The Oconto Evergreen Cemetery Potter’s Field Project May 26, 2022
As you enter the Evergreen Cemetery in Oconto Wisconsin on the southernmost road and head west, to your left is a grassy area that is almost 200 feet long and about 20 feet wide. There are a few gravestone markers in that area but for the most part it is just grass. A similar area is located along the north side of the northernmost road in the cemetery. To look at these areas, most would think that they are just empty areas awaiting future burials but in fact, these sections are actually burial sites for hundreds of individuals who had no family or whose families did not have the ability to pay for a burial plot.
Often called Potters Fields, they are a part of the cemetery that was set aside as a burial place for the poor, the destitute, and the disenfranchised. Current records show that over 300 people have been buried in the Potter’s Field areas in Evergreen Cemetery, beginning in the 1850s and continuing right through the end of the twentieth century. Who were these people and what were the circumstances by which they were buried in graves that were often unmarked? Very few of their names are noted on markers, but most if not all of the names have been recorded in the cemetery’s record books.
Like most, I had never heard of The Potter’s Field area in the Evergreen Cemetery and only stumbled on that information while trying to find the location of the burial site of my grandfather’s sister who died as an infant shortly after the family arrived in America in 1893. As I begin to find the names of so many others that were interred in our Potter’s Field my curiosity led me to want to know more about who these individuals were and what their lives were like. So in 2017 I started recording the names of as many of these people as possible and then researching each of them to see what if anything I could find out. Four years later, this has led to the creation of the “Oconto Evergreen Cemetery Potter’s Field Research Project” document that can be accessed on this website. It includes the names of over 400 people, most of whom were buried in our Potter’s Fields. By using genealogical websites as well as newspaper archives I have been able to identify information about almost all of them.
The Potter’s Field Memorial Plaza:
In 2020 I approached the Leon H. and Clymene M. Bond Foundation with a grant request for $20,525, the purpose of which would be to create a Potter’s Field Memorial in Oconto’s Evergreen Cemetery. The Leon H. and Clymene M. Bond Foundation is a family endowed foundation committed to the growth and improvement of Oconto County and its surrounding areas and has given over $4 million dollars to support so many community projects. Their enthusiastic support for this project was immediate and they approved the project in May of that year.
The Memorial is designed to honor the memory of the people buried in unmarked graves in the cemetery. Included in the design is a granite boulder monument with a bronze plaque mounted on it. In front of the monument is a 16’ x 8’ plaza of made up of 36 – 30”x14” granite paver stones, each divided into 9 separate sections. In each of these sections will be engraved the name and interment date of an individual that is buried there.
Our progress on completing this project has been slowed by the challenges we all faced with the pandemic, but it has continued and our goal is to have the entire Memorial complete by the end of the summer. In October, 2020 the first stage of the project, the Boulder monument and Bronze plaque was completed. Unfortunately, cracks developed in the base that continued to become more serious. The most likely cause is unknown grave sites in the area in which the monument has been placed. We were, however, aware that this situation might develop and were keeping an eye on it so that we could deal with it before the granite plaza stones were put in place. Brian Vandenlangenberg and Scott Tousey, who did the concrete work for the base, decided that the best thing to do would be to break up the concrete base and remove it with the exception of the part underneath the boulder. Scott will then be repouring the base and using rebar to reinforce the new one.
We feel that the situation will be much better now that the ground has had a chance to adjust to the weight of this monument and the new reinforced base is considerably more stable. There are no guarantees of course, but Brain and Scott have been working in this field for a long time, they are both experts at what they do and take pride in their work; and in addition, they are both convinced of the value of this memorial and its importance to our community. The project is in good hands.
Meanwhile, Brian has continued in his work and is still set on having all 285 names and dates, as well as the two stones of dedication and thanks, engraved and set in place by July. It has been a busy summer for him with other work but he is continuing to make this a priority.
None of this would have been possible without the help of local citizens who have been volunteering their service to make the memorial a reality. This includes Jeremy Wusterbarth and the city of Oconto, Scott and Brandon Tousey of Scott’s Concrete and Brian Vandenlangenberg of Oconto City Monument Company. A final mention must be made of the contribution that has been made by the Oconto County Genealogical Society, especially Kitty Werner and Vern Mortier whose earlier research in the Oconto cemeteries and expertise in genealogy has saved an incredible amount of time.
The completion of this memorial is an opportunity for us in this day and age, to affirm our empathy and compassion; values that show our humanity and are a reminder that we need to treat all people as equal in the eyes of God. 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. When you get a chance to visit our monument, please do; and as you pause and reflect, please take some time to think about the words on the plaque that, “This monument is dedicated to ensure that the final resting place of these departed souls will remain forever consecrated and their names be forever remembered”. This monument is for them.
June 23, 2021