Nearly two decades ago, Brainerd-born John Van Essen began to wonder what led his forebears to settle in a railroad town along the banks of the Mississippi River.
"I love it here," Van Essen said. "This is a wonderful place. Who had to come across the Atlantic Ocean? When did they come? Why did they come? That's what got me started to answer those questions."
His interest in his lineage led him to Evergreen Cemetery, where he soon discovered a total of 13 of his direct relatives were laid to rest. Further research revealed not only that his mother's family first arrived in Brainerd in 1875, but also that his Swedish great-great-great-grandmother was among some of the first people buried in the historic cemetery.
Van Essen, 62, spent numerous hours and walked many miles among the monuments in Evergreen since he retired in the Brainerd lakes area a few years later. His interest grew beyond the history of his own family to the history of Brainerd itself and the people who shaped it. He now serves on the Evergreen Cemetery Board of Trustees and created its Directory of the Dead, which catalogs every burial in both the Evergreen Cemetery and Memorial Gardens Cemetery north of Brainerd along Crow Wing County Highway 3.
Tuesday morning, Van Essen will lead a tour of the cemetery as part of Brainerd History Week. Stops on the tour include the resting places of some of the city's most prominent people from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including sheriffs, judges, bankers and newspaper owners. These people were all residents of north Brainerd, and each of their historic homes is part of walking tours planned later in the day.
There was Henry Spalding, a popular conductor for the Northern Pacific Railroad who later served as Crow Wing County sheriff in 1888. Spalding chose not to run for reelection following the execution of convicted murderer John Pryde because he did not believe in capital punishment.
There was Daniel Clark, who established the largest hardware and household goods store in the city in the late 1800s. Clark also embalmed bodies in the basement of his store, most of whom likely ended up among the 17,000 interred at Evergreen.
There was George LaBar, chief promoter of the Park Opera House, which later became the Paramount Theater. LaBar was also president of the First National Bank in Brainerd when Baby Face Nelson and his gang pulled off a robbery there in 1933.
In all, Van Essen's tour will visit the graves of 13 families of Brainerd's past - men and women who once themselves likely walked along the same well-worn paths in Evergreen Cemetery.
IF YOU GO
Step into Brainerd's past
10:30 a.m. Tuesday: Take the Evergreen Cemetery tour and visit the graves of prominent residents of historic north Brainerd homes.
1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday: Walk through north Brainerd and view homes and buildings dating back to the 1880s, many of which appear relatively unchanged. Sign-up sheets for the tours are located at Brainerd City Hall, the Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum and the Brainerd Public Library. Those interested can also call 218-828-2307.
A riding tour is also planned for 1 p.m. for those who would prefer not to walk.