Stepping back into Eksjo's past
It was a sunny, warm, yet breezy afternoon at Eksjo Lutheran Church this past Sunday, as the predominantly Swedish congregation celebrated its heritage and history with a combination Midsummer Festival and Cemetery Walk.
Co-hosted by the Becker County Museum, the Cemetery Walk brought upwards of 100 people to the grounds of the historic church in rural Lake Park, where a well-kept cemetery sprawls across the sloping landscape, surrounded by farmland — and groves of oak trees — on all sides.
"Eksjo means 'oak lake' in Swedish," explains one of the church's founding members, Olaf B. Anderson — as portrayed by his great-great granddaughter, Alice Raknerud.
"Olaf" goes on to describe his family's long journey to America in 1870, when they traveled by ship from Norway to Liverpool, England, and from there to New York City, where they registered as immigrants at Ellis Island before traveling northwest to Minnesota by ox cart.
"Our (the Andersons') first winter here was very tough," said Raknerud, speaking as her great-great grandfather. "Except for fish and wild game, our food supply was very scarce."
Olaf Anderson, his wife Maria and their two children became charter members of the Eksjo congregation — in fact, the church's very first service was held in their home.
"Until our church could be built, the members took turns hosting services," Raknerud said.
The congregation incorporated in 1874, as the Swedish Lutheran Congregation of Eksjo, and the first resident pastor came to serve the church in 1876. In 1878, cemetery ground was selected, and a fundraising drive was held for the first church building, which was erected in the summer of that year.
"I (Olaf) was elected as one of the church's first trustees," said Raknerud, noting that he and his wife also donated four acres of land for the purpose of constructing a parsonage to host Eksjo's first pastor.
'Olaf' also talked about the importance of the Midsummer Festival as one of their Swedish traditions.
"No matter what day June 24 falls on, we come together to worship, to feast, and to celebrate," said 'Olaf,' adding, "this church has been a great source of comfort to me and my wife."
In another area of the cemetery, Bruce Nelson was portraying another Eksjo charter member, Daniel Danielson. Though not directly related to the Danielsons, Nelson said his own great-grandfather — who like the Danielsons, was also a Swedish immigrant — bought their homestead and settled there.
"They were not wealthy people," said Nelson of those early Swedish immigrants. "They didn't have money to waste."
Many of the Swedes ended up in Becker County, he said, because the land resembled their homeland, with lots of hills, streams, lakes — and of course, oak trees.
"This was rough country back in 1869," he said, referring to the year when Danielson and his oldest son, Carl, came to America in search of a new home.
But under the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, they were able to settle on a 160-acre plot of land just east of where the current Eksjo church is located — free of charge.
"If you built a home and raised crops on that land, it became your property," Nelson said.
Still, life was anything but easy for those early settlers.
"You've got to admire the nerve these people had, the courage it took to come here," said Nelson, who taught history in the local school district for 15 years, adding, "I just love this (event)."
Not all of the Eksjo congregation members portrayed in the Cemetery Walk were from the founding families, however.
Paul Rustad and Marlene Johnson portrayed husband and wife, Harvey and Mabel Rustad.
"Harvey and Mabel were my parents," said Rustad, adding that his mother was a schoolteacher for many years, serving at a couple of country schools in districts 16 and 41 before taking seven years off to raise her family — then going back to work at Hitterdal.
"She taught at Ulen-Hitterdal for 30 years," Rustad said, but because she only had a two-year teaching degree, she went back to school to finish it, and took some art classes, where she drew a wonderful portrait of "Our Green Acres" — aka the family homestead where they raised everything from grain to cattle to pigs to dairy cows.
In addition to that drawing, Rustad also showed off another piece of art from his mother, titled "My Model Dairy Barn."
"She was ahead of her time," he said, pointing to part of the drawing where she had written in features like climate control and automatic cleaning machines. "This was her dream."
In all, a total of 19 different Eksjo parishioners were portrayed during the two-hour Cemetery Walk. A film crew from Prairie Public Television was also on hand, filming a piece about the 147-year-old church and its history that is set to air this fall.
Eksjo Cemetery Walk Cast
Olaf B. Anderson: Alice Raknerud
Roger Anderson: Kevin Anderson
Rosella C. Anderson: Roberta Chatham
Palmer Berg: Donald Berg
Olga Berg: Delaine Struble
Daniel Danielson: Bruce Nelson
Frank DeGroat: Jeff Sanborn
Christina Anderson Johnson: Terri Nelson
Christine Lindstrom: Lisa Lindstrom
Mary Mikkelsen: Whitney Mikkelsen
C. Lloyd Nelson: Jacob Woody
Cathy Nelson: Laina Nelson
John Nelson: Kenny Smigelsky
Lyla Olson: Jean Olson
Harvey Rustad: Paul Rustad
Mable Rustad: Marlene Johnson
June Wahl: Vicky Adler
Victor Wahl: John Francis