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Albert Emmanuel Nelson: Quarter Century Steward of the Sacred-Grounds, Stones, and Stories

Albert E. Nelson, caretaker of Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery, from 1928 until 1953, standing at the graves of Philander and Mary Prescott. Members of the Hennepin History Society had the Prescotts’ marker enclosed in stones from the first Central High School in 1926. Hennepin County History Museum Special Collections

Albert E. Nelson, caretaker of Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery, from 1928 until 1953, standing at the graves of Philander and Mary Prescott. Members of the Hennepin History Society had the Prescotts’ marker enclosed in stones from the first Central High School in 1926. Hennepin County History Museum Special Collections

By Sue Hunter Weir

It’s a safe bet that Albert Emanuel Nelson loved Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery more than anyone else ever has.  From 1928 until 1953 he was responsible for overseeing the care and maintenance of the cemetery grounds, for conserving and protecting the cemetery’s records, and for serving as the cemetery’s one-man public relations firm.

That’s what he was paid to do, but it does not begin to capture the reverence with which he approached his work.  His interest in the cemetery and the lives of the people buried there—“the builders of Minneapolis,” as he called them– was his passion as well as his day job.  He spent his free time assembling a library of more than 100 volumes of local history and gathering information for the book that he intended to write.  There was a lot of information and gathering it was a time consuming task in those pre-internet days.

Albert Nelson was born in Minneapolis on February 1, 1892, a little more than 30 years after the start of the Civil and Indian wars, but close enough in time to them to have heard first-hand accounts from veterans and their families.  The veterans and Minnesota’s territorial pioneers were of special interest to him, and he was also deeply interested in the lives of Swedish immigrants like his parents Nels and Anna Nelson.

Albert was Nels and Anna’s only child.  It is not clear what happened to Nels but by 1893, shortly after Albert was born, Anna began describing herself as a widow and was faced with the task of raising her son by herself.  She worked as a “laundress,” washing and ironing the clothes for a private family and on occasion she took in boarders.  Albert left school after completing the sixth grade.  By the age of 15 he was working as an apprentice, most likely to a confectioner since by age 17 he was working as a clerk in a candy store.  At age 18 he was employed as an elevator operator at a downtown hotel.  When the 1920 census was taken, he was working as a laborer for the Minneapolis Park Board.

Albert and his mother remained close throughout her life.  They lived together on the West Bank about a mile from the cemetery’s gates. He claimed an exemption from military service during World War I because he was his mother’s sole source of support. Anna Nelson died in 1944 aged 84.  On January 6, 1945, eight months after she died, Albert married Susie Anderson.

Albert was in poor health for at least a few years before he died. He had already had two heart attacks before the one that ended his life.  He died on July 1, 1953 seven months shy of the 100th anniversary of the cemetery that he loved so much.  He was only 61 years old.

In 1958, a Canadian named Lela Taylor, wrote a letter addressed to Albert Nelson asking whether he could tell her how much a copy of the book that he had written would cost.  Robert O’Reilly, the cemetery’s caretaker at the time, informed her that Albert had died some years earlier and that he had checked Albert’s widow who said that the book had never been completed.

That didn’t mean, however, that he hadn’t started one.  The Minnesota Historical Society has a box containing typed pages, a handful of photographs, and two scrapbooks that are cataloged as the “Albert E. Nelson papers.”  Most of the typewritten pages are copies of work written by others but several pages are original work by Albert Nelson.  Had he lived long enough, they would likely have been incorporated into the book that he hoped to write.  Friends of the Cemetery plans to reprint and make his essays available soon.

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