Stories about what is known as the Polk County Poor Farm and Poor Farm Cemetery have existed for years. There just may be a new chapter being written for the cemetery. The outcome will be determined at an upcoming meeting of Polk County’s Environmental Services meeting.
Recently the Environmental Services Committee was approached by Matt Connell, who is in partnership with Ed Bixby of Destination Destiny, a New Jersey-based company that offers natural burials. Natural burial is an alternative burial method that does not involve embalming, concrete casket vaults or modern caskets.
Destination Destiny is hoping to offer the environmentally friendly burial alternative at the Poor Farm Cemetery also known as Amery Prairie View Cemetery, located on the corner of 110thAve. and 120th St., northwest of the City of Amery, behind the site of the old Polk County Poor Farm.
Connell said, “Our focus is on the environment and to get people to steer away from the toxic practices of modern burial and to make the last decision of life an impactful one.”
Connell said they had been maintaining the property since March and were coming to talk to the County about their plans as they were notified of a complaint.
He said he had heard the County is claiming they own the property. “However, our own title search research does not show that to be the case,” Connell said.
In his endeavor to be a part of the green burial movement, Connell, who resides in the Twin Cities, said he had stumbled upon the Prairie View property while driving to his in-law’s property on Loveless Lake. “One of the options we had with limited funds was to search for abandoned or neglected cemeteries where we could get started under what is called a hybrid model,” he said.
A hybrid model allows green burials to take place in an old cemetery, that cannot be considered complete green as you cannot prove whether or not people who are currently interred there were embalmed.
He said he had done research and found the property to be the old Polk County Poor Farm Cemetery. “This is where people who found themselves living at the Poor Farm back in the day were buried when they passed,” Connell said.
He said he assumed the property was county-owned property, but to satisfy his curiosity, he did title searches and researched at the Polk County Historical Society. “I couldn’t find any information on it. Not just whether it was county-owned as we didn’t see any evidence of that. It was in a title abyss. It did not even have a parcel ID,” said Connell.
He said he then started asking the neighbors what they knew about the property and they had no information. Connell said despite having the name Polk County Poor Farm Cemetery, it seemed to be unclaimed. “As small as this place was, we saw an opportunity to start offering natural burials, with the hopes of expanding,” he said.
The company is hoping to purchase property adjacent to the cemetery to expand and Connell said they also saw an opportunity pollinator habitat restoration. “This is a major issue in the Midwest where wild flowers are basically being wiped out. In turn, Monarchs and bees are suffering. We have been talking with a company called Lupine Gardens in Amery about packing this place full of wildflowers,” Connell said.
Connell said, “We know where the 33 people are buried in the cemetery. However, legend has it the cemetery was actually once next to the house called the Old Poor Farm and was moved to the current spot, so we are thinking it could be a mass grave situation, but we do know where these people are buried.”
He shared they had already put in walking paths around the cemetery, put up fencing and cleared out buck-thorn. “We have had tones of support from the neighbors,” Connell said.
Connell claims neighbors say they have never seen anyone from the county at the property.
He said he was a little bit surprised when he received a call from Polk County about the complaint. “Our hope is not only to provide a valuable service, but to be a friend and partner with Polk County. We want nothing more than to work together,” said Connell.
He said they had been considering working out an arrangement with the county to provide plots to the homeless to continue the tradition of the Poor Farm.
Maps presented at the meeting show Polk County ownership of the property. The Poor Farm property as a whole was taken over by the County in 1949 from a tax foreclosure.
Many mysteries surround the property about whether or not it was run as a Poor Farm before the county took ownership.
There is a debate over whether the cemetery existed before or after the Polk County Poor Farm as there is a headstone dating back to 1909. Connell’s argument is that a cemetery cannot be foreclosed on, thus the county technically did not have ownership of it. “We believe the first burial in that area was in about 1872. This is all hear say from researching at the Historical Society,” said Connell. He said there are Native Americans buried there, as well as babies and a past pro-baseball player.
It looks as if when Polk County sold the Poor Farm in 1965, it excluded the cemetery.
Questions arose from the Environmental Committee about whether Connell’s hope was to continue maintaining the property or to purchase the property. “We are open to options, but ideally, we would like to continue working as is,” said Connell.
Although Connell said no burials had yet taken place at the property through their company and they haven’t even been advertising yet as they want to beautify it first, Destination Destiny’s website already has the property listed as an option for those looking to purchase plots. When a committee member said he could see it on the website, Connell responded, “It is on there, but we don’t show up on Google or anything yet until we get this situation cleared up.”
A committee member said, “It sounds like in March you started mowing the lawn and declared it yours.”
Connell responded, “Basically, what my partner has done in the past is taken these abandon cemeteries and by claiming the land and reviving the cemetery association and placing yourself on it, you can take over as caretaker and ownership essentially.”
The committee wondered if they could even legally sell the property or whether they could make a Memorandum of Understanding to allow Connell to keep using the property. They decided to have legal counsel look into their options and to revisit the subject at the next Environmental Services meetings November 17 at 9a.m.
Board County Supervisors making up the Environmental Services committee include Kim O'Connell- Chairman, Brad Olson Vice-Chairman, Tracy LaBlanc, Sharon Kelly and Doug Route.