The oldest Jewish pioneer cemetery in North Dakota has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The recognition adds prominence to the rural Sons of Jacob cemetery, the last reminder of the Jewish homesteading community in Garske, which is about 20 miles from Devils Lake.

"I think it’s about the significance and having something that was almost forgotten to come to the forefront again," said Shirley LaFleur, of Devils Lake, who wrote the application. "This is an agricultural region but we don’t usually think about the Jewish settlers as being farmers."

From 1883 to 1925, about 100 Jewish people from Eastern Europe homesteaded there, trying their hand at farming and practicing their beliefs free of persecution. Jews were not allowed to own land in Russia, and some saw an opportunity in the Homestead Act, LaFleur said.

While most stayed to claim their homesteads, they left shortly thereafter due to difficulty farming in the region and minimal resources. Some moved on to bigger cities or Devils Lake, where there was "full Jewish communal life" and major holidays were celebrated in the courthouse, according to the cemetery's website.

The application for the national register said there are at least 17 burials there, including 13 markers. It was the burial ground for Jews farming in the region from Winnipeg to Grand Forks.

The last burial was in 1935, and the cemetery was largely forgotten until the early 2000s when a Jewish descendant of the Garske community traveled from Kansas in search for his family history, according to Mike Connor, of Starkweather, who helps maintain the cemetery. That man, Hal Ettinger, contacted other descendants of people buried there and put up a plaque, which names all of the homesteaders, and rededicated the historic site in 2006.

Since Ettinger died several years ago, a group of descendants and locals have cared for the place. Connor, whose family is Irish but lives 2 miles away, does much of the upkeep, including burning the grass in the spring to make way for wildflowers and repainting fences. 

Connor said he often pops by the prairie cemetery just to see who has visited. There is a small mailbox there with a guestbook, and last week people came from Iowa and Nebraska.

By way of explanation for his dedication, he said, "My parents were both early pioneers in this area ... They knew a lot of the Jewish settlers up here."

Members of the board of directors decided to submit for placement on the national register, after they heard about a similar plan in Ashley. Last year, the Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery, marking the largest Jewish farming community in the state, was added to the list and rededicated in May.

The Garske cemetery was approved by the state historical society for the national register and then the National Park Service on June 5.

At one time, there were nine rural Jewish cemeteries in the state, according to the national register application for the Ashley cemetery. Only three, in Garske, Ashley and Regan, are not entirely overgrown today.

Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com

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