August 24, 2022
Oakland Cemetery is the oldest public cemetery in Minnesota, and that’s where I headed on this ride. This North End landmark is in the midst of the city, surrounded by modest single-family homes. Just a couple of blocks to the south and east are the machinations and sounds of rail lines, a freeway and a legion of industry. It wasn’t always this way in this part of the city.
In the early days of European settlement in St. Paul, there was no formal, final resting spot for those who passed. A place called Jackson’s Woods, just north of what became Oakland Cemetery, was a de facto burial spot. That changed in 1853—five years before Minnesota was granted statehood—thanks to a group of prominent settlers.
Those early Minnesotans selected 40 wooded acres of land far out in the country—about two miles north of the Mississippi River and Downtown—for the nondenominational cemetery. 10 of those 40 acres were used for the earliest burial plots. In his 1876 book, A History of the City of Saint Paul, and of the County of Ramsey,Minnesota, John Fletcher described Oakland Cemetery as “that beautiful and well-managed ‘city of the dead.'”
The oldest public cemetery in Minnesota, Oakland is about two-thirds of a mile north of the State Capitol. It is an alluring, engaging and illuminating respite, no matter where your interests lie.
The First Visit to Oakland Cemetery
My first time in Oakland was on a ride in October of 2021. The cemetery—its verdant grounds, soaring oaks and maples, and the assortment of memorable grave markers—absolutely charmed me.
Lengthy shadows cast by the late season sun intensified the shapes and textures of the cemetery. I had the pleasure of meeting cemetery superintendent Bobby Schoenrock that day. We chatted briefly but Bobby was too busy to sit down for an interview. Through our fleeting conversation I gleaned some interesting tidbits about Bobby’s work and his father, Bob, who had been working at Oakland for more than 50 years!
After nearly 10 months of phone calls, we arranged a meeting, and I hit the road about 9 a.m. on August 24. I had the good fortune to spend close to an hour conversing with both Bobby, then Bob Schoenrock. With some limited overlap, each had unique points of view and reflections about their years at Oakland Cemetery. In fact, they shared so many interesting thoughts that I’ll use two posts to share everything.
How Bob Began at Oakland
Incredibly, Bob is in his 55th year of employment at Oakland Cemetery—53 full-time—and he’s been involved in the “death care” industry even longer.
Bob’s experience with Oakland Cemetery began as a young boy in about 1960, at the family-owned William Schoenrock & Son Monument Company, which was (and still is) across Jackson Street from Oakland Cemetery. “As a young kid, I was down here with my dad all the time, and of course he would walk across the street to the cemetery office, and I would tag along with him.” Sometimes, he said, they’d watch a funeral from a distance.
About the time he became a teenager, Bob began working for his dad delivering granite grave markers to cemeteries.
And so it went for a few years, until October 1968, when happenstance led to Bob’s first job at Oakland Cemetery. “I got injured my junior year playing football and I was looking for something to do, and my dad said, ‘They’re looking for help across the street picking up leaves.’ That’s when they actually had a kind of night crew, so you could start at, like, 2:30, 3 o’clock and then you worked until it got dark.”
Raking was a short-term fall gig but Bob returned in the spring of ’69 to cut grass. He graduated high school a year later, worked part time at Oakland and took some classes at St. Paul Area Technical Vocational Institute (now Saint Paul College.) “My plan,” he told me, “was to go to work for my dad [at Schoenrock Monument Company], but my grandpa and my uncle and my dad were partners. Too much family is a problem and I didn’t want to interfere.”
So, Bob chose to continue working at Oakland, becoming full-time and gradually earning promotions. “I worked on the grounds for probably eight years, and then I was made foreman. I went from foreman, then superintendent, from superintendent to general manager,” which he remains today. Bob also holds the title of assistant secretary of the cemetery board, which gives him the legal authority to sign deeds, checks and other paperwork.
The pastoral surroundings of Oakland Cemetery are not a fluke. The cemetery board hired world-renowned Chicago-based landscape architect Horace W.S. Cleveland in 1872 to create a landscape design. Cleveland’s work remains prominent throughout the cemetery after 150 years.
Keeping everything looking sharp motivates the small, dedicated grounds crew, which includes Bob and Bobby. The crew, according to Bob, does the bulk of the outdoor work at Oakland Cemetery.
“We do all the mowing, we do all the leaf cleaning up. We do dig our own graves. We maintain most of our equipment to a certain extent.” Engine and transmission repairs and trimming large trees requires expertise and/or equipment Oakland doesn’t have.
As well-cared-for as Oakland is today, that was not the case in the late-‘50s into the ‘60s, according to Bob. “The cemetery got a reputation of being run down. The grass wasn’t cut at Memorial Day. The graves weren’t sodded. And once you get that reputation, it’s so hard to get people to come back, so they lost a lot of revenue in those years. They lost a lot of families to Calvary, Elmhurst, Roselawn, Forest Lawn [Cemeteries].”
Jim Moore, the cemetery general manager who hired Bob, labored to reverse Oakland’s decline. Among the efforts he and Bob undertook were to convince members of the cemetery board of directors to raise money to buy a couple of new lawnmowers. “All of a sudden everybody’s going, ‘Wow, Oakland! It’s starting to look nice.’”
Next, said Bob, came other basic projects. “We need to start trimming trees, getting things pruned every year, clean up everything. We finally got enough money to do some road work.” The rehabilitation of the grounds was not quick, according to Bob, who said it took about a dozen years.
