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Friluftsliv: Hiddenwood Cemetery: History and Mystery

Posted 8/11/23 (Fri)

By Doug Wurtz

To loosely translate from Norwegian to English: fri = free, lufts = air’s, liv = life

The English equivalent= Outdoor Life

Archaeology and history have become an important part of my life since I retired as director of Market Development for a Minneapolis corporation. I related in a past column of “Friluftsliv” how a spur of the moment phone call in response to a story in The Minot Daily News introduced me to the field of archeology.

What began as an archaeology volunteer has progressed to “avocational archaeologist.” That term is described as:

“Avocational archaeologists are people with a passion for the past as experienced through archaeology but have not chosen to follow a professional career in the subject. They are volunteers in their archaeology. Moreover, they are not content to watch archaeology from the sidelines. They are not mere spectators.”

I have worked with a number of professional archaeologists and I admire the years of study and field work they have expended to further their careers. My first project with them was in the summer of 2006. By the summer of 2009, I had participated in a number of projects up and down the Missouri River in North Dakota and was anxious for more.

I was raised on a farm near Ryder, North Dakota. A half mile east of our farm is a small country cemetery that I have passed by many times. An unexpected opportunity presented itself one weekend in 2009 when I was home for a visit. My mother, Ruth Wurtz, and our neighbor, the late Elizabeth Larson, had been discussing how sad it was that only two of the burials in the little cemetery had memorial markers. It was obvious by ground depressions that there were other unmarked and forgotten burials there. My mother made the casual (?) remark that now that I knew some of the basics of archaeology, I could put that knowledge to work.

By the summer of 2012, working with other members of my family, we had identified all the individuals in the unmarked graves. The details are too many to be recounted here but they include platting the cemetery after the discovery of a 1910 map, hours of soil probes with a homemade device, analysis of hundreds of photographs to reveal a hidden mystery in a large glacial erratic, removal or trimming of many lilac bushes, and hours and hours of research in the archives of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

What emerged from our avocational archaeological project was the story of a cemetery founded after the death of a homesteader’s 1-month-old son. In 1908, Mr. George Lang had deeded one acre of his homestead to start a cemetery for the interment of his son, Arthur. Other burials would follow: a young woman who died in the 1918 flu epidemic, a grave with a hidden marker for “Baby Charles,” a young woman with mysterious flowers planted on her grave, and others. When we were done with the project, we had identified the locations and names associated with nine other burials in the Hiddenwood Cemetery.

To complete and record the project, we wrote the booklet, “Hiddenwood Cemetery: History and Mystery.” It details the three-year search to identify all of the burials in the cemetery and biographical details of each person. In addition, iron crosses were commissioned, fabricated, and erected at each burial site with a brass name plate identifying each person as well as their birth and death dates. In September of 2013, we were nominated for, and won, the “Excellence in Local History Award” from the State Historical Society of North Dakota for the “Hiddenwood Cemetery Research Project.”

Many more projects would follow, but verifying and recording the identities of previously unidentified burials at Hiddenwood Cemetery will always be the most rewarding for this “avocational archaeologist.”

Doug Wurtz grew up near Ryder and graduated from Minot State University. His retirement activities include nature photography as well as serving as a Certified Interpretive Guide for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. He is past president of the North Dakota Archaeological Association. Doug and his wife, Linda, live in Bismarck.