WDAY: The News Leader

Published May 17, 2013, 08:52 AM

South Dakota county working with North Dakota company to save cemetery

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The main road used to go right past the town of Meers, but that's when the main road was the Fort Pierre-to-Deadwood freight route, traveled by mule and ox teams pulling wagons to and from the Black Hills.

By: LANCE NIXON,Capital Journal, Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The main road used to go right past the town of Meers, but that's when the main road was the Fort Pierre-to-Deadwood freight route, traveled by mule and ox teams pulling wagons to and from the Black Hills.

Railroads and then highways put Meers out of business.

The only way to get to the old town site of Meers now is to get permission from Fargo, N.D.-based RDO Equipment Co., doing business as Gunsmoke Farms, to drive across the company's fields in a time such as early spring when it won't disturb the crops.

RDO owns 30,000 acres in Stanley County, according to Randy Fleishauer, the company's farm manager in the area.

"I think each field has its own zip code," Fleishauer jokes to the Capital Journal.

But Meers doesn't, since the only people still here are in the cemetery. And it's the condition and location of that cemetery — largely unmarked, in the middle of RDO's farmland on what was once the McQuiston Ranch — that concerns Stanley County.

County commissioners, with the support of local history enthusiasts, are taking steps to make a land swap with RDO in order to protect the Meers Cemetery, where several dozen settlers are buried.

The cemetery is perhaps a mile north of where Meers used to be, and almost completely swallowed up by native grass on high, rolling terrain close to a coulee.

Stanley County Commissioner Brian Scott and Darby Nutter, president of the board of the Fort Pierre-based Verendrye Museum, recently got permission from RDO to drive up and look at the site. Scott remembers the town of Meers when it had one building still standing in about the 1970s, though it was vacant and unused.

"I worked for the Indian Springs Cattle Company and we would trail cattle to Fort Pierre," Scott said. "The old saloon was still standing. It was just a place to get out of the wind, but we would stop there and eat dinner."

Scott's admiration for the people who settled Meers has taken a new twist since Stanley County discovered recently that three lots within the city limits of what was once another town site called Borden were turned back to Stanley County in 1946. RDO would just as soon have the lots, since it has purchased all the land around those lots; and that will work out just fine for Stanley County.

The three lots total just under one-half an acre of land, Stanley County Auditor Karen Sharp said.

"When RDO bought it, they wanted the lots, and I wanted to preserve the cemetery," Scott said. "The way I looked at it, 130 years from now, if somebody is hoping to farm over me, I hope somebody would say no."

Sharp said since the parcels are similar in size, and since the cemetery has historic value to the county, the solution was a natural.

"Stanley County owns three lots in this Borden town site in the middle of what's usually a wheat field," Sharp said. "That's what they want to swap for the Meers Cemetery."

Scott said the company is as eager to make the land trade as the county is, and he said RDO has made no attempt to farm over the old cemetery at Meers. But formalizing the land trade so that the cemetery belongs to the county will protect it for future generations.

Nutter said that's important because the families who buried their dead in the Meers Cemetery used the materials at hand, and headstones were nowhere to be found.

"Most of the markers, they claim, were made of wood when they buried people here," Nutter said.

Vestiges of some wooden markers are still visible in the grass at the site of the old Meers Cemetery. But some graves are completely unmarked. The only marker of the cemetery itself is a metal sign put in place in about 1990 by the grandchildren of Jon and Anna Ahboltin, who were buried at Meers in 1912 and 1905, respectively. The metal sign identifies the place as Meers Cemetery, and on the back is some information about the Ahboltin family.

Ken Stewart of the South Dakota State Historical Society, in a list of cemeteries of Stanley County compiled in 2010, notes, "Meers Cemetery purportedly contains 40-60 graves one mile north of the old ghost town and stage station of Meers. It is thought to be in the NE1/4 of Sec. 9, Twp.5N., Rg 28E . No records exist at the S.D. State Archives."

Fleishauer, the RDO farm manager, said because there are no roads to the cemetery, it will be hard to get to at some seasons of the year when crops are growing. But people who have family buried there or have other reasons to visit it can get permission to visit the site by talking to Gunsmoke Farms.

Sharp said the land trade between Stanley County and RDO appears to be moving forward after the Stanley County Planning and Zoning Board approved a plat for the Meers Cemetery at its May 9 meeting. The plat goes next to the Stanley County Commission on June 4, after which the formal paperwork for the land swap can be written up.

"It will be good for those who have family out there," Sharp said. "They can be assured that the cemetery will be undisturbed."