The grave of Robert Watson (1825-1913) in Oaklawn Cemetery.
Since moving to Northfield from Cottage Grove in 1878, when his daughter Isabella* entered Carleton College, Robert Watson had been planting trees and urging his neighbors to do the same. Watson was born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1825, and had come to America as a young boy. He grew up in the woods of northern Ohio, and when he and his brother William arrived as settlers in Minnesota in 1850, they were immediately drawn to the home-like shelter of the oak savanna. Twenty-eight years later, he was distressed to find that east of the river Northfield was still, for the most part, a treeless prairie village.
Oaklawn Cemetery, landscaped by Robert Watson.
In the late 1880s, the Northfield Improvement Association, of which Watson was a member, began a campaign to establish a new cemetery in Northfield. In the 1840s, the influential horticulturalist Andrew Jackson Downing had been calling for the establishment of suburban cemeteries in which art and nature combined to produce an idealized landscape that appealed to both aesthetic and moral sensibilities. By 1887, Downing's ideas about cemetery reform had reached Northfield. The Northfield News considered the possibilities: "Trees could be grown, walks laid out, and beautiful flowers planted...and the place changed in a short time from an unsightly, sickening spectacle, shunned as far as possible as a dreadful spot, to an attractive, pleasing landscape, where the dead and the living would come nearer together, for nature's smiles can at least mask the horror of the impassable gulf."
Former oak savanna in Oaklawn Cemetery.
Robert Watson was chosen to superintend the creation of a new cemetery, and he was soon off on a grand cemetery tour to gather landscaping ideas. He may have visited Mount Auburn (near Cambridge, Mass.) and Greenwood Cemetery (in Brooklyn), two of the defining landscapes in the nineteenth-century cemetery reform movement. Meanwhile, land east of town was acquired for Northfield's new cemetery—near the corner of Wall Street and Spring Creek Roads, on land belonging to farmer Sylvester Sherpy (and alongside the section line I blogged about earlier). The land, which Sherpy used for pasturage, was originally oak savanna. In the iconography of cemeteries, oaks symbolize immortality, so it's not surprising that Northfield's Oaklawn Cemetery, Dundas's Groveland Cemetery, and Faribault's Oak Grove Cemetery are all located in former oak savanna.
Obelisks marking the graves of the first two presidents of St. Olaf College, Thorbjorn Mohn (foreground) and J.N. Kildahl, in Oaklawn Cemetery.
In his landscaping of Oaklawn Cemetery, Watson kept the bur oaks and added arbor vitae and other evergreens. He may have been inspired by his first sight of Minnesota, on the banks of Lake St. Croix, in 1850; in his memoirs, he wrote: "the shrubbery and the trees on the banks, a few evergreens interspersed, made a more artistic park than could be laid out by the mind of man." Half a century after Watson landscaped the cemetery, Harvey Stork, the first director of Carleton's arboretum, admired his work: "Robert Watson, together with [nurseryman] Charles P. Nichols, planned the planting and chose the variety of specimens for Oaklawn Cemetery, a beautiful burial park, in which the finest monuments are spruces, pines, larches, catalpas, and dozens of other choice species." (Stork sought to establish a similar collection of trees in his arboretum.) Soon after the landscaping was completed in 1892, Oaklawn Cemetery became Northfield's burial place of choice: the first presidents of Carleton and St. Olaf are buried there, as are Northfield luminaries with names like Scriver, Skinner, Goodhue, and Goodsell. Former Minnesota Governor and U.S. Senator Edward Thye, a Northfield native, is buried in the midst of Watson's landscaping.**
*Isabella Watson became a professor of French at Carleton. Watson Hall and the Japanese garden at Carleton stand on land that belonged to Robert Watson.
**Governor, 1943-1946 and Senator, 1947-1958.
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