You can learn about the story of Ely by visiting the cemetery

by Bill Erzar, Chairman
Ely Cemetery Committee
Tonight, as I sit here at home, I have spent basically the last week checking gravestones and monuments at the Ely Cemetery, that have fallen over, are leaning, have bases that are deteriorating, headstones that are loose from bases, have broken components, those that need cleaning, and those that are missing panels from the old Cast Metal type of monuments.
I have walked, knelt at, and laid down at some markers to rub off the moss or lichens, or cleared away some overgrown grass and dirt to read the names on those weather worn stones. Many of our early Elyites, were of Slovenian and Finnish ancestry.
So, I know a bit of Slovenian language engraved on the obelisks and monuments in the old Slovenian section, having listened to my Grandma Frances and Grandpa Frank Erzar speaking Slovenian everyday while living in their upstairs apartment with my folks, in Zenith Location, until I was around 12 years old when my mom and dad, Willy and Ruth (Kobe) Erzar built their house kitty corner from center field of the H.S. baseball field. So, I heard quite a bit of Slovenian language and got to understand quite a bit of it in those days.
I also tried to read and understand the inscriptions on the Finnish stones, obelisks, and monuments. I’ve learned what some words in those languages mean and I’ve learned a bit about our town and its history. I need to learn more Finnish language.
These early immigrants, worked hard, had dreams, had heart aches and heartbreaks, devastating heartbreaks, mothers losing a child in childbirth and then dying themselves.
Childbirth looked to be really tough in those days in the early 1900s.
Mothers and newborn children buried together. Makes you pause and think about those lives!
A 20 year old, young man starting life, dying in the Section 30 Mine. One of about 214 young men that died in the Ely mines. Tough, dangerous work!
My dad, a WWII B-17 Ball Turret Gunner over Europe and Hitler’s Germany, escaped a mudslide in Pioneer Mine in 1955 when I was 7 years old. His partner, Joe Glinsek wasn’t so lucky and was trapped and buried in the mud.
Servicemen, young men just out of high school that died serving our country…..many are buried here…..some overseas….
A 19 year old Elyite, Edward Mattson, a U.S. Navy, Seaman 2nd Class, serving his country, being washed overboard from his ship, the U.S.S. North Dakota, in the Frigid, Stormy North Atlantic in January, 1918, in WWI, never to be recovered. 19 Years Old!! I found a monument erected by the officers and crew of his ship for him.
One of my best friends, Tony Zupec, a Vietnam veteran, died in a mining accident in 1970, a day after his 22nd birthday. A really sad and devastating day for me when I read my Mom’s letter when I received her letter five days later, informing me about the accident while I was still in the Air Force. I had just talked to “Butch” before Christmas, the month before, when I had my monthly phone call home. We didn’t have much for phone service in those days, mostly everything by U.S. Mail. I read the letter 5 times. I couldn’t believe it!!
Tony’s in the veterans section, among many others.
Our Ely High School class of 1966, had many of us that enlisted or were drafted and were in the service of the U.S. Armed Forces. Several other classmates are also buried here.
The large amounts of burials, of Elyites, that died in September, October, November of 1918 and into 1919 that are indicated on the stones in certain areas of the cemetery that died during the 1918 flu epidemic.
I remember my grandpa, Frank Erzar, Sr., telling me about the buckboards, hauling people to the cemetery to be buried. I came across the stones and monuments to some of these people when I was cleaning my Aunt Rose Mizera Erzar’s mom and dad’s headstone.
There’s kids, young adults, middle-aged, and some older folks buried there. Makes you pause and think about today’s Corona Virus…….
Aunt Rose’s Mom and Dad got caught in a windstorm, capsized, out from their house on Shagawa, and Rose watched her Mother and Father drown in front of her in 1925 when she was 16 years old…. devastating!
I have been cleaning footstones of our son, Eddie, (a tragic loss), my mom and dad, brother Dan, Grandma and Grandpa Erzar and Kobe, my godfather, Al Kobe, several other Erzar aunts and uncles, Howard and Frances Erzar Williams, my aunt Rose’s brother, Frank Mizera (the lure carver and guide) and his wife, Josie, a niece, and a few others just about every year.
It makes me think about, not only about my relatives, but these other young immigrants that came here, to Ely, maybe in their late teens and early twenties, leaving their moms and dads, brothers and sisters, their homes, their families, their birth country, finding and scraping up money to pay for passage on some ship and coming across maybe a stormy Atlantic, to find their way to what was a far away land, to come to an unknown place in a land of hardship and toil. Why? To escape possible tyranny, to find freedom, to start a new life, in a land of hopefully, opportunity and freedom.
To me, the Ely Cemetery really does tell of the history of Ely, Winton, and the townships here.
As chairman of the Ely Cemetery Committee, I walk these grounds and sometimes I feel I’m listening to these souls tell their story of building this City of Ely and surrounding area.
Their lives and hard work, in the mines, on the rails, in the woods, and the mills, and their commitment to build a new town, new schools, and a new opportunity for prosperity and freedom.
So, when you come to the Cemetery, pause, read the names, read the inscriptions, think about these people and visualize their lives. Maybe you’ll find a long lost relative or friend. Maybe you’ll adopt a stone to help take care of. Contact city hall or the cemetery committee.
But, above all else, the Ely Cemetery Committee reminds all of us to be respectful of these hallowed grounds. Walk these grounds and hear some of the story of Ely.