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Historic cemetery lost in modern community

November 13, 2008

In a city where college students dominate, the hidden treasures go unnoticed. One of many sites to see in River Falls is the historic Foster Cemetery. Unlike other cemeteries, this one is over 100 years old and is located in the woods on top of a bluff overlooking the Kinnickinnic River to the south and Lake Louise to the north.

The 18 graves at the Cemetery are withered and worn. Some, once ornate, are missing large slabs of marble. Some have poems engraved, but the words are unreadable. Some of the stones are sinking with the earth. Every person buried in the Cemetery was once related to Joel Foster, founding father of the city of River Falls.

It was once the burial ground for the Trinity Episcopal Church which Eli Foster, Joel’s brother, deeded the five-acre parcel of ground to. Money was given to the church for perpetual care of the Cemetery. Joel and several of his pioneering family members were buried on the bluff. Eli died in 1856, the same year he gave the land away and was buried in the Cemetery with his family.

In 1863, the Greenwood Cemetery was established on Division Street in the town proper. Families of the deceased chose to have some of the bodies moved to Greenwood, according to USGenWeb Archives. Joel, his daughter and Joel’s sister-in-law’s family moved, but Eli stayed on the bluff.

In a local newspaper article from 1954, it read that Joel Foster’s family decided that Greenwood Cemetery was a better place to bury their loved ones, in spite of the disapproval of some of the relatives who had buried their loved ones at Foster Cemetery, according to Jaclyn Throne, planning intern for the Historic Preservation Commission of River Falls.

“It is hard to say why the others decided to keep their deceased family members at foster,” Thorne said. “It could be because Eli, his wife, and two daughters had already been there for 20 years, or maybe they felt that is where Eli wanted to be buried since he is the one who chose the site.”

The Episcopal Church later gave the Cemetery to the City of River Falls and the city declared it a historic landmark. The Prairie Enthusiasts, St. Croix Valley chapter, also declared it as the Foster Conservation Area and has taken it under its arm for conservancy. The area the Cemetery rests in is what is left of a prairie oak savanna that once covered the entire Kinnickinnic River Valley.

“The expansive view of the valley and the park-like appearance of the oak savanna, and the ever-changing display of prairie and wildflowers all led early settlers to choose this as a final resting place,” the memorial sign reads at the entrance of the Cemetery.

The Prairie Enthusiasts have been actively managing the Cemetery for 10 years. Last year, the St. Croix Valley chapter took people on a hike throughout the prairie and oak savanna area. As their efforts to conserve the wildlife and native plants, there are invasive plants as well as vandalism from time to time.

The chain-link fence that was erected in the 1950s has since been taken down. It is estimated that less than 1 percent of pre-settlement prairie is still intact, according to the memorial sign.

“There had to have been some appeal because family members continued to be buried there until 1918,” Thorne said. “Foster Cemetery is a pretty cool place.”

When Foster first came to the area in 1848, he wrote in his personal diary, “It looks as though the Almighty had made this portion of our country first and made it on a perfect system, piling up the rocks in beautiful mounds, with pure streams of water and beautiful falls.”

The River’s falls were much stronger then and were used to power the mill, which drove the economy of Foster’s new city.

The Cemetery was discussed at a September Historic Preservation Commission meeting in hopes to have the Cemetery further protected beyond the state laws for cemeteries. Foster Cemetery has been with the city and the river for more than 100 years and will continue to be there thanks to the Foster family, the Prairie Enthusiasts, the Johnson Family Trust, Trinity Episcopal Church and the City of River Falls.