GRENORA, N.D. — What began as a fun way to pass time together has become so much more for a couple in this small town, tucked into the far northwest corner of North Dakota.
Ron Laqua, 66, and Joanie Ledahl, 68, have spent around a year and a half compiling an online history of the people buried in the local cemetery.
Grenora, a town of more than 300 that gets its name from the first few letters of the Great Northern Railway, hired the two as co-sextons to bring cemetery records into the digital age.
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The couple did that and much more, taking an opportunity to fill in many missing details of those who came before them.
“You feel for some of these people," Laqua said. "No one’s around anymore … to tell their story."
By cobbling together old maps, funeral programs, obituaries and news stories, they were able to uncover new information, including who was buried in a grave marked only as “Coal Miner” and a few details about a person missing in action in World War II.
“These people have histories and unless somebody digs it up and records it, it’ll be lost,” Ledahl said.
Brett Wilkins, the mayor of Grenora, said the couple has gone above and beyond expectations in their work.
“They’ve taken it and run with it,” he said.
Laqua and Ledahl both grew up and graduated high school in Grenora but moved away for college and work.
Both returned a few years back and rekindled their friendship. Just last weekend, they got married.
Ledahl was the first to apply for the cemetery sexton job, but she quickly realized it was something that would work better with a team approach.
Town leaders hired them as a package deal, and they’re paid a flat fee for their work.
Laqua has no idea how many hours they’ve put into the project.
“I wish I would have kept track,” he said, with a laugh.
The couple found obituaries, news stories and other information about the deceased at the county library and Williams County Genealogical Society and scanned and uploaded them all to the city’s website, where users can hover over a layout of the cemetery and click on different plots or search for a loved one’s name.
This spring, they took photos of every tombstone and marker and made them part of the record, as well.
Laqua figures they have at least limited information compiled from 80% of the 700 people buried there.
He hopes by getting the word out, perhaps others will help them fill in some of the blanks for the remaining 20%.
Solving the 'Coal Miner' mystery
One mystery the couple was happy to solve was the question of who was buried in a grave marked simply as “Coal Miner.”
By locating an old news clipping from 1920, Laqua learned it was a man named Morris Van Bastelaere, a native of Evergem, Belgium who had been living in Scoby, Mont. before moving to North Dakota.
The man was just 28 when he died in a blast at the nearby coal mine in Hanks, now an abandoned town, Laqua said.
Pauline Kilbride, 68, another Grenora native, said multiple generations of her family are buried at the cemetery including her parents, her mother’s parents, her father’s parents and her maternal grandmother’s parents.
Out of six siblings in her family, Kilbride is the only one in Grenora, while the rest are scattered across the country.
An online record of the family history could be valuable for those living far away.
“This will give them an opportunity to refresh memories,” she said.
While this kind of work on the cemetery record might seem mundane to most, it was rewarding for Laqua and Ledahl, since many of those buried there are people they once knew.
“When you see the names repeatedly, it’s personal,” Ledahl said.