Lynda Baker's quest to track her family's roots became stymied in an out-of-the-way place: the woodsy north shore of Lake Mille Lacs, 120 miles from her north Minneapolis home.
Descendants of Kentucky slaves, Baker's family was part of a small Black community that settled in Aitkin County's Wealthwood Township in 1898. So she set out with her cousin, Peggy Patterson Carpenter, in 2013 to learn more — and hopefully find their ancestors' long-abandoned cemetery.
"We went up there a few times and drove around and couldn't find it," Baker, 70, recalled during a recent phone call. "We were going in circles, driving all over the place, looking and looking."
Enter the MsStorians, a delightfully named group of middle-aged women who attended First Lutheran Church in nearby Brainerd. "We solve history mysteries and feed our wanderlust," founder Julie Jo Larson said, calling her band "a motley group of women with a passion for history, companionship and adventure."
Larson's quartet of sleuths had explored Brainerd's underground tunnels, its oldest buildings and the area's abandoned mines, writing up articles about their "weekly adventures." They began researching Wealthwood's Black community just as Baker and Carpenter went looking for the cemetery.
Using the FindaGrave website, the MsStorians pinpointed the forgotten cemetery: 12 miles south of Aitkin on Hwy. 169, then 5 miles east on Hwy. 18 along the shore of Mille Lacs and a couple miles northeast.
That's where they found a lone military-issued marble headstone — riddled by vandals' BB pellets — poking out of the weeds. The name on the gravestone belonged to Sgt. Joseph Henry, a Mississippian and member of the 125th U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War.
"Chunks of marble were missing from the stone's edges," Larson, 56, wrote in a 2016 article for the Lake Country Journal. "Thankfully, the engraving on the front of the headstone was still legible; the lettering was our first clue into uncovering the names of the Black families who moved to Aitkin County in the fall of 1898."
Records at the Aitkin County Historical Society show Henry was among 14 people buried there from 1899 to 1921, including Baker's great-grandmother, Johanna Penick, in 1909. A dozen are still believed to rest there.
The cemetery, abandoned about 1910, now sits on private land belonging to the Wealthwood Golf Course.
"The graves are right along the 12th and 13th fairways," said James Dougherty, 33, who inherited the property when his dad, Bill, died five years ago.
Earlier attempts by the group to place Wealthwood's abandoned Black cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places stalled, but a state archaeologist hopes that effort can be rekindled.
"It's absolutely eligible to be nominated and listed," said David Mather, National Register archaeologist with the State Historic Preservation Office. He said he'd love to see a wider archaeological investigation, fundable through grant money, into Wealthwood's long-gone Black settlement. State law, he added, protects graveyards from desecration.
Wealthwood's Black population jumped from 30 people in 1900 to nearly 50 in 1910, when Minnesota's total African American population of 7,084 accounted for only 0.03% of the state's total.
The Wealthwood community was connected with a contingent of 85 Black Civil War veterans and families who traveled nearly 1,000 miles by train from Kentucky to Fergus Falls, Minn., in 1898. The vets were drawn to Fergus Falls by fliers from real estate boosters touting the region's assets during an Army reunion they had attended in St. Paul.
Some of those arrivals soon headed east to Aitkin County, working as farmers, loggers, laborers and railroad employees. They purchased land for $2 an acre, built a Baptist church and signed their kids up for school. They remained in the area for three generations before economic factors pushed them to Aitkin and larger cities.
"The hardships there were unbelievable," Alma Strader Mack, then 79, told the Star and Tribune in 1983. "The environment was so hostile because of the cold weather. Many died. Most of us had to leave to better our condition."
Mack's niece, Avis Ware Foley, became a respected DFL activist and aide to Gov. Rudy Perpich in the 1980s. As the only African American in Aitkin High School's class of 1940, Foley was considered the last graduate from Wealthwood's Black community. Though she recalled some name-calling and racial insensitivity, Foley looked back with fondness, saying in 1995: "I felt that I had a place." She died in 2002.
Now an abandoned cemetery is all that's left of that unique place in Minnesota history. Larson, who has a book coming out in April — "100 Things to Do in Minnesota Northwoods Before You Die" — considers the Wealthwood research her favorite history project.
"We could not locate the cemetery until Julie Jo Larson led us there," Baker said.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.