhaps they were only marked by a fieldstone or by one of the simple, plain stones jutting above the dried pine needles.

Although only the sign and stairs are well-maintained, the cemetery remains a very peaceful spot. Someone still places flowers, balloons, and pinwheels at the graves, which I admittedly find a little peculiar. I prefer the way the roadside lilies ornament these forgotten monuments.

What did surprise me, is that just down the road within a mile from the diphtheria cemetery is a smallpox cemetery. There are a few stones, but most graves are marked with small white crosses without any identification. Smallpox causes fever, lesions, and hemorrhaging; it was declared eradicated in 1980, but a few controversial bits remain in laboratories. This cemetery was established during an epidemic in Garden Valley in February and March 1873. Accounts from the time stated that nearly every house was stricken with the illness. In mid-March, a local minister recorded seven funerals.

Perhaps the saddest story connected with the cemetery is that of the House and Peters families. Isaac and Eliza House are the only marked stones in the cemetery. Isaac and three of his children were stricken with smallpox. A local woman, Mrs. Peters, was called to the house to care for the sick. When it was clear that the House family was surely dying, Mrs. Peters returned to her own home --- quarantines came later. She soon fell ill, as did four of her own children. All nine of them are buried here.

These cemeteries are explicit in telling us about the medical history of rural Jackson County in the 1870s and 1880s. Yet, as intimated earlier, cemeteries have more to tell. While driving back to Route 121 on the way to Alma Center, I passed "Swedetown Road" --- Swedetown? Back when I was more active in folklore research, I delved into onomastics (the study of place names), connecting them with language and culture. I love discovering a "Swedetown Road" and I love discovering remnants of European immigrants in Wisconsin, so I turned into the road leading to even more rural environs of Garden Valley.

The Swedes didn't disappoint. Their mark left plainly for us -- removed by the twentieth and twenty-first centuries --- with characteristic -sons (not -sens) and Swedish language stones dotting the small cemetery along Swedetown Road.

Enough of the cemetery detours, I headed back to Route 121. I decided to check out Alma Center. It probably deserves its own post, but I'll just get it started. Worthy of an "On Wisconsin," it's a quaint village complete with an American-flag-lined Main Street. The old brick saloon is still there, but falls flat today and rather awkwardly insular on the street corner:

There's an old opera house right next door to the saloon. Here's how it used to look in its simple, small town grandeur:
© Alma Center Historical Society
It probably wasn't used much for operas --- the term was used in the Midwest to "upscale" any performance venue. Today it's an apartment building and could use some serious "upscaling" --- perhaps a good restoration.

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