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From unmarked graves to published stories: Perham man publishes third novel based on Fergus Falls history

Perham's Bob Riepe originally found the previously-abandoned Poor Farm Cemetery in Fergus Falls 10 years ago. Through his work identifying all the bodies buried there, he's discovered a lot about the history of the city — so much so that he's written several novels about it, and there's even more to come.

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Bob Riepe has been working on honoring those buried in the previously abandoned Poor Farm Cemetery for the past 10 years.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus
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PERHAM — What started as a trip with one small mission 10 years ago blossomed into a decade of dedication and a series of fictional books.

Perham's Bob Riepe originally set out to find the grave of Louis "Buck" Steichen — the protagonist of his book "Rough On Rats" — located in the previously abandoned Poor Farm Cemetery, located northwest of the Fergus Falls State Hospital Cemetery, in 2012.

When Riepe found the cemetery, the plants were high, and the graves were hidden and unmarked, but he made it his mission to honor the lives of those buried there from 1882 to 1936.

Since then, he's even written several books based on the lives of those buried there and the lives of Fergus Falls residents in the 1880s — though he often changes the names — and he just published a new one entitled "Absolution."

While the main characters in "Absolution" aren't buried in the Poor Farm Cemetery, most of them are based on real people who lived in Fergus Falls in the 1880s.

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"Fergus Falls is kind of my location for a lot of books because when I was doing my research to figure out who these people were out here (in Poor Farm Cemetery), I had to go page-by-page through the newspapers back then," Riepe said. "I kept all the spicier and good information on people in Fergus Falls, so I've got probably enough to write five books. I got stacks and stacks of information."

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Bob Riepe stands in Poor Farm Cemetery as he gives a tour of the graves and flowers.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

His journey through old newspapers started because there were no grave markers in Poor Farm Cemetery. While he knew there were at least 127 bodies buried there, he didn't know where they were or what their names were. So, he made it his mission to change that.

Wanting to locate the bodies' plots, he quickly learned about grave dowsing, a method where one straightens two coat hangers and bends handles at the end. A person then hols the rods parallel to both each other and the ground and walks around a plot of land. The rods will cross if there is something buried and uncross when you're no longer above the buried person or object. With dowsing, you're often even able to identify the sex and age of a buried body.

Using this method, Riepe walked all across Poor Farm Cemetery and found every plot, marking them along the way. Then, he began the decade-long task of identifying them — paging through old newspapers to find obituaries with birth and death dates and names.

Riepe also had to complete the puzzle of the order in which the bodies were buried. Eventually, he found that each row started with the first death of a year and ended with the last of the year. Since figuring this out, he's been able to identify most of the plots — many of which even have their own grave markers after all these years. He has about 40 left to identify.

Most of the people buried there were either living at the Fergus Falls Poor Farm nearby or died at the Otter Tail County jail.

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Riepe's newest book, "Absolution" is available to buy right now.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Caring for the cemetery is a labor of love for Riepe. He constantly drives back and forth from Perham and Fergus Falls in order to care for the landscaping and the grave sites.

"This is close to my 200th trip to Fergus Falls in almost 10 years," he said, reflecting on his hard work. A lot of his trips are also to the Otter Tail County Historical Society, where he can look through old Fergus Falls newspapers in search of people buried and stories to be told.

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Since discovering the cemetery, he's now written three books based on the history learned from the papers: "Rough on Rats," "Wrong Turns," and now "Absolution," his newest. Released in summer 2022, this book follows Quinn Shanahan, a medical doctor from Fergus Falls, as he sets his sights on marrying world-renowned concert pianist Harriet Quinn. While both are narcissists, Riepe said, both refuse to believe that.

In a story of forgiveness, transformation, and the drama of life in the 1880s, readers will follow Harriet and Quinn through tales of kidnapping, competition, and life-threatening stakes. The book is currently available to purchase on Amazon .

A fourth novel based on Riepe's research is soon to follow, and he even plans to re-release "Rough on Rats" and his very first published book from 1985: "Journey of Hope: The Life of Father Joseph Albrecht," which is the story of Rush Lake.

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This monument at the center of the Poor Farm Cemetery honors the 127 people buried there from 1882 to1936.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Riepe has always loved history and writing, but he didn't have time for it for many years after the publication of "Journey of Hope." He was busy, from spending time with his family to working in Detroit Lakes. But now, he has time to do what he loves.

"After I retired, I moved back to Perham," he recalled, having been born in raised in town in 1948. "And then I started writing."

While Riepe's been hard at work for the past 10 years, he's not quite done yet. There's more graves to identify, books to write, and maintenance to complete on Poor Farm Cemetery, but he's dedicated.

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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