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Construction turns up century-old cemetery near Hastings

Construction crews excavating a basement for a proposed home in Nininger Township prompted an investigation when they discovered human remains. Researchers and neighbors have since identified the property as the former Rose Hill Cemetery site. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia

Sandra and Jim Herkenratt looked forward to having neighbors.

For 38 years, the couple's home in Nininger township faced only an expansive farm field with no other nearby homes.

When a Hastings family broke ground on a new home across the road, the Herkenratts welcomed the prospect of living closer to another family, one with children.

Construction, however, halted in September after crews unearthed a macabre discovery.

According to investigation documents from the Dakota County Sheriff's Office, an excavator digging the home's foundation uncovered bones.

Within two hours, a Hennepin County medical examiner determined they were human bones.

Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie said this was the first investigation of its kind for his department.

"We'll have an issue with bones, people call and find out it was a cow, deer or horse," Leslie said. "We've never had human."

Although Leslie's department launched its probe into the land to determine whether they'd found a crime scene, conversations with long-time Nininger residents revealed another source for the human remains.

Settlers built Rose Hill Cemetery on the site more than a century ago.

"We just feel bad for the people who bought the property," Sandra Herkenratt said.

As of November, county records no longer listed the owners of the would-be home on Jacob Avenue on the property's title.

The family declined an interview for this story.

Nininger's slump

Few records of the cemetery exist, but discovery came as no surprise to longtime Nininger residents like Harrison Benjamin, who still lives on the farm where he was born.

An avid local historian, Benjamin was among the neighbors sheriff deputies contacted for information about the site.

"People came by and had all kinds of flimsy ideas, but they were people who lived here less than 10 years," Benjamin said, but residents' knowledge of the land's former use "kind of put the whole thing to bed."

Philadelphia developer Ignatius Donnelly envisioned the start of a booming metropolis in Nininger when he bought up plots of land in the mid-1800s.

According to Leslie Guelcher's book, "The History of Nininger: More Than Just a Dream," Donnelly hoped to attract European immigrants as factories and mills emerged throughout the tiny river town.

The city's industrious foundation crumbled within a decade, shortly after a railroad was constructed across the river in Hastings.

"Wherever the railroad goes, so goes the business," Benjamin said. "So, Nininger collapsed."

Nininger's first official cemetery followed suit.

Plans for Rose Hill Cemetery, platted in 1859, featured elaborate walkways on a nearly 400 square foot lot.

Platted in 1859, Rose Hill Cemetery's blueprints feature elaborate walkways and dozens of plots.

The first burial occurred in 1857, Guelcher writes, but a land sale at the turn of the century led to most of the grave's relocation.

"If it hadn't been disturbed by digging a basement, it would look like any other farm field," Benjamin said. "It's just cultivated ground now."

Although many families opted to move their relatives' graves from Rose Hill to the nearby historic Oakwood Cemetery in Hastings, investigators uncovered the remains of at least four individuals since September.

Harrison believes wooden crosses, a common grave marker among early settlers, might have rotted away over time, erasing any evidence of a burial.

But Jeremy Jackson, a volunteer historian researching the site, said the remains were likely left behind due to a "historical error."

Nininger resident Harrison Benjamin contributed to a book about Nininger's history that describes the former Rose Hill Cemetery.

Researching remains

Sparse documents on the cemetery's history offer a murky record of the identities and number of people interred there.

This gap in historical information is not uncommon, Jackson said, pointing to a massive 1890 fire that wiped out federal census records.

"A lot of times, records got destroyed in fires and floods, so they don't exist anymore," Jackson said. "That's an example of what happens with historical records. They get lost — or destroyed — to time."

A job recruiter by day, Jackson dedicates most of his spare time researching historical records for the Historical Human Remains Project.

This five-person team of researchers and scientists recently secured state funding to identify human remains from unmarked graves and, if possible, contact their descendants.

While the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council handles remains of Native Americans, all others go through Jackson's team.

State Archeologist Amanda Gronhovd, another member of Jackson's team, typically investigates remains from unplatted cemeteries that have been buried for more than 50 years.

Her office was the first stop for the Rose Hill remains.

Gronhovd and Jackson tracked positive identities for two of the Rose Hill individuals, but researchers with Hamline University's osteology lab continue to examine the remains of at least two other unnamed individuals.

Once specialists determine their age, gender and approximate time of death, Jackson can start using "reverse genealogy" to connect with descendants. The process could take months to complete.

Still, Gronhovd said they may not have uncovered all the remains still interred at the former Rose Hill site.

Farming can continue on the site as usual, but potential builders will have to work with her office on any future construction.

"There are quite possibly more burials out there," Gronhovd said. "As long as there's not excavation, that's fine. They can just sort of rest."

This is the first in a two-part series about the former site of Rose Hill Cemetery. Next week's story will look at the work being done to identify the remains.