Gone But Not Forgotten

by Alden Johnson

For some years I have found satisfaction in visiting the graves of my ancestors. My wife Ginny suspects that I have a warped gene, but she has been with me on enough of these excursions to have made some peace with my peculiar interest.

This story began on Labor Day 2004, sitting in the living room of Stanley and Lucille Dahlman in Northfield, Massachusetts. Dr. F. Burton Nelson had recently died. Lucille mentioned that she grew up with Grace (Burton’s wife and Lucille’s cousin) in Lake Norden, South Dakota.

Lake Norden triggered a response from me. “My mother’s sister (my aunt) died in South Dakota at a young age. Lake Norden rings a bell with me. Her maiden name was Ruth Söderblom and she, her parents, and five siblings (including my mother) came from Sweden to settle in Stillwater, Minnesota in 1908. Ruth married, left her family in Minnesota, and moved to South Dakota with her husband.”

I couldn’t remember her husband’s name or the date of her death, but I knew she died in childbirth. This was not enough data for Lucille to verify whether my aunt had lived and died in Lake Norden. The conversation ended but was not forgotten.

As Ginny and I began to plan our cross-country driving trip for the fall of 2005, we each indicated places and people that we wanted to see. My list included “Lake Norden, SD.” At least I wanted to drive through the town and do a bit of exploring.

I looked up records given me by my mother and learned that Ruth Amalia Söderblom was born December 1, 1892; married Bernhard Oquist March 21, 1914, in Stillwater; moved to South Dakota (no town named) where her first child (girl) died at birth. Ruth died at age 23 giving birth to her second child (boy) May 9, 1916.

I emailed the pastor of the Lake Norden Covenant Church to ask if there were church records indicating that Aunt Ruth had been buried in Lake Norden. If so, I wanted to find her grave!

I called Lucille Dahlman with my additional information. Aunt Ruth had passed away several years before Lucille was born, but in a small town such matters might be discussed long after the event. Lucille did not remember any Oquists. I was disappointed but still determined.

I began doing research on the Internet. In respect to my quest, I learned that a “Bennie” A. Oquist was born about 1893 or 1894 and was recorded in the U. S. Census of both 1910 and 1920 as a resident of Hamlin County, South Dakota. I found nothing about his wife. However, I learned that Lake Norden was in Hamlin County and that Hayti was the county seat. I also discovered there were 16 cemeteries in Hamlin County; one of those cemeteries was named the “Scandinavian Cemetery.” I decided to go to that cemetery and walk the graves looking for my long deceased aunt. (Ginny would help me once we got there—she’d done that before!)

Six days before our departure I received a response to my e-mail from the pastor of the Lake Norden church. He wrote, “Sadly the church has not taken good care of its records.” He added, “Clarice Logan, a long-time member of the congregation and chair of the deacon board, could perhaps help you in your search.” He did not provide either address or phone number for Clarice Logan.

We arrived in the Twin Cities to spend Labor Day weekend with my sister and her family. We paged through a very old photo album. To our utter surprise, I found a somewhat faded black & white (3” x 4”) picture of a grave. On the bottom of the picture in my mother’s handwriting, “Sister Ruth’s grave. S. D.” I said to my sister, “I want to take that picture with me.” Of course she agreed. I examined the picture more closely and read “Oquist” on the gravestone and at the bottom, “Gone, But Not Forgotten.” With a magnifying glass, the rest became clearer: “Ruth A. wife of A. B. Oquist Dec. 1, 1892—May 9, 1916.” Though we found no further clues, I had verified the state in which her grave was located and that there was a gravestone.

We headed for South Dakota. Our first stop—Hayti (pop. 367), the county seat of Hamlin County. I hoped there might be a death certificate or some documentation indicating where my aunt was buried. We quickly found the courthouse. I was directed to the Registrar of Deeds. I had said only a couple of sentence when she excused herself, went into a storage closet, and came out with a folder. She explained that several years ago the county had sent someone out to record everyone who was buried in the cemeteries of Hamlin County. The names of the deceased were listed in alphabetical order. My old Swedish heart raced. We quickly paged to the “Os” and as quickly discovered that there was no “Oquist” listed. She had no idea in what cemetery a Scandinavian woman who died in that era would have been buried.

Lake Norden was only a few miles away so we drove there. On the way we saw a cemetery. We stopped—after all it was one of the 16 in Hamlin County! We did a quick survey, looking for a grave outlined with a cement curb in the manner of some European graves—we had noted the curb in the picture we had. There was one grave with the curb outline but no headstone. Could that have been Aunt Ruth’s grave? We drove on to Lake Norden (pop. 432).

