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Local cemetery expert has recorded names and dates of 68,000 graves

Herb Schwede’s interest in cemeteries started a few years ago when he and his sister June Myers researched their own family tree. “Now, we have information back to the 1850s on where our family came from in Germany,” he said, “but the Aurelia Cemetery up here, that’s what I started out with.” More than 68,000 graves later, recorded in both his own computer files and at the Find A Grave website at www.findagrave.com, Schwede could be considered somewhat of an expert on the cemeteries of northwestern North Dakota.

7/07/10 (Wed)

 
Keeper of the names . . . Herb Schwede has recorded
names and dates for over 68,000 graves found throughout
northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana,
starting with his family's tombstones in the old Aurelia Cemetery,
near Donnybrook. Schwede contributes the data to
findagrave.com, which features a searchable
database for cemetery information.

 

 

By Caroline Downs
 
Herb Schwede’s interest in cemeteries started a few years ago when he and his sister June Myers researched their own family tree. “Now, we have information back to the 1850s on where our family came from in Germany,” he said, “but the Aurelia Cemetery up here, that’s what I started out with.”
 
More than 68,000 graves later, recorded in both his own computer files and at the Find A Grave website at www.findagrave.com, Schwede could be considered somewhat of an expert on the cemeteries of northwestern North Dakota.
 
It all started simply enough, back in 2002. “I happened to have the names for the Aurelia Cemetery because I’m on the board,” he said, “and then I got the names for the Donnybrook Community Cemetery because Frank Kirkelie was sexton and he asked me to keep a record on my computer.”
 
As Schwede was searching the Internet for information about his family tree, he discovered a variety of websites that listed cemetery records, but the best by far was Find a Grave. “John Mogren was doing this before I was, on a different website,” said Schwede. “Findagrave.com has a searchable database.”
 
Schwede joined the website and posted the graves he had from his own list. “Then I just went out [to a different cemetery] and started writing down names and dates,” he said.
 
More cemeteries came to his attention, through community centennial books, old county atlases and word of mouth. His list of names and dates recorded from tombstones soon developed into a highly organized database on his home computer. “Each cemetery has a spreadsheet with the names, dates and number for a photo,” he said. He also records GPS information for the cemetery and the dates the photo was taken and when it was uploaded to findagrave.com. “Then I print out a copy of everything once a year and carry in the pickup with me all the time, in case I have to check something.”
 
The photos came soon after he started his cemetery visits. “I went south of Minot to a cemetery and took a picture of each tombstone,” he said about his trustworthy digital camera. “Now, I have almost 50,000 pictures of tombstones.”
 
Some tombstones are so weathered that none of the words remain legible, but Schwede makes a record of the stone and location anyway, just in case. “That’s the end of it, pretty much,” he said.
 
Few of those 50,000 photos have ever been printed, but they are all stored on his computer. “Except for Parshall,” he said, with a smile. “I lost them somehow.” He has since returned to the Parshall cemetery and photographed the tombstones again.
 
Any cemetery is fair game for Schwede, who has over 360 different cemetery locations listed in his records. “I have some with no names for the cemetery,” he said. “I can just be driving down the road and see one. I finally found one I’d heard about west of Ross.”
 
He maintains a separate spreadsheet with the names and locations of cemeteries. “I haven’t done the big ones in Minot,” he said. “It’s mostly been in northwestern North Dakota and a little bit into Montana. A few east, I guess.”
 
He recalled his latest find, early this summer. “I got a new one the other day at Wolford,” he said, adding that he was in the area for a threshing show, another favorite pastime of his. “I like to drive different roads to see the scenery. There’s a big lake west of Wolford so I went up a hill to see the lake and there was a church. I run into that a lot.”
 
Schwede used to carry a clipboard to copy the names and dates he saw on the tombstones, but now he works from his photographs. He enters the information onto his own spreadsheets, then loads the data on findagrave.com. “I was sitting this morning, entering the names for the cemetery by Wolford,” he said, then grinned. “I’ve worn some of the letters off my keyboard so sometimes there are errors. I never took typing. I’ve never learned, even with all this typing I’ve done.”
 
His records are stored on seven flash drives. He also boosted his computer’s capacity with the addition of two memory cards and an external hard drive. “I’ve got everything in two places,” he said. “I had to develop something like this to keep track of it. I’ve got to have a way to get back to [the information]. Someday, I’ll have to upgrade my computer, though.”
 
Schwede devotes his spare time to his cemetery research and recordkeeping. Known to most area residents as a longtime bus driver for the Kenmare School District, he raises cattle northwest of Donnybrook and also works for C & C Farms.
 
In addition to his work on the Aurelia Cemetery board, he serves as secretary/treasurer for the Donnybrook Fire Department, assessor for Carbondale Township and a member of the executive board for the Mouse River Loop Genealogy Society in Minot. “I got into that when Frank Kirkelie found about what I was doing with the cemetery stuff,” he said.
 