Bob Gets Promoted
Jim Moore died in 1975 and the board of directors hired Warren Johnson, a retiree, as the next general manager. As Bob recalls, Warren Johnson was in his 70s, and after working at Oakland about three years, he told board members at a meeting, “‘This is ridiculous that Bob’s doing all the work, but yet I’m here and I don’t need to be here. I’m here to assure you that he’s old enough to take over.’” So, Warren stepped aside, and Bob became Oakland’s general manager.
The tranquility and natural beauty of Oakland are its biggest draws, but not far behind is its long history inextricably interwoven with the founding of the State of Minnesota and early St. Paul. Grave markers display notable and familiar names such as Henry Hastings Sibley, Alexander Ramsey, Lucius P. Ordway, Arthur Gillette, Amherst Wilder, Harriet Bishop, Frederick E. Weyerhaueser and many others.
Despite the lofty standing of the cemetery founders and many of those interred there, Oakland was conceived as, and remains, a place for all to be laid to rest, no matter their religion, ethnicity or station in life. Therefore, with a few exceptions, you’ll find markers of the “common citizenry” and prominent and well-to-do intermingled.
Years back, Oakland’s office was open most Saturday mornings. Visitors were infrequent so Bob whiled away the hours looking through old cemetery records. In the old books, said Bob, it would tell not only the date that people passed away, but the cause of death. “It would say the person was run over by a streetcar or a wheel fell off the wagon, and that makes you think, ‘My goodness, back in the day, it was rough.’”
Perusing the records, Bob discovered how arduous the trip from Downtown to Oakland was in the horse-and-buggy days. The route used by funeral processions via Rice Street crossed the Trout Brook. “The hearse would get stuck [in Trout Brook] and the pallbearers would have to push the wheels of the hearse.” Cemetery officials approached the city of St. Paul and asked them to build a bridge so that the buggies and the wagons wouldn’t get stuck. “So then your wheels are turning and you think, ‘I just can’t imagine bringing a funeral possession from downtown St. Paul by horse and buggy out to here,’ So that part of the history, your imagination kind of goes wild on it.”
Oakland Cemetery has reflected larger societal trends such as the flu epidemic of 1918 and the arrival of immigrants and refugees. One of the biggest involves the Hmong who, in the 1970s, began filtering to St. Paul from the hills of Laos. Many Hmong fought for the U.S. in the Laotian theater of the Vietnam War, frequently called the Secret War.
As Bob recalls, in the early ‘70s he was approached by someone from Bradshaw Funeral Home who said a Hmong family wanted to have a burial at Oakland. “A Hmong family didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t know who they [Hmong] were.” The Oakland staff obliged and selected a plot and prepared it for the funeral.
Immediately after the funeral, family members asked to perform some unique rituals. First, said Bob, they requested the casket be lowered. Although that wasn’t part of a traditional burial, the grounds crew lowered it. Then Bob said he was told, “‘They would like to see the vault cover put on.’ We put the vault cover on.”
“‘Is that alright if they throw some dirt there?'”
“‘Yeah, they can throw some dirt in there.’ So they actually just about filled the whole grave. But that was their tradition. So we just, we went along with it.”
Since that first funeral and burial 50 years ago, Hmong burials became common at Oakland. “What I’ve been told by them is our location really fit their need because they believe you need to rise to a place of prominence in your second life. Well, there’s nothing more prominent than the Capitol.”
Grave markers have undergone an evolution of sorts over the decades of Oakland’s existence. Early markers were made of sandstone, marble or porcelain. They often featured carvings or three-dimensional symbols of animals, hands or plants, most with religious connotations. In the early-1900s, granite started replacing the other minerals used for grave markers. With granite came gradual changes in the artwork on markers.
More recently, black granite markers with hand-carved etchings have become popular, especially with the Hmong. “The black granite is the best granite to use for an etching, ‘cause it’s clear, doesn’t have flakes, it doesn’t have multiple colors.”
Another change Bob mentioned is the ages of those interred. Years ago, men frequently died in their late 60s or early 70s. For women, it was late 70s, or early 80s. “Today,” he said, “a lot of people that we bury are 80s, 90s.“ And they do more burials then ever of people who lived into their 100s.
Cremation is a relatively recent but major shift, and not just at Oakland. “Cremation has really hit the industry very hard,” Bob told me. “It’s been caused by the funeral industry in general because they just out-priced themselves.” In Minnesota, the average funeral costs $8,000, compared to about $5,000 on average for a “full service” cremation.
Something that hasn’t changed for Bob is how difficult a child’s funeral is. “Children’s services are so hard. If I got to the point where it didn’t bother me, you shouldn’t be in this business anymore ’cause it should bother you.“
Among Bob’s favorite events was the 150th anniversary observance in 2003. “We had the reenactment group from Fort Snelling here. That was incredible. They came marching up the main road, all dressed in their uniforms. That was fantastic.” Oakland’s annual Memorial Day event is another that has special meaning to Bob.
With such a lovely setting, I thought Bob might have a tough time naming his favorite place at the cemetery. In fact, he didn’t.
He quickly mentioned the main entrance where Jackson Street runs into Sycamore. “It’s just historic. You drive in that gate and it’s just like, wow! Here’s this quiet right off the street from the Capitol. The hustle and bustle, and all of a sudden you come in the gate and you see squirrels running around.”
Two other places he’s especially fond of are the chapel area (above), because of its tranquility, and the original 10 acres of the cemetery.
After working at Oakland for more than half a century Bob still likes what he does. “I can’t ever say that I got up and said, ‘I have to go to work today,’ I’ve never felt that way. And a final thought: “The enjoyment from working here is the people, the experience, the different sadness, and you go outta your way to try and do whatever you can do to help ’em out.”
This article first appeared in Wolfie Browender’s blog, Saint Paul By Bike — Every Block of Every Street. All images are by the author, except where noted.