Flowers faded by flood waters still stand against a stone and plaque at the pet cemetery at Pioneer Park, a sign that a piece of the community’s history has survived yet another flood.
Mary Bollinger was 18-years-old when her family’s Siamese cat, Tommy, died. “I treated Tommy like a baby,” she said. “I used to dress him up just like one too.”
At the time, 1975, Pioneer Park in Bismarck was the only pet cemetery in the area. Since then it has endured two major floods that washed over the grave markers of hundreds of pets beloved by generations of Bismarck residents.
As the Missouri River shrank back into its banks in August, Bolligner was unable to visit Tommy’s grave. The cemetery is located near the path along the river, and the Bismarck Park Board kept the area off-limits until the river dropped below flood stage.
Brian Beattie, the park board president, said the cemetery was preserved because the water in the area was without current. By all appearances, he was right; the grave markers held their ground even though a layer of mud still covered many of them last month.
The Pioneer Park pet cemetery began in the 1950s after local veterinarians banded together to lobby for a place where residents could bury and memorialize their pets. The hill overlooking Pioneer Park and River Road was the first chosen location, but those plans were scrapped in favor of low-lying land near the walkway and nestled among the riverfront trees.
In June of 2010, the pet cemetery filled to capacity with nearly 3,000 graves, and a new pet cemetery was designated near McDowell Dam.
Dave Matzke, the son of the Pioneer Park cemetery’s original caretaker, Roger Matzke, asked families to remove all grave markers that remained above ground. “The pet cemeteries were never a free service,” he said. “But the public saw an importance for a place to rest their pets after the walkway was built.”
Today there are a total of eight pet cemeteries listed in the state. Three of them, including Pets at Peace, Billie’s Meadow and Roger’s Pet, are in the Bismarck area. Two others remain underwater near Minot. Two more are in Fargo, and another is in Williston.
Beattie said river flooding poses some problems that might not exist in other locations. Still, he said, moving the cemetery is not an option. “I am a pet owner and I understand the attachment people have to their pets,” he said. “The Pioneer location was an easy mark for those who like to visit their pets.”
Beattie said it’s important to preserve the area once it’s safe to begin restoring the area to pre-flood conditions. He said the best way to do that would be to ask people with pets buried there to help with the clean-up efforts.
-Kristine Kostuck is a freelance writer for the Great Plains Examiner.