Oaklawn Cemetery

Oaklawn, Northfield, and The Ames Mill

Oaklawn Cemetery, in Northfield, MN, was opened in 1892, and there are over 5000 graves ranging in date from approximately the 1860s- the present day. It is the community’s cemetery, and it is not tied to any religion. The cemetery is across from the Carleton college arboretum, and continues to be used up to the present day for burials (source 1). Oaklawn is a good cemetery for investigation because it developed alongside Carleton College when it was founded in 1866, when the Milling period was at a peak. From investigating the development in shape, material, and iconography in tombstones at Northfield we can learn about how the funerary material culture is influenced by the social and historical narratives of people buried at Oaklawn who were involved in the milling industry.

The Ames Mill and The Founding of Northfield

In terms of the connection between the founding of Northfield and the Ames Mill, businessman John North bought 160 acres on the Cannon river and Northfield was founded within a year, by 1856. North started out with 2 saw mills, then a flour mill, and built a hotel, and wanted to bring a railroad to town. By 1859 he was facing bankruptcy so he sold the mills and hotel to Charles Wheaton, who sold in in 1865 to Captain Jesse Ames, who was one of the founders of The First national bank. The economic foundation/founding of Northfield, the bank, and the Ames mill, are thus linked and serve as crucial centers of the economic development of Northfield. The small flour mill could not keep up with the demand for flour, so in 1869 Ames built a larger mill on the west side of the river closer to the railroad tracks, which is the ames mill we know today (source 2).

Northfield Population

The population of Northfield increased as the Ames Mill was built and opened, and with the construction of the railroad there was urbanization and industrialization and a growth in the statewide milling and consumer culture. The Civil war period 1860-65 was a successful and prosperous period for farmers, and businesses continued to grow. By 1867, the town had 2000 residents. In the 1870s there was an expansion of businesses, and the 1880 census counted 100 occupations. In 1879, the Ames Mill employed 25 men and became the town’s major business (source 3). In the 1870s, Northfield flour outsold other brands, but by the 1880s large milling cities started to dominate the market—and the Northfield milling industry started to wind down. The first census of Northfield was taken in 1880, and there were 2,296 people living in Northfield. In 1890, the population grew to 2,659 people, in 1900 there were 3,265 people living in Northfield and in 1910 there were 3,265 people living in Northfield (source 4).

Figure 1

The Rise of The Milling Industry and Its Effects

As the population was growing and the milling Industry was rising, in my sample of gravestones, the designs became elaborate, although three of the most elaborate marble graves were made in the very early period of the founding of the mill, between 1860-1865. These gravestones bear religious ornamentation and iconography. This first is the grave of Jane Tweedie Carlaw who died in 1860 at age 71 (according to source 5, which is different than the date etched on the actual grave). This grave is both made of marble and has elaborate etchings which appear to be two crosses of a sort, thus a sort of religious iconography.

Figure 2 (source 5)

The Windup to the Decline of the Milling Industry (1885-1890)

One might think the graves would become less elaborate as the milling industry became more prominent in Minneapolis, and less concentrated in Northfield, and that perhaps this effect on the economy would show, supporting our hypothesis, that the gravestones would become less intricate. However, in this sample between 1885-1890, the gravestones actually became more expensive, if not most elaborate, of all gravestones in the sample from this cemetery. Perhaps this reflects the economic vitality that the Ames mill and flour business brought to Northfield as it grew over 10-15 years. An example below is Marion Marcellus’ grave, made of marble and thus expensive:

Figure 3 (source 5)

The Decline of the Milling Industry (1900-1910)

Figure 4 (source 5)

As the population continued to increase, going back to the graph labeled as figure 1, many more graves were added to the cemetery, and many graves became more simple, generally speaking. Figure 4 is an example of an inexpensive grave set in the ground, one of many such graves that would not have cost much money. This figure shows a grave of Friedrich Achberger in Oaklawn from 1984. While this grave comes after we ended our sampling in 1910, it closely resembles many in-ground simplistic graves selected in the sampling from 1900-1910, the post-milling period (all of the pictures taken of these in ground graves were low resolution and thus in this picture the later in-ground grave is included because it is most legible and visible). This grave would have been inexpensive, because it clearly does not require the purchasing of a tombstone. These kinds of simplistic in-ground graves, prominent in the sampling of Oaklawn graves from 1900-1910, could support our hypothesis that these gravestones become less elaborate and intricate, bearing less iconography, in the decline of the mill period. This kind of grave also takes up less space in the cemetery, which, with the increase in population, would allow more graves to be added.


It is difficult to generalize or make a firm judgment as to whether the Milling Industry’s decline directly influenced the number of elaborate graves and/or graves with iconography in the Oaklawn Cemetery, because the sampled graves are quite mixed in terms of extravagance and iconography, and the buried peoples in the cemetery are not all from Northfield. Also, as the cemetery officially opened only in 1892, it is difficult to know definitively when certain earlier graves were built, and I found that the dates of many graves were mislabeled. Jane Tweedie Carlaw, for example, whose grave is pictured in figure 1 and apparently bears mislabeled dates, was born in Scotland, and perhaps was not directly involved in or affected by the milling industry when she settled in Northfield. Information about specific families and burials connected to Ames Mill workers was not found in research in this sample. A further study could be done investigating what gravestone materials were used in the burial of family members of workers at the Ames Mill.

Written and Updated by Annie Utzschneider, June 10 2019


1)Oaklawn cemetery website (http://www.oaklawncemetery.qwestoffice.net/ accessed June 5 2019.)

2) Northfield Historical Society: “04- Ames Mill- Northfield History Podcasts.” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQdAdLVHBwY accessed June 5 2019.)

3) Eden on The Cannon: A history of Northfield, Minnesota. The Students of the SCOPE Program: Northfield: Northfield Historical Society, 2018.

4) Wikipedia- Northfield, census data (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northfield,_Minnesota accessed June 5 2019.)

5) Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 01 June 2019), memorial pages for Jane Tweedie Carlaw, Marion Marcellus, and Friedrich Achberger, Find A Grave Memorial no. 93507652, 30505541, 38449722, citing Oaklawn Cemetery, Northfield, Minnesota, USA.