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Founder of Colfax: J.D. Simons buried in an unmarked grave

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX — It’s somewhat scandalous.

And it’s a mystery, too.

But the founder of Colfax, J.D. Simons, is buried in an unmarked grave at Hill Grove Cemetery west of Colfax on county Highway BB.

“For some reason there is no stone out there. I’m not sure why. Whatever the case is, there needs to be a stone out there,” said Troy Knutson, Colfax historian.

“There would not be a better time to place a stone out there than the 150th (anniversary) of Colfax. I really feel that it needs to be done. It’s like the tornado bench. It’s one of those things that has to be done,” he said.

Knutson says he does not know if there ever was a stone at Hill Grove Cemetery for J.D. Simons — or if there was a stone and it was stolen or if something happened to it. Perhaps it was struck by lightning. Perhaps a tree fell on it. He simply does not know.

“I started this whole Colfax history thing when I was in high school when I was a sophomore. And at that point, I was already searching to find out where he was buried. I came across it that his wife (Mary) was buried out there and that he died in Washington State. But I could just never figure out why there was no stone for J.D. It has been an issue for a long time. It has been on my mind for quite a while,” Knutson said.

J.D.’s wife, Mary Simons, died in 1893.  She passed away before the Messenger came into existence, so there is no obituary for her in the Messenger. The Colfax Messenger did not begin publication until 1897.

The Simons never had any children of their own. They did, however, raise two girls, Isabella R. and Martha D. Walker. In December of 1900, J.D. Simons adopted Violette A. Vanderhoef. In 1909, J.D. and Violette moved to Washington State.

At the time of his death, J.D. Simons was 84 years old. He was born July 26, 1834, in New York State.

J.D. Simons returned to Wisconsin and visited Colfax every summer after he moved to Washington. In the summer of 1917, the Messenger included a story about J.D.’s visit.

And when Mr. Simons died in May of 1918, it was front-page news for the Messenger. When Alvin Running, who was a grandson of J.D.’s, went out to Washington to accompany J.D.’s remains back to Colfax, it was also front-page news. And when the funeral was held for J.D., it was again front-page news in the Messenger.

Oak Grove

Unfortunately, the Messenger reported that J.D. Simons was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, not Hill Grove Cemetery, where Mrs. Simons is buried.

The Dunn County Register of Deeds office was kind enough to look up cemeteries in Dunn County, but there is no Oak Grove Cemetery. The closest Oak Grove, according to the lady at the Register of Deeds office, is near Prairie Farm.

Since the Messenger reported that many of the people who attended the funeral followed the procession out to the cemetery, it seems unlikely that J.D. Simons was buried near Prairie Farm.

It was the wish of J.D. Simons to have his funeral at the Norwegian Lutheran Church in Colfax because he had given money for it to be built. The Methodist minister conducted the funeral service.

Knutson is convinced that J.D. Simons is buried at Hill Grove Cemetery next to his wife, Mary. But there is no proof that he was buried there. At least, there was no proof until recently.

One day in February, Jackie Ponto, village administrator clerk-treasurer, was looking through old records to find a burial permit for someone else — and came across a burial permit for John D. Simons.

“I was not expecting to find it. I looked at it and thought, ‘Hmmm. John D. Simons. I wonder if he is related to J.D. — no wait. John D. That is J.D. Simons!’” Ponto recalled.

Ponto made a PDF of the burial permit and e-mailed it to Knutson and to the Colfax Messenger.

The burial permit states that John D. Simons is buried in Hill Cemetery.

The burial permit does not include any lot numbers for the cemetery, but at least it confirms that he was buried in Hill Cemetery.

At one point, Knutson was wondering if Hill Grove Cemetery could have gone by another name, such as Oak Grove, but obituaries in Messengers before and after J.D.’s death reveal that while it was sometimes known as Hill Cemetery, it never seemed to ever have been called Oak Grove Cemetery.

Since the publisher of the Messenger appeared to be quite shaken by J.D.’s death, perhaps it was only because the writer was distracted that the cemetery was called Oak Grove and not Hill Grove.

The cause of J.D. Simon’s death was listed as “shock.”

According to the Messenger, Mr. Simons had been riding on a milk truck out in Washington that swerved to avoid a car and then overturned in the ditch, pinning Mr. Simons underneath. J.D. suffered a number of broken bones and was taken to the hospital where he died several hours later.  The newspaper account says that he was conscious for about a half hour after reaching the hospital but then lapsed into unconsciousness and remained unconscious until he died.

Mystery

“It had to be some big reason why there is no stone,” Knutson said.

“J.D. was prominent businessman in Colfax. He had relatives in town who were prominent business people. You would have thought it would be expected that they would put a stone out there for him. He was very well known, very recognized. It’s a mystery,” he said.

J.D. Simons did, in fact, have a number of business interests in Colfax, and according to the Messenger, his annual visits in the summer included checking on his business interests in the area.

In his obituary, the Messenger said J.D. Simons had been a farmer, a miller, a merchant and postmaster in Colfax.

