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St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery was Minnesota’s first public cemetery

It’s a gathering place, in death, of people from the full range of St. Paul history, from the city’s founders to recent immigrants. 

A panoramic view of St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery.
Photo by Paul Nelson

Founded in 1853, Oakland is Minnesota’s oldest public cemetery and a gathering place, in death, of people from the full range of St. Paul history, from the city’s founders to recent immigrants. It is also a place of beauty.

In 1850, when St. Paul was a muddy frontier hamlet, newspaper editor James Goodhue urged the creation of a public burial ground. Eventually, he reasoned, even the longest-lived local citizens would need an appropriate resting place.

The town at the time had a few church bone yards but no place for the differently churched, the unchurched, paupers, and visitors to be buried.

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Spurred by such admonitions and civic pride, some of Minnesota’s early worthies—among them Alexander Ramsey—founded the Oakland Cemetery Association in 1853. They then bought “forty acres of rolling oak grove two miles from the river landing.” Over time, that grove came to be surrounded by city. In the twenty-first century it lies bounded by Magnolia Avenue on the north, Sycamore Street on the south, Sylvan Street on the west, and Jackson Street on the east, in the North End neighborhood. Later purchases expanded it to one hundred acres.

The first burial plots sold for fifteen cents a square foot or $3.15 for the standard seven-by-three unit. The city and county bought a tract each to accommodate the graves of the destitute. The first burials took place in 1853.

War tends to fill cemeteries, and Oakland has been no exception. Andrew Myrick, the Indian trader sometimes blamed for setting off the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, was buried there, as were many Civil War casualties. One small portion of Oakland has come to be known as “Soldiers’ Rest” for its rows of military headstones. Some 1500 to 2000 veterans are believed to lie in the cemetery, including Civil War Medal of Honor winner Marshall Sherman.

Many of St. Paul’s founders and early magnates have their final resting place in Oakland. They include governors Sibley and Ramsey; pioneer settler Augustus Larpenteur; teacher Harriet Bishop; philanthropist Amherst Wilder; and the merchant families of William Schurmeier, Charles Foote, and William Lindeke. Some of these chose plots on high ground near Oakland’s northwest corner. They now share this space with hundreds of Hmong immigrants.

Apart from a Romanian section along Jackson Street and Russian and Chinese zones along the north border there are no ethnic divisions in Oakland. The headstone of Thomas Lyles, a prominent African American businessman of the nineteenth century, has for its nearest neighbors stones marked Roth, Stein, and Blomberg. German surnames are prominent throughout the cemetery.

In 1873 the cemetery association hired the landscape architect Horace Cleveland to design the grounds. Cleveland, then based in Chicago, is considered one of the great American landscape architects of the nineteenth century. His influence on the Twin Cities has been enduring. In addition to Oakland he designed St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood, the University of Minnesota’s main campus, several parks in the Minneapolis system, and its “grand rounds” network of parks, paths, and drives. (He is buried in Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, which he did not design.) At Oakland one can see his handiwork with few later alterations.

Oakland partakes of the “garden” school of cemetery design, which treats the grounds like a formal park. Curving roads take advantage of the rolling, wooded, natural terrain. Like many old cemeteries of this tradition, Oakland offers the visitor a history of memorial marker styles. They range from the now-eroded sandstone of the early, humble burials to the marble and gray granite mausoleums of the wealthy (including 3M founder Archibald Bush) to the portrait-bearing black granite favored by many Hmong families. Its most famous monument is the tribute to fallen firefighters that stands at the southeast point of Soldiers’ Rest.

In the twenty-first century, Oakland remains what it has been since 1853: a public, non-sectarian, nonprofit cemetery open to all.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.