David J. Williams emigrated from Wales in about 1824 and settled in Nicollet County in 1855. He died in 1862 and was buried in what would be called Williams Cemetery, a one-acre plot overlooking the Minnesota River valley near Nicollet.
The family patriarch’s headstone would be joined by his descendants’ markers, and at least 27 people would be buried there, according to historical records. But the cemetery fell into neglect and over the decades began to look more like a dump.
When 16-year-old Nathan Enter of Nicollet first stumbled across the small cemetery about six years ago, it was littered with shotgun shells and appliances. The only signs that it was a cemetery were the bases of three headstones covered with adhesives, marking an apparently failed effort to keep the stones standing. The headstones themselves were gone, perhaps taken by family members in the last few decades.
Enter kept the run-down plot in the back of his mind as a potential Eagle Scout project.
The years passed, and this spring he got moving on the project. But not alone. He asked his Boy Scout troop to help clean the site and persuaded local companies to donate a granite marker and cemetery sign.
“It’s kind of a shame to see pioneers be lying in a run-down, trash-filled cemetery,” he said.
His father, Don, has taken an enthusiastic interest, as well.
“This has bothered me all my life,” Don Enter said.
Descendants of the Williamses read about the effort and contacted the Enters.
“I can’t be more pleased, and he should be recognized for what he’s done,” said Jane Williams Thom of Prior Lake. Her paternal great-grandfather was William Cadwaladar Williams, who married Hannah Sarah Williams, David J. Williams’ daughter.
Though the project was initially limited to a cleanup, the Enters have done some genealogy research of their own, mostly through the historical societies of Blue Earth and Nicollet counties.
But they don’t know a key mystery of the cemetery: How did it get like this? They’ve heard reports that the cemetery had many more headstones, but within the last few decades the last ones disappeared.
The Enters have heard of a previous attempt to clean the cemetery, in the '80s, and they would like their effort to be permanent. Counties, they have learned, may have some responsibility to maintain derelict cemeteries.
Nicollet County Attorney Michelle Zehnder-Fischer said she's heard a few cemetery inquiries recently. State law is inconsistent; in some statutes, counties "shall" have this duty but elsewhere it is merely optional, she said. The County Board would end up making that decision, she said.
A troop pitches in
Nathan Enter's first step was to borrow heavy equipment, including from nearby farmer Stuart Bruns, to remove some stumps and the head-high sumac bushes that had overgrown about half of the plot.
Then Boy Scout Troop 29 of North Mankato pitched in to remove the plant debris and other garbage. Just Ask Rental donated a woodchipper to help with the cleanup.
The Enters asked Sign Pro for a sign to describe the cemetery’s history and New Ulm monument for a granite marker for David J. Williams, his wife and their daughter. Both companies agreed to help.
For his leadership in a public service project, Enter was awarded the rank of Eagle Scout.
Today, the site looks well groomed, if a bit spare for a cemetery. It’s hard to say how many people are still buried here. Some have probably been moved to church cemeteries, and others may have been too poor to afford a headstone, Don Enter said.
A people’s heritage
Jane Thom, the Williams descendant, said the early reliance upon — and subsequent abandonment of — the Welsh language has made it more difficult to learn about her ancestors.
Her own father, born in 1897, spoke Welsh at home as a child but as a father forbade his children from speaking it.
“My sister and I were not allowed to be around anyone speaking Welsh,” Thom said. “It wasn’t something that was going anywhere and he didn’t see any point in it.”
Thom said she visited Williams Cemetery in the 1960s, and she remembers more headstones then but can't find the photos she took. She likes the idea of the pioneers' memories being remembered.
"They gave up whatever they were doing to have a new life," she said. "They didn't have money, they didn't have the right clothes."