Hundreds of long-forgotten individuals buried in an Oconto cemetery will be remembered in a special way on Memorial Day weekend. Among those to be memorialized are a cigar maker born in Russia, a prize fighter, a survivor of the Peshtigo Fire, a hired man, the wife of a man who died in the 1937 Polish uprising, and 2 sisters, daughters of a migrant family that lived and worked seasonally in the Oconto community for over 40 years. All of these individuals and nearly 300 more will soon be getting the long overdue respect they deserve, thanks to the Oconto County Historical Society.
A monument honoring them will be dedicated on Memorial Day weekend at Evergreen Cemetery in Oconto. The Dedication of the Evergreen Cemetery Potter’s Field Memorial will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 27, at the cemetery, 325 Cook Ave., Oconto. The term “Potter’s Field” refers to the burial sites for individuals who had no family or whose families did not have money to pay for a burial plot. Current records indicate that about 300 people were buried in the Potter’s Field areas of Evergreen Cemetery, beginning in the 1850s and continuing into the 1900s. Very few of their names were engraved on markers, but most of the names have been recorded in the cemetery’s record books.
One individual buried in the Potter’s Field is a distant relative of Peter Gabrielson. Peter serves on the board of the Oconto County Historical Society and Evergreen Cemetery. He stumbled upon records of Potter’s Field burials while searching for the burial site of his grandfather’s sister. She died as an infant shortly after the family arrived in America in 1893. In 2017, Peter started recording the names of the deceased buried in Potter’s Field and researching their lives using genealogical websites and digitized newspapers to find information about the deceased. As a result, he published the Oconto Evergreen Cemetery Potter’s Field Research Project.
“It’s been a project that’s been so fascinating for me,” he said. Over hundreds of hours, Peter tracked down the names and tidbits of information about the individuals buried in the unmarked graves. The plaza is a lasting tribute of respect for the individuals buried in the Potter’s Field.
The plaza, located on the south side of the cemetery, features a granite boulder with a bronze plaque, which reads in part, “This monument is dedicated to ensure that the final resting place of these departed souls will remain forever consecrated and their names will be forever remembered.” The plaza also features 36 granite paver stones engraved with the names and interment dates of 287 individuals buried at the cemetery in unmarked graves. In addition, two marker stones have been placed on the north edge of the cemetery which identify that section as another Potter’s Field burial area.
The May 27 dedication ceremony is sponsored by the Oconto County Historical Society. The ceremony will not only recognize the deceased but also the living who contributed their time and resources. The Leon H. and Clymene M. Bond Foundation is a major supporter, providing a $20,525 grant. Other contributors include Brian Vandenlangenberg of Oconto City Monument Company; Scott and Brandon Tousey of Scott’s Concrete; Jeremy Wusterbarth and the City of Oconto Department of Public Works; Greg and Lilly Mortier, Creative Curbing & Design; Carl Liegeois, Carlie’s Landscaping; Laurie Wusterbarth, Oconto County Register of Deeds; the Oconto County Genealogical Society, especially Kitty Werner and Vern Mortier; and Peter’s wife Patty, whose support from the beginning never wavered.
Peter encourages individuals to attend the dedication to honor the people who made the memorial possible, to honor the deceased, and to acknowledge the empathy, compassion, and fair treatment that all people are entitled to.
“The time has come for us to give these individuals the recognition and respect that they deserve; in fact, have deserved for a long time,” he said.
About Historical Society
The Oconto County Historical Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Oconto County’s history. Offering education, programming, lectures, historic city tours, museum exhibitions, and other special events, this organization strives to be a preeminent resource for exploring and instilling an appreciation of Oconto County’s diverse history. Learn more at www.ocontoctyhistsoc.org.