The forgotten of Oconto Potters Field are recognized

Memorial dedicated at Evergreen Cemetery
Warren Bluhm

About two dozen people gathered at Evergreen Cemetery in Oconto on May 27 to remember more than 300 people whose memories had nearly been lost to history.

The occasion was the dedication of a memorial recognizing people who have been buried over the years in the Potters Field areas at the north and south ends of the cemetery. Speakers included state Rep. Elijah Behnke, Mayor John Panetti, and Peter Gabrielson, who spearheaded the effort to establish the memorial.

Panetti said the people listed on paver stones in front of the two-ton boulder date as far back as 1859, two years before the Civil War began, when an unknown individual drowned in the Oconto River.

“Now, 164 years later, this individual who drowned in the river can be recognized,” said Panetti, who saluted Gabrielson and everyone who worked with him to make it happen.

Gabrielson said he was working on an article for Voyageur magazine in 2017, and the editor said it would be helpful to have a photograph of the gravestone of one of his ancestors who is buried at Evergreen Cemetery, but he couldn’t find her marker.

Asking the caretaker, he found she was interred in the one of the potters fields.

“We have a potters field?” he said, a response he heard many times over the next six years.

One of the sites was “that grassy area just south of the entrance road,” Gabrielson said, comparing the area to a place where people can walk their dogs.

“When I thought about that, I knew I had to try and do something to make people aware that like the rest of the cemetery, this strip of land was a sacred place,” he said.

There are some markers, not many, but their names were recorded in the cemetery record books, Gabrielson said.

He told the story of Nettie Charles, the first person he researched in that summer of 2017. In the 1870s, she and her husband operated a successful boarding house a few miles west of Oconto on the old Stiles Road. The business later failed, her husband left her in 1879, and eventually she took her own life.

“There was no marker on her grave, as was the case for almost everybody else that was buried here after that,” Gabrielson said. “After reading that, I knew I had to do something.”

The effort was no solo endeavor, and while Gabrielson thanked area media outlets for telling the story of the memorial, he said most of them left out the part where he listed many of the people who helped make it all possible.

The Leon H. and Clymene M. Bond Foundation is a major supporter, providing a $20,525 grant, and a board member chipped in another $1,000.

Other contributors include Brian Vandenlangenberg of Oconto City Monument Company; Scott and Brandon Tousey of Scott’s Concrete; Jeremy Wusterbarth and the city of Oconto Department of Public Works; Greg and Lilly Mortier, Creative Curbing and Design; Carl Liegeois, Carlie’s Landscaping; Jeff and David Lane, L2 Custom Engraving; Laurie Wusterbarth, Oconto County register of deeds; the Oconto County Genealogical Society, especially Kitty Werner and Vern Mortier; and Peter’s wife, Patty Gabrielson, whose support from the beginning never wavered.

“I feel that this is a commitment to the ideal that we here in Oconto believe that all of us are equal in the eyes of God,” Gabrielson said.