Mrs. Simons would have been considered a prominent Colfax resident as well. She opened and operated the first dry goods store in Colfax.

And according to the Messenger, J.D. Simons had seven grandchildren, three of whom lived in Colfax at the time of his death.

The family stone out at Hill Grove Cemetery indicates Mrs. Simons’ importance. The large family stone is carved with decorations, such as ivy. There is another smaller stone indicating Mary’s final resting place. Since there was one large family stone, and a smaller stone for Mary, it seems likely that J.D. had intended to be buried out there next to his wife.

“It is not positive where J.D. is buried, but there is Mary, then there’s a family stone, and off to the right, there is an indentation in the ground. I think that’s where we are going to put the stone. That would be the logical place for him to be. For the older graves (at Hill Grove) there is an indentation just like that in the appropriate spot by the big stones. That’s what I’m going on. That’s where he’s got to be. Short of digging up the grave, it’s as sure as I can be that’s were J.D. is,” Knutson said.

World War I

The Colfax Messenger in 1918 and 1919 does not include any information about whether a stone was ever placed at the cemetery for J.D. Simons.

There was one brief news item that a stone was placed out at that cemetery for a Baldwin, so it seems likely that if someone had placed a stone for J.D. Simons, it would have been a news story.

The Messenger at that time, however, included many, many news stories about World War I, including stories about local soldiers who died in the war — and the numerous fund-raisers, quite often every week, that were held for the war effort and for the Red Cross — and then there was the sale of war bonds and how everyone was urged to do their patriotic duty and buy bonds.

The Messenger included many news items as well about local people (or relatives of local people) who died from the Spanish influenza pandemic. For a while, the Messenger reported that there were two or three people each week who were developing pneumonia and were dying from the influenza. Those who died from the flu tended to be younger people in their 20s or 30s whose immune systems were at their strongest.

Researchers now know that the Spanish flu during World War I did, indeed, kill younger people with strong immune systems.

For a short while, a debate raged among local physicians. One doctor said there was no such thing as Spanish influenza and that it was only a bad cold.

Another physician said it was influenza but just the common, ordinary influenza that struck every year.

The local pharmacist, Victor Noer, wrote an article for the newspaper chastising those physicians who said it “only a cold” or that it was “only common influenza” and called it what it really was — a worldwide pandemic.

At the time, the Health Department also closed all schools, churches, theaters and other public gatherings in an attempt to slow the spread of the Spanish influenza. Stores and restaurants were ordered to close at 6 p.m. No parties or dances were allowed. In fact, one person was appointed in Colfax to disburse any crowds that might gather on street corners.

Considering the extent of casualties from World War I, the amount of fund-raising going on for the war effort, and the turmoil and grief caused by the number of people who died from the Spanish flu — perhaps all of these together are the reason that no one ever placed a stone at Hill Grove Cemetery for J.D. Simons.

Perhaps people were so pre-occupied at first that no one placed a stone — and later on, perhaps people forgot that there was no stone for J.D. Simons.

Cemetery records

The records for Hill Grove Cemetery have also gone through some trials and tribulations over the years.

“Ken and Kathy Tape have what is left of the records now, and what’s left is pretty slim. The records they have say, ‘wife only; other lot can be sold.’ But maybe someone only assumed the lot was empty and could be sold because there never was a stone there. I guess whether he’s there or not, that’s where the stone is going,” Knutson said.

Michelle and Troy Knutson went out to Hill Grove Cemetery this winter and dug the snow away from the stones and did an etching of the stone so that Johnson Monument would have something to work from to create a stone for J.D.

New stone

In addition to a stone for J.D. Simons, Johnson Monument is proposing to reset the big stone and reset the small stone.

There is a line on Mary’s stone that will be re-etched as well, and J.D.’s name will be etched on the other side of it. A dedication to J.D. will be etched on the other side too, Knutson said.

Johnson Monument has quoted a price of about $1,500 all together, for J.D.’s stone, for resetting of the stone, the re-etching of Mary’s stone, and the dedication etched for J.D.

“I don’t know where the money is coming from, but I feel strongly there should be a stone out there for J.D.,” Knutson said.

Troy and Michelle plan to have the following dedication etched on the stone:

 J.D. Simons
He saw the possibilities of the land,
the potential of the people, and the promise of the future.
Businessman and community leader,
a man of vision who founded
the Village of Colfax.

Donations

Johnson Monument is not requiring the full amount up front, but the company would like a certain amount as a down payment, Knutson said.

“They gave us a break on the price because it is not a family member who is doing the stones — that it is for a historical reason that we want a stone there,” he said.

Knutson is hoping community members will be willing to contribute money toward the stone for J.D. Simons.

If contributions total more than the cost of the stone and the other work, the remainder will be donated to the Hill Grove Cemetery Association, Knutson said.

If you would like to contribute toward the monument for J.D. Simons, founder of Colfax, you can contact Knutson at (715) 962-3027 or e-mail him at: knutson.troy@yahoo.com.

A dedication ceremony for J.D. Simons will be held Saturday morning, July 19, at Hill Grove Cemetery prior to the Colfax Sesquicentennial Parade.