PINE RIVER, Minn.-What began with funding to clean and maintain veterans' graves at Pine Ridge Cemetery in Pine River turned into a search to properly remember three veterans who are buried there.

Jacque Ide, head of the Pine Ridge Cemetery Board, was marking veterans' graves in the cemetery for maintenance when she found three graves without headstones.

"I put 50 hours in walking the cemeteries and identifying the veterans," Ide said.

While most graves were marked with headstones bearing full names, initials, military branch and rankings, three had little or no identification. One grave was marked with a temporary metal marker reading "Arnol D Olle" with the years 1879-1963. A similar marker on the other side of the memorial section read "Kenneth Degroot," but had no dates. Somewhere in between these two was a burial plot with no marker at all, only a shallow depression in the ground.

"They weren't buried with vaults," Ide said. "They were pine boxes, so everything disintegrates and goes back to the earth. When everything collapses, the earth has to, too."

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To Ide, a proper headstone is an important part of remembering and passing on the knowledge of people like this, so the lack of stones for these graves and the condition of the two metal markers suggested these military veterans had not been visited for many years and had possibly been forgotten.

With enough information, these veterans could have stones, at least.

"The (Veterans Services) will give them a marker and place it, but we don't just want a marker with a name on it," Ide said. "We want which branch of the service they are associated with. If they were in a war-which one and years."

To find information, Ide reached out to Cass County (Minn.) Veterans Services, knowledgeable locals, families with the same last names, the city of Pine River and the Echo Journal. Three weeks later, two of the three veterans were identified.

"Olle" should have been easiest to locate. "Olle" died at the age of 84, according to his grave marker. He did not die in battle. Therefore, he likely died in or near the county of his interment. The Pine River Journal did not have an obituary for him the year he died. Jeff Woodford, of Cass County Veterans Services, recommended searching for a county death certificate.

Cass County Deputy Auditor/Treasurer Corinna Wynn searched death certificates held by the county. She found no records for "Arnol D Olle." She searched for similar names and found an Arnold Oller. Oller's death year, 1963, matched with that of the grave marker.

Cross referencing another document, Wynn found Oller was born in August 1879 and died Nov. 2, 1963. He was discharged from the U.S. Army and interred in Pine River. Analysis of the grave marker revealed the marker had letters that were capable of sliding side to side. The "D," assumed to be an initial, was simply misplaced and instead completed the first name-Arnold. Hidden in some corrosion next to the last name, "Olle," was the letter "R," leaving no doubt that Arnold Oller was the correct veteran.

Kenneth Degroot had the next most-detailed marker in the same style as Oller's. Calls to Degroots in the lakes area went unreturned, so no relationship could be confirmed or eliminated.

Closer examination revealed the track where the birth and death year would have been mounted was missing from the plaque, possibly knocked off by weather or maintenance and subsequently lost.

A search of one of the maintenance buildings in the cemetery uncovered other temporary metal markers and name plates similar to the missing date plate, but no plates with dates for Degroot were present.

Cass County death certificates show no record of Kenneth Degroot, meaning his death likely occurred outside of the county. He may have been buried in the Pine Ridge Cemetery due to a family connection or because of Pine Ridge's dedicated veterans section.

A Kenneth Degroot is on record for paying dues to the local Legion until 1999 from Florala, Ala. A 2000 phone book records a Kenneth D. Degroot in Florala, possibly connecting Degroot to a Kenneth Donald Degroot born in Redwood County on Nov. 26, 1916. No additional information is known.

The unmarked grave posed what initially appeared to be an impossible challenge. Ide went to the city for a map of the burial plots early on. Though the map had very few names to start, and at least one grave was misidentified, the name "Hopper" was marked in the unmarked grave location.

Searches of the Minnesota Historical Society death certificate database and the familysearch.org website revealed an Ernest Hopper was born in 1892 and died in Pequot Lakes on Jan. 22, 1948. Because Hopper died in Pequot Lakes, his death certificate should have been recorded with Crow Wing County.

Records at the Crow Wing County office pertaining to the death of Ernest Hopper were unavailable to anyone without a "tangible interest"-that is to say, a family member or lawyer. Another search of the Minnesota Historical Society revealed a military burial record. The Veterans' Grave Registration Report confirmed the unmarked grave was Ernest Layfette Hopper, who was born May 19, 1891, in Berlin, Wis.

A search of Ancestry.com at the Pine River Library uncovered draft cards, death records and other documents about Hopper. The burial record also included the name of his next of kin and military serial number, which ultimately could provide Hopper's entire military history.

Hopper and Oller may receive their long overdue grave markers; Degroot still requires more research.

The Veterans Services Office in Cass County has submitted requests to the National Archives for Hopper, Degroot and Oller in hopes of finding enough information to guarantee installation of proper markers at these grave sites. Once enough information is available, an application may be submitted for headstones.

Information that could lead to identification of Kenneth Degroot is still being sought. Next to Degroot is a grave for a Legion Auxiliary member, which may have belonged to a family member, possibly a Josie Degroot who paid dues to Pine River until 1995, but lived in Florida.

Finding information on either Degroot could result in markers for both Kenneth and Josie.

Anyone who recognizes the names in this story or who may have access to cemetery or similar records to help identify or locate these individuals is encouraged to submit their tips to travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.