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Memorial Day Tribute at Potter's Field

By David K. Williams

A small U.S. flag is stuck in the ground, which is covered with green grass. In the background is the setting sun and a cloudy sky.
Photo by Aaron Burden

Potter’s Field in Menomonie will hold a Memorial Day 2024 tribute to the six veterans known to be buried there.  Local honor guard members will arrive around 3 p.m. on Monday, May 27, to conduct a traditional salute, including a rifle volley and playing of “Taps.”  The public is welcome to attend.


Editor's Note: Below is an article that was first published in our January 2024 issue, about research underway to identify unmarked gravesites at Potter's Field.


Ground Penetrating Radar May Help Identify Unmarked Graves at Dunn County’s Potter’s Field


By David K. Williams


“Potter’s Field” is the name given to common grave sites where the unknown or unclaimed are laid to rest. The term is derived from the Bible, Matthew 27:7, “And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in.” The common thought is that a potter had stripped the clay from the field, leaving behind an infertile piece of land that could only be used as a cemetery.


Just east of Menomonie, on the northeast corner of the County Highway Shop's property, lies Dunn County's Potter's Field. For many years, the cemetery was only accessible when the County Highway Shop was open. Thanks to generous local support, a separate entrance to the cemetery was created in 2022. Local history buffs and genealogists — including the volunteers at Friends of Potter’s Field — can now visit the cemetery any time.


Many buried in Potter’s Field were residents of the Dunn County Asylum for the Chronic Insane and the Dunn County Poor Farm. Unfortunately, only three grave sites are identified with a name. For the past hundred years, only two headstones have stood in the cemetery. With the discovery of a footstone, a third site has been identified. Records from past burials were lost over time, but we know the last burial occurred in 1952.


Local newspapers and county records indicate a large of burials. At present, research shows at least 110 people were laid to rest in Potter’s Field. A sign at the cemetery lists their names and dates of death. But aside from the three marked graves, burial locations remain unidentified. And, there could be more grave sites that remain unaccounted for.


New research, which might help provide answers, is in the works. Through the involvement and interest of Dr. Harry Jol, of the Department of Geography and Anthropology at UW-Eau Claire, he and some of his students have begun scanning Potter’s Field using ground penetrating radar.


I am trained as a physical geographer and look at landscapes through the lens of how they were formed,” said Jol. “Humans will disturb that landscape when they bury bodies and we look for those disturbances through a variety of geospatial tools.”


In November, Jol and his students laid out a 20 by 58 meter grid and began scanning the cemetery in quarter-meter increments.  “We have done similar work at First Nations/Native sites, Māori sites, Cyprus Missing Persons UN project, Holocaust Mass Execution/Burial sites,” said Jol.


Two men use a ground penetrating radar device to scan the cemetery.  One man, with his back to the camera, is pushing the device. The second man is facing the camera and walking backwards in front of the device. The ground penetrating radar device is yellow and being pushed like a lawn mower. It appears to be roughly 1 foot wide by 3 feet long. This photo was taken in the fall, as the grass is brown but there is no snow. The men are wearing light jackets and stocking caps.
Ground penetrating radar conducted by students at UW-Eau Claire’s Department of Geography and Anthropology may help reveal the location of unmarked burials at Menomonie’s Potter’s Field. Photo submitted by David K. Williams

The research tool pictured in the photo to the left sends a radar signal down to a depth of four meters (about 13 feet), which records where earth has been disturbed. While there are already some indications of burial sites, as the volunteers who mow the cemetery notice the undulations of the turf, ground penetrating radar scans may help indicate more precise locations. 


Jol is quick to say the scan cannot specifically show a burial, but the earth disturbance is labeled an “anomaly” and is most likely a burial. This research may also locate other footstones like the one recovered, and thus put names on specific sites.


Students conducting ground penetrating radar research in Potter’s Field were Mikoy Barrow, Lauren Claas, Amik Redland, Tylor Rocha, Thomas Ruohoniemi, Max Sinykin, Josh Solberg, and student research assistant to Professor Jol, Tristan Wirkus. Carson Duce and Martin Goettl collected unmanned aircraft system (UAS)/drone data.


The students are analyzing the data from their scanning work, which covered about a quarter of the one-acre cemetery. They hope to return and finish scanning the rest of the cemetery. 


The volunteers at Friends of Potter’s Field have continued to maintain and beautify this final resting place for some of our county’s less fortunate earlier citizens. In addition to residents of the Asylum and Poor Farm, those buried here include lumberjacks, transients, and poor people whose families could not afford burials, and even some criminals, like the 1931 Kraft State Bank robbers, who were shot by local citizens while trying to escape. Though poor, indigent, or unlucky, these former citizens deserve an appropriate final resting place like everyone else.


“We [at UW-Eau Claire] have built one of the largest undergraduate research programs that is investigating unmarked burials,” says Jol. “We have to remember there are thousands of Potter’s Fields in the United States where individuals have not been recognized in any way. They are brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents. They are vets. They are community members.  We should not forget them.”


For more information about Potter’s Field, visit DunnCoPottersField.com.

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