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Preservationists seek reinterring of veterans buried at Froedtert expansion site

Members of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War form an honor guard for Herman Borchardt, interred amid the unmarked remains of 1,300 people in the Poor Farm Cemetery. The site is on the former Milwaukee County Grounds adjacent to the Froedert / Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Center.

Members of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War form an honor guard for Herman Borchardt, interred amid the unmarked remains of 1,300 people in the Poor Farm Cemetery. The site is on the former Milwaukee County Grounds adjacent to the Froedert / Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Center. Photo By C.T. Kruger

Nov. 13, 2012

Little is known about the life of Herman Borchardt.

He fought in the Civil War, and when he died in 1898, he was buried in the one of Milwaukee County's pauper cemeteries, directly north of Froedtert Hospital, where an estimated 1,300 others lie.

Borchardt and his war service were honored there Sunday in a small Veterans Day ceremony held in a howling wind that seemed, as organizer Barbara Agnew said, to be the voice of Borchardt himself.

Prayers and scripture were delivered by Ray Stubbe, a Lutheran minister and former U.S. Navy chaplain, and Dean Collins, deacon of Mother of Good Counsel Parish and chaplain of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

"Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations. ... Some of them left behind a name so that others declare their praise. But of others there is no memory … but these, also, were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten," Stubbe read from the Bible.

"We are here today to ensure that they are not forgotten," he said.

Disturbing their peace

The memorial service, attended by about a dozen people, was meant to honor Borchardt, but also to call attention to Froedtert's plans to build a large addition atop the cemetery, and to seek a promise from the hospital to relocate the remains to another burial site.

"In the shadow of Froedtert, understanding very clearly that they need the space, what we're hoping to do is give the people here more identity and respect, so that once it's all taken out, that they will reinter the bones," said Agnew, who leads the Milwaukee County Grounds Coalition for Environmental and Historic Preservation.

Froedtert responded in a news release:

"Froedtert Hospital has filed necessary documents with the State of Wisconsin Historical Society to request approval to disturb the burials. Our construction will not move forward until the State Historical Society completes its review process and responds to our request.

"The decision about the disposition of the remains lies with the state, in accordance with Wisconsin statutes, and not with Froedtert Hospital. The procedure provided by the State Historical Society is designed to give proper consideration to all issues related to the disturbance.

"Froedtert Hospital is aware of the sensitivities involved with excavation of remains and will fully comply with the state's decision."

Agnew said there is space on the grounds for a mass grave, at least, with a plaque naming all the people buried there. She wants a better fate for the bones than those unearthed in an earlier excavation. In 1991 and 1992, human remains and personal artifacts of 1,649 people were dug up on the Froedtert tract, and were granted to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archaeological Research Laboratory for study, according to the UWM Office of Undergraduate Research website.

"As none of the graves had markers and none of the individuals identified, the goals of this study were to identify distinct classes of paupers," the document says.

"They are now in perpetuity on shelves at UWM," Agnew said.

Five such cemeteries

Tom Ludka, Waukesha County veterans service officer, has done extensive research on the poor farm sites, and said the names of those buried there can be found in burial register books, and that there likely is a pattern to the plots.

The various cemeteries operated from about the 1850s through 1974.

The county had five pauper cemeteries, four of them on the Milwaukee County Grounds, according to the Milwaukee County Online Genealogy and Family History Library. A burial register book lists the names of 6,400 people, the site says, and does not cover all the cemeteries.

For Agnew, it's a question of what the present owes the past.

"The whole County Grounds is a historical site - it had the poor farms, it had (an) asylum, it had many different things on the grounds, and there were various cemeteries," she said.

The group's goals include the preservation of butterfly habitat and the historic Eschweiler buildings on property off Watertown Plank Road now owned by the UWM Foundation.

"It's such a rich history lying out there," she said.

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