His cemetery visits are often combined with his visits to threshing shows or scheduled as specific trips. “I can’t afford to drive all over the country,” he said, “but this helps people.”
 
City and cemetery officials who are aware of Schwede’s hobby have benefited from his records. The city of Kenmare has a copy of his records for the local cemeteries, and he has shared his information at the request of other communities, too, including an up-to-date listing for Bowbells he recently completed.
 
“I would like to do the big ones in Minot,” he said, “but Rosehill has 20,000 graves. I have some of those listed, maybe 100 or so. Sunset has about 4,000 graves and the caretaker there wants to talk to me. He has his records on index cards.”
 
Website offers several options
People from around the world search findagrave.com for connections to their own family histories, with the website organized to allow searches by names, cemetery locations and burial records. Graves of related individuals can even be linked to each other.
 
Schwede’s true reason for continuing his own cemetery studies becomes evident almost every time he checks his email. “I like to help people find their relatives,” he said. “One morning I had 27 emails! That can wind up taking more time than anything.”
 
He has been contacted by individuals as far away as Norway, Finland and Sweden seeking relatives and their descendants who immigrated to the U.S. Another interesting request came from two parties in England. “They didn’t know each other, but they were looking for the same family here,” he said.
 
The requests may be for more information about the graves or the cemetery, or to make corrections to Schwede’s data. Sometimes, Schwede is asked to send a photo of the grave marker, or he’s told about another cemetery he should visit.
 
The little cemetery near Wolford will be a new addition to the findagrave.com website as Schwede adds a page with the information he found.
 
Occasionally, he corresponds with another cemetery researcher through findagrave.com to share information and fill in the missing pieces. “I’m working with a resident of the Sherwood area now,” he said. “They wanted information about the cemeteries in that area that I had.”
 
Schwede hasn’t yet uploaded every one of the 50,000 photos in his collection, but he does his best to accommodate requests for particular pictures. He also keeps his cemetery records updated by checking obituary lists from area funeral homes, and he has started copying and pasting some obituaries from funeral home websites to the findagrave.com site.
 
He encouraged anyone seeking their own family’s history to start with findagrave.com. “It’s set up so well, it’s self-explanatory,” he said. “You have to create a user name, but the information is protected. I’ve had no problems, and I haven’t run into anything else that has a searchable database.”
 
He noted that Find A Grave frequently adds new features to the site, with one of his favorites being the “virtual cemetery.” Schwede has created six such cemeteries, including four for specific family names, one for his former teachers and one for former students who rode his school bus. “I like that part of the website,” he said.
 
Cemeteries more
than list of names and dates
While an old country cemetery may appear to be an uneventful place, Schwede finds plenty of questions and stories lingering among the tombstones. “I’m not surprised by anything anymore,” he said.
 
He described one the first cemeteries he recorded, with a couple hundred graves. “There were only two people between the ages of 12 and 53 buried there, and both of them were killed in accidents,” he said, adding that most of the other deaths were due to illness or old age.
 
Names of cemeteries can also be deceptive. “On the website, there’s a Nolan Family Cemetery listed south of Donnybrook, but there’s no one there named Nolan,” he said, adding that the site dated from the 1910s. “And I’ve come across cemeteries with multiple names. I’ve got one up by Crosby with four different names.”
 
He came across one celebrity grave in a small cemetery near Drake, that of Sondre Nordheim, a Norwegian immigrant and a devoted skier who transformed alpine skiing techniques and essentially developed the telemark skis used today.
 
Schwede has found single graves separate from established cemeteries. “There was a baby buried south of Blaisdell in 1935, out in the middle of the pasture,” he said. “All there was is this little foot marker with the name Frank Maddigan. A guy took me out to it.”
 
He even tracked down one cemetery listed on the findagrave.com site, but that couldn’t be located. “That was a few weeks ago,” he said. “I was driving by where it was supposed to be and saw what looked like a patch of brush way out in the middle of a field. Sure enough, it was solid lilacs. Inside of that, I found six or seven tombstones.”
 
He paused and shook his head. “I’m starting to hate lilacs, when I have to crawl inside of them to find a tombstone!” he said.
 
Ironically, even with 68,000 tombstone records, Schwede and his sister are still working to fill gaps in their own family’s history. “I’ve got relatives in Montana that I haven’t found where they’re buried,” he said. “We know when they were born and died, but not the name of the cemetery they’re buried in.”
 
That frustration spurred one of the rules Schwede imposes on his own work with grave records: he refuses to post information to findagrave.com without the name of the cemetery.
 
Schwede enjoys getting out during the summer to take his photos, then uses rainy days or winter time to update his database. Although he has recorded most of the cemeteries in this region, he plans to continue his hobby even if it means driving longer distances.
 
“I don’t get out as much as I did a few years ago,” he said, then chuckled. “A few years ago, I made up my mind I wanted to get 70,000 graves. Now, to get new ones, I’ve got to go so far!”