At the main intersection, I said to Ginny that I would like to find the church and take a picture before we headed toward the Scandinavian Cemetery. It was 1:30 p.m. We needed to be in western South Dakota by nightfall.

We quickly spotted the Covenant Church—a modest, modern, one-story structure that had replaced an older building. While Ginny took a photo, I wandered up toward the entrance to read the Church sign. I noticed the light in the entry hall was on. I checked the door; it was unlocked. I went in, hollered, “Hello! Hello” and got no response. I looked at the sanctuary and noticed a few bulletins. I’m a retired pastor and I am always interested in looking at church bulletins, so I picked one up. On the back page I saw the names and phone numbers of the Deacon Board—including the name and number of Clarice Logan! I hurried to the car and told Ginny we needed to find a public phone. We drove about two blocks when Ginny wisely suggested, “Isn’t there a phone in the church?” I said, “Of course. There is always a phone in the kitchen of a Covenant church. Let’s go back.”

Sure enough, there was the phone in the kitchen! I dialed Clarice Logan and explained why I was calling. She couldn’t remember anything about an “Oquist.” I asked her where a Swedish person who died in 1916 would be buried. She had no idea. I then said, “The picture I have of her grave shows what could be water in the background. Are there any cemeteries that have water near them around here?” She replied, “Well I know that the Scandinavian Cemetery doesn’t have water near it (long pause). The only one I can think of with water near it is the Baptist Cemetery.” I asked, “Was that cemetery in use during that era.” She didn’t know. “Would Swedish people have been buried there?” She didn’t know.

I decided to ask for directions anyway. Well, it was east of town on Rt. 28. “A couple of miles on the right as you come to the top of the hill, there is an unpaved road, maybe a sign, maybe not, you might see the cemetery from the road, but maybe not…!” I wasn’t at all sure that we would find it.

As I returned to our car, a car with a woman and young girl in it drove up. The woman asked, “Can I help you?” Wanda, a member of the church, had noticed this strange car in the parking lot. I explained my whole story and she said, “I live right near the Baptist Cemetery, and I’m on my way home. Why don’t you just follow me?” Then she said, “I see you are from Maine. Where in Maine do you live?” “Belfast,” I replied. “Oh, we just drove through Belfast a couple of weeks ago coming from Acadia National Park!” Someone from Lake Norden in Belfast, Maine! Small world! So, off we went, tooling east on Rt. 28 following our new friend.

At the top of the hill, we took a right, noted a very small sign leading us into a small country cemetery with a lake clearly visible off to the south. We looked around hoping to spot a curb outline for a grave but there were none. We thanked Wanda. We said we would spend a few minutes looking around. I wandered in one direction, Ginny in another. Soon from some distance, I heard Ginny call, “HERE IT IS!” I ran over. There was the stone just as it was on the picture! We both had tears in our eyes as we embraced. We could not believe our eyes! The substantial granite stone had etchings of steeples on the top and the lettering below. There was no curb outlining the grave. I suppose it had deteriorated over the years. Moments later, we noticed a very small marker just a few feet off to the right of Aunt Ruth’s gravestone with one word, “Baby.”

We began to ponder—had any family member (other than her young husband) visited the grave of this Söderblom who had died due to complications giving birth to a premature baby, at age 23, probably in a rustic, pioneer farm house out on the prairies of South Dakota? Who was Ruth? Which one of her seven sisters did she most resemble? What happened to Bennie Oquist? Did he remarry? If so, did he and his new wife have children? How did he afford the rather substantial granite gravestone? How thoughtful of him to send a picture of here grave back to Ruth’s Minnesota family.

We marveled at the coincidences. Were one piece missing, we would not have found Aunt Ruth’s grave. What if the email had not mentioned Clarice Logan? What if we had not found the picture? What if the church door had not been open? What if Wanda Drake had not driven into the parking lot? What if Ginny’s sharp eyes had not spotted the gravestone without the cement curbing? It was almost enough to lead an inveterate cynic like myself to believe that there may have been a Divine hand in all this.

We left Lake Norden at 2:45 p.m. and headed west our hearts overflowing with emotion, Aunt Ruth…Gone, but not forgotten!

Alden Johnson is a retired pastor who lives in Belfast, Maine.

See all articles by Alden Johnson