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BURIED BY WATER: Devils Lake swallows cemeteries, tradition

Four gravestones are under water in the Churchs Ferry cemetery as Karen Hausmann, left, and Doris Michaels try to read the inscriptions. Grand Forks Herald photo by Eric Hylden

CHURCHS FERRY, N.D. -- For the past 25 years, Sylvia Helgeseth has placed flowers at the gravesite of her first husband - and for many years before that at the plots of other relatives -- at Antiochia Cemetery south of here for Memorial Day.

That tradition is ending this weekend. Flooding has drowned or washed out roads - and all access to this and dozens of other community cemeteries throughout the Devils Lake Basin.

"I don't know if I'll ever see those graves again," she said. "This year, I'll put some flowers at home, but it won't be the same."

Arden and Sylvia Helgeseth and their neighbors also will be mourning the loss of their church this weekend.

Zion Lutheran Church, which has been part of the Churchs Ferry community for more than a century, will close its doors after a farewell service Sunday.

Only a temporary dirt dike built by parishioners keeps the floodwaters of Devils Lake from inundating this church, one of the last remaining buildings in Churchs Ferry since the federal government initiated a $3.5 million flood acquisition program in 2000, as local families started moving away and the population dropped from 100 to just a handful.

Devils Lake, which has risen by more than 30 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993, hit a record 1,454.2 feet above sea level Thursday. While the floor of the church is at 1,454.97 feet, water touches the building at 1,453.5 feet. The sewer system already is gone.

Most of the two dozen families who attend this church already have moved from their homes or relocated their houses to nearby communities of Leeds, Cando, Devils Lake or others to escape the rising water. They've lost thousands of acres of productive farmland. They've lost roads.

"Some come back periodically to visit," said the Rev. Richard Budd, pastor of the three-point parish that includes Lutheran churches in Churchs Ferry, Leeds and rural York, N.D. "This has been a long, slow drowning."

On Memorial Day, many of them will visit Churchs Ferry Cemetery, built on a hill about 3 miles southeast of town, and one of the few rural cemeteries in this part of the basin that remains accessible by road, to pay their respects.

But even this elevated cemetery is beginning to lose the battle. Ten gravestones are under water or partially covered. They include some of the earliest burials, in the late 1800s, when European immigrants settled this land.

The tops of four gravestones remain visible in the water. Robert Yri. Anders. Edward. Edward, all infants, said to be part of the Helgeseth family.

"They were children of the settlers. They were just babies. It's just awful," said Karen Hausmann, a Zion member who still lives on the family farm south of Churchs Ferry. She expects they'll have to move from the farm within a year.

The waters of Devils Lake are encroaching on the pine tree border on three sides of the cemetery.

Arden Helgeseth, who serves on the cemetery board, used to farm the land directly south of the cemetery, until he turned it over to a nephew in 2000. But there's no land to farm there now.

"From the cemetery, as far as you can see, it's water," lamented church member Jeanette Rohrer.

Hausmann has gone through this before. She grew up on a farm northwest of Webster, N.D., a few miles north of the city of Devils Lake.

Her parents, Joel and Donna Storsteen, moved into Devils Lake last year. Like nearly all of their neighbors, they lost the last road to their farm, and to the cemetery where their parents and grandparents are buried.

While the family farmed about 400 of its 1,700 acres last year, the prospect of getting into the fields this year dampens with each soaking rain and each inch that the vast lake rises.

The Storsteens were members of Chain Lake Lutheran Church, which was organized in 1883, when North Dakota still was Dakota Territory. Two of the charter members were grandfathers of Joel Storsteen and Richard Anderson.

The church was closed in 1989, the deteriorating building later demolished.

It wasn't a victim of flooding.

"It was numbers," Donna Storsteen said. "We ran out of kids."

Much of the church's furnishings, the altar, communion railing, brass lamp lights and pews, are displayed at the Lake Region Heritage Center in Devils Lake.

The only other reminder of the church since then has been Chain Lake Cemetery, where the original church bell is preserved as part of a monument. Church members used to ring the bell at funerals. Some say the bell was unique, the tone distinguishable from miles away.

But that bell isn't likely to ring any time soon, either. Today, Chain Lake Cemetery is accessible only by boat.

Fourteen of the cemetery's more than 100 graves are those of military veterans, said Marjorie Anderson, one of three board members. Her husband, Richard, used to place flags on those graves - including one of Civil War veteran Samuel Elliot - for every Memorial Day.

She and the other board members, Donna Storsteen and Curtis Thorp, said it used to cost about $1,200 annually, plus tips, to pay for keeping the cemetery mowed and trimmed. The cost was covered by donations, as well as interest from certificates of deposit over the years. But the grass hasn't been mowed since 2009, the last time the cemetery was accessible.

The Thorpes moved into Devils Lake in 2004. The road to their farm went under water in 1996. After it was raised that year, it succumbed again eight years later.

"Mother was 96 in 2004 when we moved into town," Curtis Thorp said. "She got to be 100."

Like his neighbors, both of his parents are buried at Chain Lake Cemetery.

"Young people who live away from here keep calling, wishing they had moved the graves," Marjorie Anderson said.

The 18-year-long flood is more than frustrating to some, including Joel Storsteen, who believes that state officials long ago should have started draining water from Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River.

"It's been grossly mismanaged by the state of North Dakota," he said.

The state has built one west-end outlet and is planning another one on the east end of the growing lake. But the proposed 700 cubic feet per second of water that would be drained is only about one third of the average amount running into the lake from the upper basin.

With the lake less than four feet from spilling naturally through the adjoining Stump Lake, the state now plans to build a water control structure on the Tolna Coulee to regulate flows, but only after the lake starts spilling on its own.

To allow larger flows earlier would risk a catastrophic flood downstream, in communities such as Valley City and Lisbon, N.D., and likely would prompt lawsuits, which would delay such a project, state officials say.

People living in the Devils Lake Basin say their homes and livelihoods are being sacrificed by the policy, with the lake rising an average of two feet, and growing by some 20,000 acres or more annually.

Last week, the city of Devils Lake, which owns the Tolna Coulee land where a control structure is proposed, threatened to block access to the property, saying the lake needs to be lowered this year, not allowed to rise any higher.

"They build up the roads and the dikes to protect the city of Devils Lake and to promote the fishing and recreation industry and the casino, and let the rest of us go," Joel Storsteen said. "If the state was going to build a new road, they'd move the graves, but they won't do it to keep them out of the water."

So, instead of planning to visit the cemetery this Memorial Day, a few of them got together the other day to see what has been preserved, and to reminisce.

They examined a quilt that the Andersons bought years ago at an auction. Stitched together by church ladies in 1942, it consisted of a series of circles, like wagon wheels, with the spokes containing the names of church members and friends and relatives who donated to the cause.

"If you wanted your name on it, you paid a dime," Marjorie Anderson said, recalling that the project raised about $40. "In those days, that was a lot of money."

Like her former neighbors, she hasn't been able to visit the cemetery since 2009. It won't be long, they said, before its all under water.

"That's what's so sad," Marjorie Anderson said. "We want to be buried there, too."